Performance Anxiety – The 1st Step

Have you ever had sweaty palms, shaking legs, a stomach that has moved well beyond butterflies and is now a swarm of eels! I’m guessing you have. 

I’m also guessing you know it is extremely common in the performing arts across dance, drama and music performers and students. 

What you may not know is that recent studies have linked Performance Anxiety to other disabling issues such as eating disorders, musculoskeletal injuries, skin irritations and learning difficulties to name a few. Yet managing performance anxiety in our students is not commonly addressed by the curriculum. 

So today we’re going to discuss the first steps you can take as a teacher to assist your students to manage their performance anxiety. 

What is Performance Anxiety?

First things first, performance anxiety is a specific type of anxiety that is triggered by the circumstances around giving a performance in front of others.

Unlike more pervasive anxiety disorders such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Performance Anxiety subsides when the triggers of public performance are no longer present.

This means that an individual with Performance Anxiety may not experience undue anxiety in their day to day life but can suffer anxiety symptoms which lead to poorer performance when presenting in front of others. 

So Performance Anxiety 101 – what is it exactly? We’ve all heard of the Fight or Flight Response but what does that actually mean?

Whenever we stand up in front of others, a primitive part of our brain (the amygdala) decides we are in danger, triggering the fight or flight response to ensure our survival. 

Biological Responses

It begins with Biological Responses to the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol released into our bloodstream.

These Biological Responses begin with our heart and breathing rates increasing to rapidly oxygenate muscles for fleeing or fighting. Our pupils dilate so as to be alert to threats from any direction. Blood flow preferences major muscle groups such as legs and arms, so they are ready to punch, kick or run. The digestive system shuts down as it is unnecessary for escaping or defending and increased glucose release in the brain triggers quicker thinking for prompt responses to potential threats. 

Behavioural Responses

As a result of these Biological Responses, a variety of Behavioural Responses can be triggered. These responses vary from person to person and are experienced with differing degrees of severity. 

They can include:

  • Tingling in the extremities and difficulty moving fingers and toes
  • A dry mouth
  • Butterflies in the tummy, nausea or even vomiting
  • Excessive going to the toilet
  • Over breathing and hyperventilating
  • Intrusive thoughts, often prompting cycles of negative thinking focussing on potential threats, be they real or imagined
  • Shaking legs
  • Difficulty in focusing vision
  • Sweaty palms
  • Excessive perspiration

On their own, these responses can be unnerving and provoke a greater sense of danger which in turn prompts the additional release of stress hormones which further exacerbates the biological and behavioural responses.

Cognitive Response

But aha! At last we get a choice. This is where WE get to choose.

We get to choose our cognitive response – we decide how we perceive the Biological and Behavioural changes we are experiencing. 

If we perceive these responses as threats to our ability to perform well, we inadvertently reinforce the stress triggers and perpetuate the cycle. Resulting in ever increasing amounts of stress hormones circulating the blood stream, exacerbating the severity of our Biological and Behavioural Responses.

Although our negative Cognitive Responses are often ingrained, with practice we can change them. 

Imagine if instead of seeing these responses as debilitating, what if we reframed them as our body getting ready of us to do something extraordinary, preparing itself to take on a challenge and succeed.

I remember standing backstage early in my career, feeling really sick and just wanting to turn and run when I turned to my accompanist and asked hopefully “This is going to be fun isn’t it?” I still don’t know why I asked this but his response changed EVERYTHING for me. He said “Yes, it is!” 

Immediately I began to notice the feelings of nervousness being replaced by feelings of excitement! What a glorious change!

I’m sure we have all experienced something similar or a time onstage when something went horribly wrong and by some miracle we were able to think of something to do that covered the mistake and allowed the show to go on! This was due to the extra glucose in your brain allowing for super fast thinking!

Heightened awareness to threats can allow you to prepare for and overcome potential problems before they happen.

A slower digestive system means we won’t feel hungry or thirsty whilst performing.

The increased oxygenation of muscles means we feel energised and activated, alert and ready to perform rather than lethargic or sleepy.

When we perceive these responses as helpful to performance as opposed to problematic, our brain registers a threat reduction. This slows down stress hormone release meaning there will be less discomfort and you will begin to feel more in control.

Into your Performance Space

So knowing this process, how would you integrate this into your student’s performance practice?

Have you ever considered asking your students to write down what they are thinking of BEFORE a performance? And then perhaps asking them to write down alternative thought patterns to change their stress response?

How would you integrate these ideas into your curricula so students remember facilitative ways of thinking when it counts?

Perhaps you could share your expertise in the chat below?

If you’d like to learn more evidence based strategies to help your students manage their Performance Anxiety, head over to the performingartspd website to check out our Performance Anxiety Basics course.

I’m Sarah Marshall thanks for listening today! Next week’s topic is Perfectionism. To ensure you don’t miss it, hit the subscribe button now!

I hope you have a great week helping your students to Bring out their Best!

Cross, Mark (2020) Anxiety: Expert Advice from a Neurotic Shrink Who’s Lived with Anxiety All His Life. ABC Books.


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  1. Thanks so much for this, Sarah. This was the first episode of yours I’ve listened to, and I wanted to leave a little note here to congratulate you on your great content, and also to mention that, in relation to the topic of performance anxiety, I’ve wondered for many years now which is the better state to be in: a) fight or flight, or b) a relaxed state when you’re comfortably digesting your food, etc. With all the blood going to the extremities, and the glucose being processed by the brain, I learned today that our *point of view* on that physiological fact makes all the difference. It’s almost as though entering fight or flight is exactly what is needed physiologically as long as we have the right psychological approach to the increased energy. Amazing. This is quite pivotal for me. So, thanks again, and all the best! DG 🙂

  2. Thanks for your encouraging words Dave 🙂 Like so many things in life, our body’s response to performance expectations can be changed by how we perceive what is going on in our bodies. One of the most fascinating things I find about this topic area is what different people perceive as levels of comfort. Some people need to feel really chilled whilst others are almost bouncing off the walls to gain their peak performance mindset. This means that we need to find thought patterns that optimise our body’s reaction and get into an activation zone that works for us. I love how everyone is different! Chat soon, Sarah

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