Eric Maisel Details Techniques To Overcome Stage Fright
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: There’s got to be a road out or a roadmap on how to overcome stage fright. Can you give a couple of those.
Eric: Route 46 through El Paso, yeah, yeah there must be a road out.
Viv: Could you give us sort of menu of strategies or tactics or something so that we can deal with this?
Eric: Yeah, let’s go through some of these. I’m glad of course that people can listen to this, again, because I want to cover a lot of territory and people may have to go back over this more than once. I want to go through twelve categories of strategies and tactics that can make up your performance anxiety reduction arsenal or menu. So here are the twelve. Let me just say them first, then I want to go through them one by one.
The first is stage fright medication or anti anxiety medication that can be used for reducing stage fright and things like diet supplements. We want to hit that category quickly but we don’t want to not touch on it.
The next is the category is using relaxation techniques to overcome performance anxiety.
Third are breathing and meditation techniques.
Fourth are reorienting techniques.
Fifth are guided visualizations.
Sixth are affirmation and, if you’re religious, prayers.
Seventh are disidentification techniques.
Eight are symptom confrontation techniques.
Ninth are discharge techniques.
Tenth are ceremonies and rituals.
The eleventh are preparation technique.
The twelfth we’ve already touched on and that’s cognitive techniques, changing the way we talk to ourselves.
So those are the dozen and let me go through them. And, of course, let me give the headline before I go through them. The headline is, I don’t expect anyone to have an actually arsenal of overcoming performance anxiety tools or menu of twelve techniques at their beck and call, but people ought to have one or two or three of these. You really ought to try out one or two or three of these. Maybe try out more than that to see which works better than which, but once you’ve decided which work better for you, then own one or two or three of these. Really own it, make use of it. So, let’s go back through it.
Real Life Techniques to Overcome Performance Anxiety
Medication or Dietary Supplements – The first is medication and diet supplements. I think I’d like to start by reading just a paragraph here from a book by Paul Salmon and Robert Myer. It’s called, “Notes from the Green Room” because I think it gives a good overview about Beta-blockers. Before I read it let me say, I think most people would like to not to use anxiety-reducing medication, that’s their preference. They would like not to. And there are lots of other techniques to use or lots of other things to do. However, if you’re coming up on a crucial audition for the symphony or for a show or what have you, some audition larger than any other and one that maybe would make or break your career and you know that this is going to make you tremendously anxious, and you’ve had good experience with beta blockers, those might be a set of circumstances where you might want to look into medication. So, let me read this paragraph, so this is a quote: “We believe that the use of drugs such as beta blockers may be appropriate under certain conditions. First, when other measures have failed, performers with chronic disabling anxiety and performance situations may benefit from the use of medications that help control the disturbing symptoms. Performers with histories of chronic anxiety may find that the abrupt cessation of the physiological symptoms of anxiety brings a tremendous sense of relief. This may give the performer a glimpse of what it is like to perform without disabling anxiety symptoms. The second situation in which one may consider using beta-blockers would be a performance that is absolutely critical to a performer’s development or career. Under such circumstances, it might be considered that a performer should use any therapeutic agent that will result in, or contribute to, optimal performance.” So, let me just repeat the headline here: I don’t believe I am advocating, I don’t believe performers want to use beta-blockers and there are tons of other things to try, but as a last ditch remedy, and in crucial situations, it may be something not to scorn. And then as to nutritional treatment of stage fright or supplements, it’s not something I know much about, but lots of performers do swear by nutritional treatments. I think for the person interested in this aspect of remedy, you might try looking at book called “No More Fears” by Douglas Hunt and in he actually goes through all the different regimens that might interest one whether it’s this much thiamin or that much calcium lactate or what have you. Things about which I know nothing but some people appreciate and might want to know more about. So that’s just the headline on the category of medication and diet supplements.
Relaxation Techniques – The next category is the category of relaxation techniques and there are a ton of relaxation, self-relaxation techniques that performers dream up, that they learn from other performers. Something as simple as rubbing your shoulder as bizarre as it sounds; something that simple can reduce our experience of anxiety. Just a little relaxation can help. Let me read a little piece here about the Sarnoff Squeeze, which is one of these relaxation techniques that some performers like. The Sarnoff Squeeze is named after the actress Dorothy Sarnoff who described her technique “You’ll never be nervous again” which is an interesting book. She learned this relaxation technique from watching Yul Brynner backstage before performances of the “King and I” so this is how Sarnoff describes Yul Brynner’s technique, “Sit down in a straight back chair. Carry your rib cage high, but not so high that you’re in a ramrod straight military position. Incline slightly forward. Now put your hands together in front of you, your elbows akimbo, your fingertips pointing upward and push so you feel an isometric opposing force in the heels of your palms and under your arms.” And this goes on, this Sarnoff’s Squeeze technique goes on for three or five or six more points so you can see it’s an elaborate technique. Many relaxation techniques are elaborate ones. They involve whole body relaxation where you systematically relax one muscle after another. Or they can be as simple as just rubbing your shoulder. Squeezing your shoulder. So, again, if this is ringing some bell for you that a relaxation technique might work for you, there are elaborate ones to learn and there are very simple ones to learn.
Breathing and Meditation – The next category, the category of breathing and meditative techniques, and let me just give you a little sense of how this might work. In his Book “Managing Your Anxiety”, Christopher McCullough describes several breathing exercises. They have names like “Slow Complete Breathing” and “Slow Deep Breathing with Shoulder Relaxation” and “Counting Breaths”, etc. So if you’re interested in breathing techniques that relate directly to managing your anxiety, I think his book is interesting and it’s called “Managing Your Anxiety”. However, the simplest thing to do, it’s the basis for my technique “Ten Zen Seconds”, the simplest thing to do is to actually practice and master some deep breathing. Five or six seconds on the inhale, five or six seconds on the exhale. That alone will do wonders. And, if you haven’t tried it, you may discover that your experience of performance anxiety if not vanishes, at least reduces dramatically just by deep breather. So, when would you do this? Not just in the wings or in the green room when your anxiety is at its most, when it’s at its strongest, but you might do it when you feel yourself procrastinating and you’re noticing that you’re unwilling to practice your instrument on that day or sing your repertoire or do whatever it is you need to do, because procrastination is an anxiety state. So you may have the thought, let’s cycle through this for a second, you may have the thought, “I don’t think I can practice today, I’ve got to visit my cousin later in the day” or something. Some excuse, you create some excuse. If you can notice, and this is the biggest part about inner-cognitive work, if you can notice what you’ve just said, which is so important, then you can say to yourself, “Oh wow, I’m doing one of those cognitive trick things here. Let me just take a couple of deep breaths and deal with the anxiety that’s welling up in me about practicing and see if I can get to the practicing.” So what you’ve just done is you’ve married the cognitive technique of noticing what you’re saying with the really ancient idea of doing a little deep breathing and nipped the anxiety in bud and saved yourself from loosing that day. And of course we know we don’t loose just a day when we’re engaged in this kind of procrastination, we loose weeks and months and then we’re not prepared for our gigs and then we’re more anxious. So it’s really important to nip procrastination in the bud and let me repeat: procrastination is an anxiety state. It’s really important to nip procrastination in the bud with the cognitive technique of noticing that you’re procrastinating and then some other technique like breathing.
Reorienting Techniques – Ok, let’s take a look at the idea of reorienting techniques. And this may sound a little funny; you may not know what this means, but what we focus on plays a large part in determining how much anxiety we feel. If before performance I focus on how important the performance is for my career, on not feeling prepared, on how small the audience seems and so on, I’m pretty much bound to grow anxious. On the other hand, if I focus on the cherry bobbing in my coke, I’ll have oriented myself away from the performance and will reduce my experience of anxiety. There’s an author Manuel Smith is his name, and in his book, “Kicking the Fear Habit” he argues that each of us has a powerful reorienting reflex that we can use, that we can effectively employ to manage our anxiety and he explains that we naturally orient to five kinds of stimuli so you may want to think about this. We naturally orient to stimuli with novelty that is anything that is unexpected or new. We naturally orient to stimuli with biological significance that is anything that activates a biological response. We naturally orient towards innate signal value items like anything that instinctually sets up bodily sensations in us. There are some more of these and this is the way this would work. So while you’re waiting backstage to perform, you might orient toward an announcement on the backstage bulletin board, an attractive person across the room, your own breathing, the first line of your presentation, or the entrance routine you’ve written out on an index card. All of these orient you away from the anxiety and reduce your experience of anxiety. And, according to Hunt, and this is nice, this is pleasing, according to Hunt, reorienting toward an attractive person is the best distractor of all. So that’s fun to do. So that’s the logic of reorienting techniques. To reorient away from the performance and toward something else.
Affirmations – Ok, let’s look a little at affirmations and then at prayers. Affirmations are really just good cognitive tools. They’re just strong, simply declarative statements that you use, as thought substitutes, for the negative talk that’s not serving you. If you say something to yourself like, “I can’t go on when it’s 92 degrees in the auditorium”, that’s the negative thought that breeds the anxiety. The first thing you want to do is notice you’ve said that. The second thing you want to do is dispute it and say, “No, that’s ridiculous. I can perform if it’s 90 degrees or 100 degrees or 40 degrees”. And then you want to thought substitute an affirmation. So here’s what an affirmation might sound like, “I’m equal to this” or “I’m a fine performer” or “No problem” or “I love performing” or “I’m calm and capable” or, and this is one I like a lot, I use myself, “I want to do this”. Sometimes we forget that we’re at a conference or a studio, a television studio, or a radio studio, we forget we’re there because we wanted to do it. No one dragged us there. We’re there because this is part of our career, this is part of our life plan, something we wanted to do. So I find for myself that a great anxiety reducer is the affirmation, “I wanted to do this”. Now, if you happen to like prayers, I’ve got a couple here that you might like. This one is from Deuteronomy, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.” Well, I’ve got some more but I’ll let you hunt in the Bible for your own.
Symptom Confrontation – Ok, let’s see, the next one I think we’ll look at is symptom confrontation techniques. And, again, this one sounds strange, but it’s really an interesting one. And, for some of you, some of you will not like it at all. And some of you will find it sort of remarkably worthwhile. Symptom confrontation is a technique associated with existential psychotherapy and with the therapists Erikson and Frankel. In the therapy of this sort the client is commanded, apparently paradoxically, to do more of the thing, that he came into therapy wanting to do less of. And the way this works for performers, and this is interesting, and actually I recommend this book to folks, there’s a book called “The Soprano on her Head” by Eloise Ristad and it’s focused directly on singing and performance anxiety. In it, she explains how she champions symptom confrontation in her workshops as a way to reduce performance anxiety. So she writes, and this is a quote, “Take one of your own symptoms: clammy hands, shaky knees or whatever, and apply the principle of pushing it to the point where it can go no further. Do not try to control it or make it go away, try only to increase the intensity and see how far you can carry this particular symptom. If you are like most people, you will find you can’t push your symptom past a certain point and that, when you reach that point, the symptom actually reverses. Your saliva begins to flow naturally again. Your knees stop shaking. Your hands get respectably dry. You may find that almost as soon as you try to intensify a symptom, it begins to disappear. The significance of this information impresses me each time I experience it again.” So, to repeat, some of you will find it a little wacky to try to increase your symptoms, but some of you may resonate with this idea and may want to give it a try. And, if you want to give it a try, I recommend Ristad’s book, “The Soprano on her Head”.
Discharge Technique – I think the next technique we’ll look at is the idea of discharge techniques. And this is a really important one because anxiety builds up and it really wants to be discharged. If you can figure out the way to explode it out of your system, then you’ll rid yourself of it. So performance can discharge tension building up in them by doing something active and dramatic. I’m thinking primarily of the time when you’re in the wings. The time before a performance when performance anxiety is at its worst for most people. For instance, you can shake a fist, or rail at the audience as they wait in the wings. You can shout a battle cry. You can silently scream. Silently screaming is the one that I like to sell to clients the most because it’s a very effective one. You should not actually scream because the audience will leave the theater, the police will come, a big drama will unfold. So you can’t actually scream, but you can do almost the equivalent by opening your mouth really wide and acting like you’re screaming. It does a beautiful job of doing the same work that an actual scream will do. So that’s the basic idea of discharge techniques is doing something active and, the simplest thing to do is to walk to walk, to stretch, to stride. So much of what performance anxiety is about when we’re in the green room is about inhibited flight. We feel trapped. We can’t get out. And that really exacerbates the experience of anxiety. That sense of inhibited flight. That’s why some activity that you do in that moment, whether it’s just getting up and striding from one of the green room to the other, back and forth, and really striding, can do a good job of discharging some of that anxiety.
Ceremonies and Rituals – Ok, let’s take a look at the idea of ceremonies and rituals. There are all kinds of ceremonies that you could create for yourself. The simplest one, I’ll just name this one rather than going through many of them, the simplest one is having a lucky charm. And ceremonially removing your lucky charm from your pocket and enjoying it and feeling it’s luckiness and returning it to your pocket. That’s a ceremony. Ceremonies and rituals can be exactly that small. They don’t have to be enormous Japanese tea ceremonies. They can be just some little thing that you know to do that gives you a good feeling and that you can repeat as wanted. Here’s one ceremony or ritual that Stephanie Judy recommends. She wrote a book, I think the name of the book is going to escape me, I think it’s “Making Music for the Enjoyment of it” or “Making Music for the Fun of it” (transcriber’s note: it’s “Making Music for the Joy of it”), I can’t quite get the title. It’s a good book. But Stephanie Judy recommends the following five-step entrance ritual and I think it’s a nice one. So step 1 is acknowledging your audience. Step 2 is make contact with your instrument. Step 3 is make contact with the other musicians. Step 4 is think of a calming image. And step 5 is think about the music. So this is one that works for her and I think you get the sense of how this might work for you. The most important one I think might be acknowledging the audience. To repeat something I said a moment ago, this is the idea that you wanted to be here and that these folks are ok. It’s ok that they’re there. It’s actually nice that they’re there. So acknowledging the audience I think is an important one. And then thinking of a calming image. Actually I think I may have skipped over ‘guided visualizations’, which is really just another name for ‘thinking of a calming image’ so I probably won’t try to go back to that idea. But I think these are the two most important of her five-step ritual. Acknowledge your audience and thinking of a calming image. But whether you use her ritual or ceremony or one you create for yourself, the basic idea is that ceremony and ritual, by its very nature, reduces anxiety. If you want to dream up one for yourself, that’s a really good idea.
Miscellaneous Techniques to Reduce Anxiety – I think we’re at the last one, Viv will tell me if I’ve skipped over any, I’m not quite sure, we’re at the last one of this menu. And the last one are a variety of cognitive techniques that you might want to use. There’s so many of them that are available. For instance, the violinist and Aikido expert Paul Herrita teaches a technique he calls “Half Half Half”. The idea is to suggest to yourself that you release just half your anxiety using the word ‘half’ as a kind of mantra. You exhale, relax, and quietly say, ‘half’. You inhale again, continuing to relax, and upon the exhalation say, ‘half’, and you continue as necessary. In this way, and this is an interesting cognitive trick, in this way you never have to get rid of your anxiety, you only have to get rid of half of it. Another basic cognitive technique that I’m sure all of you know is the idea of reframing. Rather than believing one thing about a situation, you just change your mind and resolve to believe something else instead. The objective facts haven’t changed but your view of them has changed. For example, rather than feeling trapped as you wait in the wings, you tell yourself that you have the freedom to leave at any time. You reframe the moment as one of freedom rather than entrapment, and grow calm as you picture yourself walking out of the hall without a care or a backward glance. Of course, don’t do that. But it’s nice to believe you could. And then, continuing on the theme that we’ve talked about already several times, another cognitive technique is the idea of thought substitution. If you hear yourself saying a thought that you ought not to have like, “Boy I know they’re going to judge me”, you instantly go, “Wow, that’s not a useful thought” and you create, or have on hand, a thought substitute, like, “No one can judge me” or “I expect I’ll do a fine job” or “Judging is their business, my job is performing”. Or, if some stray thought comes into your mind like, “I know I’m going to bore them”, instantly you say to yourself, “No, that’s a ridiculous thought. That’s a thought that’s going to make me anxious”. And then you would use one of your thought substitutes like, “Well, if I bore someone, that’s life” or “If I really make my music, no one will be bored” or “I get bored myself sometimes”. You can tell that these thought substitutes can have a very different flavor to them. Some can be ironic. Some are straightforwardly optimistic and affirmative. You’ll create them based on your personality style but what’s important here is that you create that. It’s that you have thought substitutes for the negative self-talk, or unfortunate self-talk that causes your anxiety.