Musicians as Athletes: Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety.

You know it. You hate it. You figure out how to deal with it/use it/work around it.

There is a lot of advice out there already about dealing with the mental effects of performance anxiety; that deer-in-the-headlights feeling of not being in control, that endless spiral of negative talk, that feeling of just making it through the performance without really being connected to the music. If you’re interested, all you have to do is google “books about performance anxiety,” and you will find a list a mile long. Why? Because getting up in front of a group of people and presenting anything is the world’s NUMBER 1 fear.

A lot of the advice for dealing with those mental effects involves visualization, meditation, positive self-talk, and the like. I am not in ANY way disparaging those techniques by saying that they really don’t work for all. Weird, given that I’ve been a yoga instructor for going on twenty years. Visualization exercises usually end in me visualizing my to-do list instead of anything remotely useful.

So, I’m going to approach performance anxiety from a physical standpoint.

To that end, let’s think about the physical effects of performance anxiety...

Elevated heart rate

Shallow breathing


Dry mouth

Trembling in the extremities

Postural changes

This is your fight or flight response, your survival instinct kicking in. What exactly does that mean? It’s an ancient biochemical response to a perceived threat.

It goes something like this: THREAT (let’s say an imminent tiger attack)! Your sympathetic nervous system signals the hypothalamus (which connects your brain and endocrine system) to produce a hormone that triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noradrenaline. These two chemicals raise your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. This is to provide energy and oxygen to your body for a rapid response to the danger. It also causes your blood to flow to your arms and legs, priming the muscles to spring into action. This added tension is why you might feel trembly. The adrenal glands also produce cortisol, which increases the energy you have available by mobilizing fatty acids and glucose stored in the liver.

And here’s something else, your survival instinct is not something you can really control (be thankful for that), so when you feel the effects of your survival instinct kicking in, but don’t notice a threat, your brain starts looking for one! It’s a great instinct to listen to when you’re walking through a dark jungle where there might be tigers, but not when you’re about to play a concerto. 

Fascinating, yes? Maybe. Helpful? Not so much. After all, at this point, describing the hormonal system responsible for your performance anxiety is like describing the water to someone who’s drowning.

So, let’s get back to the land of the practical!

The good news about performance anxiety is that there isn’t a tiger attacking you. The bad news is that your survival instinct doesn’t really know the difference. So you need to train yourself to respond in a way that is helpful.

The first and easiest fix for the physical effects of performance anxiety is a slow, deep breath (see previous blog post on breathing). This is the quickest, easiest way to lower your heart rate. If you can do that, you have all but stopped the chain reaction before it starts. Remember how your heart rate goes up because of the perceived threat AND your conscious mind assumes there’s a threat because your heart rate has gone up. Stop that in its tracks with a deep breath...or five.

Related to heart rate, some long term fixes for performance (and other kinds of) anxiety, involve getting your heart rate up on purpose. High intensity interval training is great for this! It gets your heart rate up very high, but gives you a chance to recover (a little) before spiking it up again. Any workout that gets your heart rate up significantly, whether for short intervals, or more sustained periods, starts to get you used to that feeling...but more importantly, it gets you used to being able to control that heart rate and bring it back down! When you realize that you have that power, the panic that sets in at those first heart-pounding moments of performance anxiety has no control over you. You know that you are in charge.

One of the things that has all but cured my performance anxiety is getting in a high intensity workout the morning of a performance. No matter how hard or fast my heart beats before I go on stage, it’s nothing compared to what I did that morning. 

Another beneficial practice is Bikram yoga. The postures are done in a heated room, which elevates your heart rate all by itself. In between every posture in the series is a built-in rest and recovery. So, you practice, with every pose, elevating and then bringing down your heart rate.

In addition to learning how to control your heart rate, some simple adjustments to your posture will work absolute wonders on your mental state. You’ve heard of Power Poses? If not, take a moment to watch this TED talk by Amy Cuddy. I think it’s the most-viewed talk ever. I focus on something similar in my TEDx talk, though with more focus on fear.

Speaking of posture, that’s next!! In the next few posts, I’ll focus on ways you can make your posture stronger and your whole body more mobile, not just to help with performance anxiety, but also to keep you injury-free!

Thanks for reading!

Cathie Apple