Is stress your friend or your foe?
I hope you had a lovely summer. I did. I spent time with my family, got a lot of sunshine and sea… and got to do one of my favourite sports: scuba diving.
I love scuba diving. I’ve been diving for 15 years!
And still, when I book my first dive of the year, the same uneasy, anxious feeling creeps over me. Why, I ask myself each time? Well, I then conclude, breathing under water, even if you have the right gears, is unnatural, so I guess my brain is only trying to protect me and warn me against possible danger. (#welldonebrain!)
I’ve learned to accept and embrace that feeling: I know that when I’m under water I’m totally going to love it!
So, as soon as I start feeling yukky, I think: great! I’m going to be diving again and I cannot wait!
Is that uneasy feeling different from the one I get before a performance? You’ve guessed right: nope!
It does not matter how many times you have performed: stress still creeps in…even if in fact nothing life threatening could happen in a concert. The brain cannot comprehend that difference and will have the same reaction: fight, flight or freeze.
Stress is part of performing
Performing is stressful, at the best of times, in any field. But that extra adrenaline is also very useful…without that anticipation and excitement, you cannot count on a magical performance…you know, the one in which everything seems to work by itself with extreme ease; the one in which you can play just about anything and exactly as you want it; the one that will stick in your memory for ever, either as player or as audience.
And, as it turns out, stress is not even bad for you. Research suggests stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others. (1)
In fact, stress is then not the problem. Our response to stress is.
That is why it is not useful to ignore it or to push it away. You need that anticipation, firstly because you need it to be able to peak, but also because trying to ignore it or push it away will cause more stress, and it will bite you back like an angry monkey jumping out of its box when you least expect it.
(Thanks to Dr Steve Peters for the effective imagery :-) – he coached Ronnie O’Sullivan, my snooker hero) (2)
As Dr Peters says, the trick is to learn how to manage stress (or the monkey, to stay with his analogy) making sure it does not cripple you but it actually becomes an asset.
What do you need to do then?
Learn how to manage your stress and do all you can to restore and help maintain your physical, mental and emotional balance.
Include practising performing in your daily routine, alongside the technical and musical skills.
(Would you dream of trying out your scales just once a week in front of your teacher or in your performance class or try-outs?)
Yes I know…but… ‘mens sana in corpore sano’.
Find something you absolutely love doing, and it will be easier. I dance (and scuba dive), for instance :-)
Consider also doing your daily warm up without the instrument, just a few well chosen full body exercises (plank, squat…you get the idea ;-)
Find a good Alexander Technique Teacher. You will learn to move in a more relaxed, comfortable way and use your body efficiently and effortlessly.
Limit your intake of caffeine, sugar, refined foods and alcohol.
- Include in your diet healthy foods such as avocados, fatty fish, whole grains, fruit, cruciferous vegetable and leafy greens.
- Drink enough water (ideally 30ml each kilo of your weight).
- Allergies or intolerances, especially for dairy product or gluten, or imbalances in the blood sugar levels might also play a role in emotional balance.
- Observe how you react to the food you eat, i.e. do you get sleepy or active? Very soon you will know which foods are energising and which you need to limit, especially before a performance.
“We often spend so much time focusing on simply ‘learning the notes/music’ that we forget that there are other extremely important aspects to performing optimally. The afternoon I spent with Tiziana, Esther and Annemarie was a chance for me to take a little time out to remind myself that I am not just a flute player, but a PERSON and to function at my peak, I need to give attention to my physical state and emotional state too.”
Be fitter physically, emotionally and mentally, and you will dive into your next performance happily!
I look forward to hearing from you. Meanwhile: Have fun playing and let your own voice be heard!
Resources & links:
- Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend
2. Steve Peters, Author of the Chimp Paradox, Reveals How To Be Less Anxious