You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf – 7 steps to work with adrenalin surges when you perform

With the recent Rio Olympics coming to a close, it seems timely to explore what every-day Australians might be able to take away from the world class event. Are the gains from striving for world standard sporting and artistic heights left only for such world class athletes and performers, or can each of us benefit in our own daily pursuits in some way?

Everyday performers

Many people perceive a need to attain levels of excellence (or at least strive towards excellence) each day – in our occupations, recreation and leisure activities, roles and relationships or even, I would argue, in adhering to positive health behaviors.

Surgeons perform in operating theatres, lawyers perform in court rooms, business managers perform in board rooms, journalists perform in newsrooms, musicians perform in orchestras, dancers perform in rehearsals and shows, parents perform in households, applicants perform in job interviews, students perform in exams and so on.

This means that standards of performance become relevant for each of us. Even though we may not be representing our country, we represent ourselves and what we might hope our lives to stand for, and what our relevant life contexts require of us.

It has been my observation that each person experiences their own unique journey when in the pursuit of performance standards and/or roles in their lives. Joy. Creativity. Challenge. Self-determination. Resilience. And a core experience, that when we perform in our various roles and contexts, we ask of ourselves to bring forth an ability to make things happen. Some magic.

But this doesn’t happen as easily as we think, or even how it looks. Many of us in our various life ‘performances’ suffer in silence.

Waves, or a wipeout?

The myth of performance pressure or anxiety that I find most unhelpful for performers is the myth that adrenalin and anxiety are bad. We all know what the wave of adrenalin can feel like, and sometimes it may feel like it’s stronger than our own will (or skill) to cope.

Anxiety is not bad for performances; it is just the opposite. In actual fact, it’s a gift. For a moment in time, a wondrous chemical reaction inhabits our brains and is experienced in our body which allows a surge of power, grace, confidence, technical skill and prowess, or whatever is needed to reveal itself as a performance in our lives (or the performance of our lives).

So what makes the difference?

If you struggle with performance anxiety, it’s most likely because you have never learnt the secrets of how to use adrenalin to your advantage and manage emotion intensity, such as nervousness, physiological arousal and anxiety. With practice, you can learn to mindfully and skillfully ‘surf’ on top of the wave, rather than tread water in the powerful and erratic hormonal currents that reside below the surface of your skin.

If it’s not adrenalin and anxiety that is difficult for you to manage, it may be a case of;

  • low self-confidence
  • poor concentration
  • motivation difficulties
  • mental health issues
  • difficulties adjusting to performing with an injury or reduced function
  • stress in other areas of life such as relationship or financial stress
  • or a combination of these factors.

The slippery slope

I’ve observed performers going to great lengths to get rid of anxiety. Superstitious behaviours, such as wearing particular unwashed socks (that had been worn at previous successful performances), imagining the audience nude and self-soothing with dummies, taking special vitamins, drinking chamomile tea, and trying to convince themselves that it doesn’t matter how they perform.

The end goal with these attempts is to get rid of unpleasant feelings related to performing.

The assumption is if I do this preventive behaviour I will be able to get rid of anxiety and perform at my best.

This can become a slippery slope into treacherous seas – wrought with hidden or unpredictable dangers. If you’re not ‘surfing’ mindfully, the wipeout can be looming around the corner.

Use the Adrenalin

What is more useful is to harness the adrenaline surge that comes with anxiety, not tell yourself to get rid of it and relax. Or even worse, tell yourself it will all be over soon.

Instead, welcome the rush of adrenaline and use that energy to power your performances.

Behave with more focus, conviction, and confidence than you ever imagined possible.

Beginning to sound like you might have superhuman powers? Well, with adrenalin coursing through your veins, expanding air passages in your lungs, dilating your eye pupils, increasing your heart rate to pump more blood and oxygen around your body to your muscles, you can begin to feel more excitement and energy and a feeling that anything is possible. When you direct this increased hormonal flow, you are usually able to experience a performance victory and/or magic.

Music cues. Standby commands. A bell ringing to start reading time in an entrance-level exam, such as the GAMSAT. The chairperson introducing you to the meeting. Or even a simple gesture from a stage manager to raise the curtain. These environmental cues, alongside the adrenalin cues, are just some of the instances in which you can begin to realise the transformation into a performance world is about to happen.

Remember, welcome the adrenalin for all it can offer and you are off to a great start to a mindful and engaged performance.

7 Steps to help you surf adrenalin surges and focus better

Centering, is a technique used by performing artists. It can also be referred to as a grounding technique and therefore ca be useful in many performance arenas. Work, recreation, sport, interviews are common arenas. It helps to:

(a) channel your anxious feelings and sensations productively, and
(b) direct your focus even in extreme situations.

Once mastered, it is quick and effective, and will ensure that you begin each performance with the right mindset for a rewarding performance.

Follow these seven steps:

1. Select a focal point

a. look at an object in the distance, below eye level to help minimize distraction and avoid temptation to engage in analytical, racing thoughts.

2. State your clear performance intention with assertive, declarative language

a. What do you intend to do when you step out on stage? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to the audience or examiner in your speech? Use assertive, declarative language, such as “I am going to perform brilliantly, with confidence, precision and patience,” as opposed to “I hope to perform well”

b. Be sure to use words that focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want. For example, tell yourself to “Be strong and steady” or “Speak clearly and even-paced”, or “Be decisive and stay present”.

3. Take Mindful Breaths

a. The way we breathe is strongly linked to the way we feel. When we are relaxed we breathe slowly, and when we are anxious we breathe more quickly which can create imbalance in the lungs which tells the brain to prepare for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Mindful breathing is a focused way of breathing that helps to improve your ability to regulate your emotions. It gives you an anchor – your breath – on which you can focus when you find yourself carried away by a stressful or anxious thought. Mindful breathing also helps to “stay present” in the moment, rather than being distracted by regrets in the pasts or worries about the future.

b. Focus your attention on the sensations of each inhale and exhale. Simply observe each breath without trying to alter it – you can focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen or the sensation of the air moving across your nostrils, or even the sound of breath. You will probably notice that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations and that’s OK. Just notice what your mind has wandered to thinking about, and gently (or firmly) bring your attention back to your breath.

4. Scan and Release Excess Tension

a. One of the most common consequences of performance anxiety is muscle tension. Scan your body from the top of your head to your toes while breathing mindfully and slowly. As you exhale, release tension in each muscle group. Use cue words such as “release”, “let it go”, “float away”,”calm”, ”soften”. Stretching and using release cue words can also be a quick way to release muscle tension.

5. Remind yourself of your whole life perspective

a. Take a moment to step back and engage with the bigger picture. What is truly important to you in a broad sense? Think about what is important to you with respect to the process of performing as opposed to the outcomes of performing.

b. Use key process words to emphasise what you truly want to focus on – calm, powerful, determined, steady, role model for my children, inspiring, passionate to name a few.

6. Direct your energy

a. This step involves using the energy that comes with performance anxiety, rather than try to get rid of it, for a dynamic and inspired performance. Gather all the adrenalin you can feel in the body and mentally direct it up through your torso and head and beam it out through your eyes or forehead like a laser beam at the focal point you identified in step 1. Think of this beam as a conduit for your performance and energy that will convey your clear intention to the audience. Sounds weird? It’s similar to visualization techniques and is a way to mentally direct physical energy. Ever felt paralysed with fear or anxiety? This step is useful.

7. Self -regulation of performance. Self-evaluate with more balanced thinking.

a. Each time you rehearse, practice or perform get into the habit of stating:

i) TWO things you did well last time you performed and
ii) ONE thing you will do differently the next time. Only ONE please.

This is a useful technique for learning self-appraisal. If you are often relying on others for performance feedback this can lead to over-estimating the importance of other people’s evaluations and create susceptibility for low self-confidence and motivation problems. Learn to trust your ability to cope with adrenalin surges and/or performance anxiety and remind yourself of what you do right in these situations, that is, TWO things you did well last performance. This also fosters personal responsibility, insights and personal growth associated with the process of performance, rather than relying on outcomes only, such as external awards and/or praise.

Practise these steps each day for 5-10 mins in the week leading up to your performance for greater mastery and skill. You may not be able to stop the surge of powerful chemical reactions, such as release of adrenalin, but you can learn to surf them and navigate performance pressure and anxiety with more mindful and committed action.

You can benefit from (and even thrive and enjoy) everyday life pursuits in various performance arenas and not be overcome with fear and anxiety.

If you are experiencing artistic, academic or occupational performance-related anxiety then the team at Attuned Psychology are skilled to be able to help you start surfing!

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