How to Conquer Pre-Performance Nerves
As a pianist in my younger days, I experienced debilitating stage fright. Even the idea of playing in front of friends and family terrified me. I usually managed to get through the performance, but would often end up crying in the bathroom afterward or with an intense stomachache for hours.
Somehow, despite this affliction, I decided to go to music school. Seriously, that does not seem like a rational choice given the situation, but while I was there, I made enormous strides toward overcoming my performance anxiety.
This life skill—dealing with nerves—has served me well ever since. It’s a skill that will serve you well, too, because it will help you in any situation where you have to perform (i.e., communicate) in front of others, such as speaking up in a meeting, giving a presentation, going before a judge or jury, networking, taking a test or certification exam, attending a job interview… the list is almost endless.
One factor that helped me was simply repeated exposure. This may come as a huge surprise, but getting a degree in music means performing a LOT for others (duh! you’d think I’d have thought of that!), and as is typical when challenging yourself, you get better over time. Each successful performance makes the next a little less scary. And performance—the ability to successfully present yourself and your content to others—is its own skill which improves with practice. So, the first step to conquering nerves is to simply be willing to do things that make you nervous.
Beyond that, however, music school provided me with an invaluable resource: classes with author and teacher Barbara Conable. From Barbara, who has long since retired, I learned the four types of performance anxiety and the antidote to each one. (Thank you, Barbara!) Putting this information into practice dramatically improved my ability to deal with nerves and therefore expanded my capacity to perform—not just at the keyboard, but in life. It will do the same for you. Here are the four types and their antidotes, as she taught:
You know the feeling. You have a big meeting or exam or high stakes conversation coming up and every time you think of it, your stomach flip-flops. That’s adrenaline and cortisol causing the blood vessels around your digestive system to contract. The bad news is that you can’t help it or stop it. It’s a natural response. The good news is that it’s actually helpful! In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal writes that this response “gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure.” Your body is doing you a favor! Embrace it.
The antidote: The only way to stop the butterflies is to begin the performance. As soon as you get going, you move from anticipation to execution. It also helps to remember that butterflies are normal and helpful. Considering that won’t make them stop, but it will change your experience and you’ll avoid getting nervous about getting nervous (or am I the only one who has done that?).
2. Feeling Unprepared
Well… are you unprepared? If so, that’s a legitimate concern. Keep in mind that your brain is designed to overestimate threats and underestimate resources. (It’s a way of keeping you safe—thanks, brain!) So try to be honest in your assessment. Are you truly unprepared? Or are you unnecessarily stressing yourself out? If your concern is warranted…
The antidote: Prepare or postpone. It’s that simple. You might think those options don’t exist in your world, but you almost always can choose one or the other. It may take courage, but it’s possible! And then next time, be careful to make sure you have the time or resources to adequately prepare.
It’s natural to care what others think of you or your performance. But sometimes this can become a preoccupation that gobbles up so much of your headspace that you can’t actually prepare, show up mentally, or do your best in the moment. Feeling overly embarrassed, shy, or concerned about being the center of attention will inhibit your ability to communicate presence and proficiency.
The antidote: Get your mind off yourself. Your performance or presentation is not about you. It’s about your content and your audience. Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on being a gift.
Recently, a coaching client gave an in-person keynote for the first time in a year and a half due to the pandemic. Beforehand, she was almost on the verge of a panic attack from nerves. As soon as she arrived at the venue, however, she remembered why she was there: to support and inspire others. Nothing calmed her nerves more than considering her audience and how she might be a contribution.
Debilitating performance anxiety often feels like true fear. It isn’t—anxiety is an emotion that comes from the possibility of threat, whereas fear is a biological response to clear and present danger (actual danger, not the book). However, sometimes the thought of speaking up in front of others can lead to intense physiological responses that hijack your brain and your body, making performance almost impossible. Sometimes this comes from previous negative experiences; often it’s the result of having your self-worth too enmeshed with the outcome. Either way, Barbara Conable taught me that there are physical things you can do to reduce and overcome this intense response. And she even created a handy-dandy acronym to help us all remember the steps.
The antidote: F.E.A.R.
FEEL: Feel the fear. Don’t repress it. Don’t pretend it’s not there. Don’t try to diminish it at all. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Let it be.
Then… feel all your other emotions. When you’re in the throes of panic, it can seem like that’s all there is. It envelopes you, blocking out any and every other potential emotion. But that’s an illusion. You feel more than anxiety. I promise. When you notice and acknowledge all the other things you feel—pride, excitement, frustration, curiosity, annoyance, jealousy, caring, determination, exasperation, etc.—you put the anxiety in context. So, feel what you feel. All of it.
EMBODY: Now, do that exact same exercise, but instead of focusing on your emotions, focus on your body. How does the anxiety feel in your body? What are you noticing? Sweaty palms? A racing heart? Dizziness? Difficulty taking a deep breath? Trembling? These are all normal fight-or-flight responses. As with the emotion, don’t try to diminish these physical symptoms. In fact, try to increase them. Ironically, the more you try to make your hands sweat or tremble, the less anxious you feel!
Then, expand your awareness. What else do you feel in your body? What are your senses telling you—what can you see and smell and hear? Can you feel your feet on the ground or the fabric of your clothing? Can you feel the movement of your torso as you take in a deep breath and let it out? Get out of your head and in to your body.
ARRIVE: When you come to the site of your conversation, presentation, negotiation, or whatever your “performance” is, whether in-person, on the phone, or via video conference, fully arrive. Enter the space and claim it. Don’t hide in a corner. Don’t pretend you’re at home presenting to your dog or your goldfish. Be where you are, fully, and fill the space.
Claiming space takes energy; however, it also frees up the parts of your brain that otherwise would be actively engaged in hiding or putting up a false front. In addition, it makes the space yours, which will add to your sense of power and comfort and diminish your fearfulness.
RELATE: The last step to overcoming fear is to open yourself up. All the other steps have to happen first before you can feel grounded and safe enough to relate to others. But once you’ve done them, you can release the last edges of anxiety by bringing your full self to the space, the audience, and your message.
You don’t have to fully reveal yourself or put yourself on display; simply be sure your full self is present and others will naturally relate. In addition, in that fully open, present state you’ll have all your inherent resources available to assist you.
Feel Embody Arrive Relate. Thanks again, Barbara, for sharing this!
As long as there are other human beings in the world—and I certainly hope there ALWAYS are at least some!—you and your knowledge and your talents will occasionally be put on display for them. That can be nerve-wracking, but it doesn’t have to be. Thank your body for supporting you, take the time to prepare, remember it’s not about you, and make sure to Feel, Embody, Arrive, and Relate. The world needs more of YOU. With these techniques, you can share more of your ideas and yourself.