Nerves and Jitters

Performance Anxiety – Relief for Presenters and Performers
full article also available in PDF

I hate rhyming mnemonics, and if this one weren’t so sticky and helpful, I’d drop it.

Bless it.
Assess it.
Address it.

Bless it.  

We only call it anxiety when it’s not fun. Until then, it’s excitement, energy, focus, present-moment awareness, passion, commitment. But if the adrenaline and cortisol levels go higher than our personal level of tolerance – boom, now it’s Performance Anxiety.

Whatever you call it, this is your ancient sympathetic nervous system, your inner caveman, preparing for fight, flight, or freeze.

‘Bless it’ means don’t fear the fear; manage it, like the fuel in a rocket.

You need it, and it’s valuable.   

Assess it.

Trust your inner caveman.  For more than a million years, it’s been identifying dangers like death by tiger, and death by exclusion from the cave.  If it says there are dangers here, then there are, and you – modern pre-frontal cortex user – you need to assess them clearly.

Is it your job on the line, or even your whole department?  Is your family’s mortgage payment at stake?   Is the product you’re pitching going to save someone’s life?  Is this audition or open mic going to lead to being discovered by a hot producer?

Or are these illusions?

Even more importantly:  who exactly IS this audience, what do they know about you already, and what is it they need from you now?   ‘Assess it’ means identifying any illusions that stop a performer or presenter from being present and truly connecting to THIS audience, right now.

‘Assess it’ means being here IRL – in real life.

Address it.

This is where it all happens.   You’ve got plenty of tools in your toolbox to choose from, and you needn’t be shy about trying them.

My TOP Recommendations are:

1.   Live performance repetition.
Stand-up comics know that it’s all about Stage Time.  Our fight/flight systems overreact to the unfamiliar, BUT after we’ve done it 5 times, for 5 different audiences, the repetition blunts the teeth of our anxiety beast.  If need be, create ad hoc performances for your friends, family, or other co-workers, join Toastmasters, attend open mics, whatever you need to do to get into performance situations that make you anxious.

2.    Practice and preparation.
Audiences are expert at assessing expertise. If you truly know your song or your subject, the audience sees it in your eye tracking, vocal flow, body symmetry and coordination, as well as of course your actual content or performance.  But, while preparation is important, it’s not quite as important as #1 for overall impact on anxiety levels.   See also #8 and #9 below for discussion of memorization.

3.  Physical Aerobic Warm-up.
The inner caveman is preparing to do major exertion, so give it some exertion, and help yourself get back into a synchronized mind-body union.  Several push-ups, jumping jacks, a little jogging, anything that gets you mildly out of breath will do.  Be sure to leave enough time before your entrance to drink a bit of water and normalize your breathing.

Your coordination, alignment, balance and flexibility all increase, as well as your audience’s perception of your social status and well-being.  An aerobic warm up also eases circulatory symptoms like cold hands, trembling, sweating, chills/goosebumps, lightheadedness and heart-racing.


These first three tools get the most complete and reliable results.   But for the curious and the completists, see the next blog post for more strategies to address Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright.