20 August, 2014

Ask Al: Nerves

Dear Al,

Any advice regarding performance nerves? I'm a pretty experienced young performer, but recently the more and more I seem to know about acting, the theatre (and all that can go wrong), my stage fright has really taken control of me. 


Any insight and/or tips to combating nerves would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

A


*

Great question. And a great big one.

Before we talk about techniques to combat nerves, let’s talk about anxiety itself— for often, understanding the science and logic behind a condition is an empowering step to combating it.


First, I want to talk about nerves. Actually talk about it. More accurately, ANXIETY.
Because LOOK: anxiety and fear are real. They are actual things. Anxiety and fear are critical parts of being a human! And we all experience them from time to time. Most people can relate to feeling tense, uncertain, and fearful at the thought of taking a test, going into the hospital, facing an interview, starting a new job, or indeed any unfamiliar life situation.

So first and foremost: NERVES ARE NORMAL. (I personally believe that a few nerves are incredibly healthy, and prove that you care about your work!)

Most of us don’t enjoy feeling uncomfortable or foolish, and in turn, those worries can affect our sleep, appetite and concentration. Sometimes this type of (what is called) “short-term anxiety” can be very useful! For example: feeling a bit nervous before an exam can make you study harder, feel more alert, and overall enhance your performance. However, if anxiety overwhelms you, your performance may likely suffer.

All of this said, “public speaking” (in all its forms) is said to be THE biggest fear reported by American adults.

[*…PAUSE*]

Um. Let’s just take that in for a second:
    that means speaking in public beats fears of flying, sickness, financial ruin, and even death. DEATH, people. Death is number two.

[*ANOTHER SPEECHLESS PAUSE*]

That means people would ACTUALLY rather DIE than perform in public.

Well…I dunno. I personally think that’s super intense. (You may have heard the trope that some people would prefer to be in their own coffins than give a eulogy at a funeral…? Apparently it is statistically accurate.)

AH! SHADOW PUPPET DANGER!

Ever hear of the ‘Fight or Flight' reflex? It’s evolutionarily critical! The “Fight or Flight” reflex can protect you from danger!

Once upon a time, when humans were being, say, mauled in the jungle by hungry tigers on a fairly regular basis, it was SUPER useful for the Fight or Flight reflex to send the body a tsunami of a common hormone called adrenaline! (WOOHOO!)
Adrenalin causes the heart to beat faster to carry blood where it's most needed!
Adrenaline heightens your senses and makes your brain more alert!
Adrenaline tells your body to breathe faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy!
It makes you sweat to prevent overheating!
It slows your digestive system down to allow more blood to be sent to your muscles so you can either FIGHT that tiger or FLIGHT, aka RUN LIKE HELL to avoid a messy hungry-tiger-death!
YAY ADRENALINE!  
SCIENCE IS AWESOME!

Today when a non-jungle-dwelling human feels under threat, anxiety and fear trigger the release of the same exact tiger-death hormones. Sometimes we need them! This ‘FoF’ response is useful for protecting you against physical dangers; for example, it can help you cope with sudden on-coming traffic, dangerous attackers, fires etc. very quickly.

But sometimes we DON’T—the FoF response can be triggered by nonphysical or even imaginary threats. The response is not so useful if you want to run away from tests, a difficult conversation, an important medical procedure, and of course, any kind of public speaking or performance. Scientifically it stinks even more because, if  you have no need to physically run away or fight, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a very long time.

[PLEASE NOTE: I am obviously not a medical professional, and this exploration of Anxiety is VERY basic—only here to present a backdrop in addressing performance nerves. If you experience Severe Anxiety (where you stay anxious for a very long time and feel powerless and out of control), or even experience what might be a Panic Attack (an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement in the form of a rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensations) talk to a medical professional ASAP! No need to suffer in silence y'all!]

*

In addition...
FYI: Some people feel more anxious than others.
Juuuust how it is.
That’s life. It’s natural. People are wired differently.
Some people are optimists. Some can’t take anything seriously.
Some have a fear of commitment.
Some are allergic to dogs. Or conflict. Or gluten.
Some people REALLY LOVE NEIL DIAMOND. Some do not.
Whatever.
Don't go labeling yourself as "crazy" because then you'll be anxious AND ashamed, and that's even less fun.

If you worry more than others, it could be for several reasons:
Personality (extremely empathetic, an active imagination, generally pessimistic or fretful, or plagued by a fear of losing control)
Lifestyle (caffeine, excess sugar, poor diet, drug misuse, exhaustion, stress)
Current circumstances (stress, grief, life pressures)
Past or childhood experiences (from learned family behavior to trauma)
—or it could be a combination of any these.

More important than any of the reasons though is your response TO these reasons, and the fact that you are willing to look at fear triggers and address them rather than ignore them is crucial to overcoming anxiety and fear. (Watch ANY hero movie--it’s super scary but it’s crucial).

Okay. Here we go.

*

COPING WITH NERVES

Part 1: Before the Event

1: Be Prepared.
It is essential to always be well prepared and well rehearsed in order to feel confident.
Repeat after me: PREPARATION IS FREEDOM. Now write it backwards on your forehead so you see it every time you look in the mirror.

The less you leave up to chance, and the fewer “unknowns” you have to deal with, the better you are going to feel.
This means the more true preparation you have done on character, place, relationships, actual learning of lines and running of quick changes. The more familiar you are with the theatre (with the actual ins-and-outs of the building itself), where the props are located, the acoustics on the stage, the slipperiness of the floors, the location of all the bathrooms, etc etc etc, the more room you have to “breathe” and “play” inside the actual work.
So make a checklist and then? Check it off.
Props: CHECK!
Quick changes: CHECK!
Warm up: CHECK!
Make-up: CHECK!
Preparation means you have earned the right to feel more relaxed and natural inside the world of the play, and the easier everything will feel.

I promise: PREPARATION IS FREEDOM. Do your homework and 50% of the anxiety flies out the window.

2. Try to get to sleep early.
I’m not saying that nothing useful was ever achieved by the sleep-deprived, but it is statistically proven that human being operate best when they are fully rested. This is a no-brainer.
SET THE STAGE FOR SUCCESS.

3. Eat. 
Good food. Real food. Not too much, not to little.
I mean, at least eat a banana (it will lower that empty/nauseous feeling but won't make you feel too full). 
Don’t be a martyr. Don’t be a rock-star. Don’t be an idiot:
You need fuel. Eat.

4. Visualize success.
Picture everything going right, instead of worrying about everything that can go wrong. Actually do it. Go through the whole day, show, afterglow, etc.
What you focus on becomes your reality!

5. Get some exercise.
Exercise releases tension and gets your endorphins (super feel-good body chemicals) going. Make time for at least 20-30 minutes of exercise on the day of your performance, or at least take a thirty-minute walk. It can help you use some of that adrenaline and channel it for good focus rather than crazy-tiger-death agitation.

6. Avoid caffeine.
Don't have extra caffeine on the day of the performance. You may think that it will make you all awesome and super-human and perform with Ninja-Turtle-like energy, but it will actually dehydrate you and make you even more jittery. Insteeeaaaaad make sure you...

7. Drink Water
Water is LIFE! Adrenalin can cause a dry mouth, which in turn leads to getting tongue-tied. Theatres are usually hot, and more often than not you are working hard and/or wearing Elizabethan get-up (or whatever) and sweating, all of which leads to dehydration. Have water handy and take care not to take large gulps of water.

8. Set a "stop time" for your anxiety.
Try this: on the day of your performance, tell yourself (possibly out loud if your brain will listen more intently) that you are going to allow yourself to be appropriately nervous for a certain amount of time. However, that after a set time—say, 4 PM—anxiety is no longer welcome.
Simply making the promise to yourself will subconsciously make it much more likely to happen.


Part 2: At the Event

9. Create a ritual. 
Come up with a little ritual for the day of your performance. This could be a three-mile jog on the morning of your performance, the same "last meal" before the show, or even reciting a certain phrase or poem, or putting on your lucky socks. Do whatever you have to do to gear yourself toward success! Some people call this “superstition,” but it has actually been proven that positive, repeated behaviors release feel-good chemicals into your bloodstream that tell your body everything is going to be okay, and that you are ready. (Incidentally, one of my personal rituals is repeating the phrase "I am ready" three times. It works. For me.)

10. Get there early.
Showing up early will ensure you feel less rushed and more at peace. I don’t know about you, but I want to make sure I have plenty of time to do all of the above. I want to SEE my props. I want to check all of my costumes and quick changes. I want to go through the tricky lines. I want to warm up, properly, on stage, long before the audience arrives. You are much more likely to feel in control if the building is filling up long after you have completed your “check-list.”

11. Don't "catastrophize."
Remember this:



12. Relax your body.
Easing the tension from your body can help steady your voice and relax your mind. Here are a few things you can do:
    •    Gently hum to steady your voice and mind (—you might scoff at this one but it works. There's a reason chant-like humming is such a vital part of mind-focusing and body relaxing practices such as meditation and yoga.)
    •    Stretch. Stretching your arms, legs, back, and shoulders is another great way to reduce tension.

13. Commit to the "Stress-Free Zone."
Draw a little invisible 'Zen-garden circle' around yourself and commit: "Stress is not welcome here!"


Part 3: During the Event

14. BREATHE.
Breathe: it’s free. It is easier and cheaper than aaaaall the drugs.
Adrenalin causes your breathing to shallow. By deliberately breathing deeply your brain will get the oxygen it needs and the slower pace will trick your body into believing you are calmer.

Count to ten as you breathe in, hold your breath for a count of ten, and breathe out to a count of ten. Keep doing this until you feel calm once more. It works. It is, in fact, the MAIN thing that works. (My advice is to practice when you are calm so you are prepared when you NEED to breathe.)

15. Stop Thinking About Yourself
This isn't about how you look in a costume—this is about your character's life being lived in their own clothing.
This isn't about the perfection of your singing voice—(after you have done all your preparation!) it is about the truth pouring from the heart and soul of your character.

Try to put your nerves aside and think about communicating your story as effectively as possible, and while you are at it remember to...

16. SERVE.
Serve. Serve. Serve. Never forget that this great, great art of ours is a service job. We are SERVING the our character's life story and we must do so to the best of our ability. By serving the story and the character, your priorities fall perfectly into line. Work on truly inhabiting the actions, thoughts, and goals of your character because this isn't about you! This is about the character. Allow the character to use your vessel to tell their story, then get out of your character's way. Remain in tune you are with the character you're portraying, and the more likely you'll be to forget your own personal anxieties.


Part 4: All Else Fails?

17. Medicine.
I am neither an expert or a doctor, but I do know that many people find medication very helpful.
Over the counter.
Behind the counter.
Prescription, homeopathic, Chinese medicine, fairy incantations, magic incantations, shamanism, or whatever—WHO CARES! As long as it works for you!
Mostly, know that there is a lot out there to calm the mind and body.

DO NOT be irresponsible (i.e, DO NOT do anything illegal, don't finish a bottle of single malt, smoke an entire pack of cigarettes, or inhale your little brother's weed stash), but certainly don't be afraid or ashamed to check out your legitimate medical options.

If you ask me (and you are), you have a job to do, and if your chemicals are out of whack, get thee to a doctor and help yourself. That's not "weak," that is taking personal responsibility for your body and mind.

Finally, remember... 



 

2 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful blog, thank you.
    I empathise with the original questioner: the more they know the more they worry, as I often find myself in the same position! I have been performing for almost twenty years in one form or another and I have found in the last few years I get incredibly nervous before shows, more so I'm sure than I did when I was younger. Maybe because as we get older there is more at stake?
    I shall definitely be following the advice in this blog for reducing anxiety before performing: you see, I love being on stage, it's the build up to it I can't stand, sometimes being breathless with fear for a day or two before a show!
    However, the revelation that people place Public Speaking as their biggest fear did surprise me - I'd much rather be on stage than anywhere else, even if I get nervous about it!

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