We have all been there. That place where we have that feeling in our bellies, our bodies are shaking, our hearts are beating fast, it becomes hard to breathe, our minds are racing, we start sweating, we feel sick, we cannot speak, but why?
At the neurological level, all the things I described above are nothing more than a survival mechanism. We feel anxious when a flight or fight response is being triggered by a perceived threat. Here, the brain directs all its energy to survival and protection, so your digestion stops, you feel sick, your heart beats faster to prepare you for action, your mind starts racing looking for an escape. So first and foremost, see anxiety as a friend asking for help and warning you of something, a process that is there to protect you. Then try to understand what it is protecting you from and address it. Anxiety only subsides when there is no longer a threat, or it is under control and your brain feels it is safe to go back to its normal state.
Trying to think positive, ignoring and avoiding the feeling will only intensify it. A fire alarm will not stop just because you ignore it and try to think it is not ringing. Running from anxiety will only make it scream louder. The answer is to listen to it, always ensuring you are paying attention to how your body feels as our bodies hold a lot of important information. It is not always clear why you are anxious and even if it is, always try to go deeper. So, let’s say you are anxious, and you know it is about your upcoming performance, start asking more questions to understand the root cause: what is it about the performance that makes you anxious? If your answer is fear of failure for instance, then ask failure of what? Why do you have that fear? Where does it come from? Are there any other feelings attached to it? Where do they come from? Sometimes the final answer will surprise you, it may have to do with something that happened so long ago you didn’t even remember until now or it may have to do with something completely different. You can and should dance your questions and answers, lot of the times what we need to process cannot be done through words. As dancers we are great at processing feelings through our bodies, and we should make use of this skill.
When we are presented with unpleasant thoughts and feelings and we question them, we are breaking a pattern, your brain goes from automatic and reactive thinking and feeling to introspective thinking and feeling. It can no longer run the same neuropathways and automatic responses to external environment because there is new information coming in.
You can further ask other questions: Is it true what I am thinking? Is there evidence? And throw other phrases such as "I cannot be sure that a future event will happen in certain way until the event happens". That is, you cannot be sure you will fail so why worry about something you have no idea if it will happen or not? At this point, your brain will start to be unsure if there is even a real threat to respond to.
Moreover, you can reverse all your thoughts and assumptions about the future, by thinking and visualizing the opposite. Do it enough times and you are building new pathways that are contradictory to the original ones! Visualization is very powerful; it triggers the same brain areas as if the event was happening. Therefore, your brain does not know the difference between a real or imagined event. Do what you can to make this as real as possible such as checking the stage you will be performing and stepping on to see how it feels and rehearsing in your outfit to friends and family.
Build on your tools…
Someone once told me that my past is a toolkit for my future. Try to build on previous similar experiences and remember how you resolved them. You have been through a lot in your life where you have managed to overcome it or at least learn from it. This will tell your brain that you know how to deal with the challenge, it is all under control. This way of thinking will also empower you to not think about your past negative experiences as predictors of the future “this has happened before, therefore it will happen again”, but as preparations for a better future “this has happened before, and therefore I am better prepared for it to not happen again”.
Remember, each time you step on stage, you are stepping with a larger toolkit than you were the time before.
To be able to do everything I just told you more easily, you should incorporate some practices in your training. Meditation and somatic exercises are extremely powerful tools to listen to your mind and body, help you feel present, grounded and more in control. However, they need to be practiced just like any other skill. Ten minutes a day is enough but the longer, the better. Be patient with yourself, if your mind tends to be racing all the time, meditation can be quite challenging, but I promise it will get better.
When you practice this often, you are more prepared to do this right before your performance.
By doing all of this you are really making the most of your energy, it is no longer directed to survival but to resolution and empowerment.