Written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
Working with performance anxiety can be incredibly varied and can range from ‘stage fright’ for actors and musicians, through to sporting and even sexual performance.
Feeling a little apprehensive before an important interview, presentation or first date is totally normal and natural, and something that most people can relate to. For many people, the apprehensive or anxious thoughts, feelings or sensations don’t reach a level of intensity that stops the person performing, and will usually reduce at some point, either just before or early into the performance itself. Interestingly, some performers welcome a little ‘nervous excitement’ and use the heightened stimulation to give greater energy or ‘sparkle’ to their performance. For some people though, they experience anxiety to such a level that it impacts both on their performance, and even their overall quality of life. Depending on the nature of the performance, performance anxiety can be pervasive, adversely impacting on their career, relationships, hobbies, health, and much more.
The triggering of the ‘fight or flight’ response, common with performance anxiety, can result in a number of physical and psychological symptoms that can be highly distracting prior to a performance (or even during one). Speaking can be made more challenging by a dry mouth, tense jaw or tightness in the throat. Co-ordination can be difficult with shaking hands or legs. Focus can be challenging when feeling nauseous, with a racing pulse or pounding heart. Important information can be harder to remember and recall when feeling numb, distant or withdrawn. On top of all of this, are perhaps intrusive thoughts, a sense of dread, or strong emotions such as embarrassment, guilt or shame.
Many of the physical performance anxiety symptoms that people experience have a direct relationship with the brain’s amygdala. This reacts to fear by triggering a set of chemical reactions that result in adrenaline being released. This adrenaline causes many changes in the body in order to respond to the perceived fear (either by fighting or running away).
With performance anxiety, it may come down to ‘one trial learning’, where one negative experience sets a pattern for all future situations. Or, it may be a compound effect of several negative performances. Indeed, someone may have always been comfortable with performing and then one poor performance (e.g. falling off a horse during a competition, or having their trousers falling down on stage) can be enough to trigger long-term performance anxiety. There doesn’t even need to be an actual performance for a pattern of negative associations to be formed. Simple negative thoughts and repetition can be enough. A classic example of this is the childbirth horror stories that expectant first time mothers can be told. This unhelpful thinking and rumination can set a negative perception that can lead to anxiety.
However, fear not, because performance anxiety can be addressed effectively with hypnotherapy and clients can be helped to perform better in situations they previously would have found stressful, challenging, or even impossible!
Hypnotherapy for performance anxiety will generally start with a thorough consultation or client intake process, finding out how the client is affected by their performance anxiety, when the anxiety started and so forth. By gaining relevant information at the start of the session, there are several therapeutic benefits. Firstly, it helps build rapport by demonstrating to the client that you are interested in what has brought them to therapy, and what their experience has been so far. Helping the client feel heard builds rapport, which is useful to establish early on in the therapy process. Also, you are able to gain information about the client’s performance anxiety issues that you can then directly address in the therapy process. This means that the therapy work is client-centred, making it a lot more effective than a less targeted or ‘content-free’ process-centred approach, where the client is made to fit the process. Within the consultation process, as well as finding out about the client and their performance anxiety issue, you will also formulate (and agree) a therapy goal, in order to gain a clear understanding of how the client would prefer to be able to perform.
The performance anxiety client intake process will enable the therapist to plan a bespoke therapy session to meet the client’s needs exactly. Here are some of the key hypnotherapy areas in which you might work with performance anxiety. I’ll be referring to a running example, Jason, who wants to give a presentation to his work colleagues, but gets so anxious beforehand that he keeps rescheduling the session.
Shakespeare (in Hamlet) said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Perhaps he had learned about this from Epictetus, who said, “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the view he takes of them”. A belief is an acceptance that something is true, even if there is no proof. Beliefs are the brain’s way of making sense of the world and how things are related to each other. We will often look for evidence that supports our beliefs, whilst ignoring anything that would disprove them. From a performance anxiety perspective, clients negative beliefs about their performances and about themselves can be a significant element that needs to be addressed in order to move forwards.
In our example, Jason’s belief was that ‘giving a presentation would be terrible’ and that he wouldn’t be able to remember what to do or say, nor would he be able to speak clearly, meaning he worried he’d fall apart when it came to performing. A hypnotherapist will often take a cognitive-behavioural approach to address these types of unhelpful beliefs, challenging them and helping the client establish a more realistic, rational and relevant beliefs.
Performance anxiety will often lead to avoidance, as the client will over-estimate the extent of the threat of the performance and under-estimate their ability to cope. This was the case for Jason, who was simply putting off giving his performance. Sadly, each time he delayed it, he was also chipping away at his self-esteem and adding to his belief that to give a performance would be terrible. New behaviours and coping strategies can be established in hypnotherapy and practiced using mental rehearsal and future pacing. This can be supported by ego strengthening to boost a client’s belief in themselves and their ability to cope, whilst also increasing their resilience. Simple behavioural tasks as homework can also increase confidence and build skills, which further boosts self-esteem and resilience.
Commonly, people experiencing performance anxiety will find that they struggle to remember what they need for their performance. This is partly due to the ‘fight or flight’ response (as more focus goes to survival than memory) and partly due to accessing and reinforcing beliefs that they will not remember. This was certainly the case for Jason, who by telling himself repeatedly that he wouldn’t remember, was giving himself a powerful self-suggestion. By changing the belief and the fear response and building coping strategies, clients can learn that they will be able to focus and not only learn what they need to, but also remember it at the time it is needed. You are also able to help clients reduce their overall stress levels and directly work on memory improvement, if this is of key concern to the client.
Most people have had some type of weak or poor performance at some point in their life and will have just let it go, perhaps taking any learnings and then moving forward to the next performance with a more positive mindset. However, for some, that past event forms an intrusive influence that prevents someone taking a positive ‘can do’ approach. Jason had a past performance at school that didn’t go as planned (he got sick and didn’t have the energy to rehearse, meaning he performed poorly). By addressing the past event, changing how it is coded in a client’s memory and dissociating them from the impact it had, clients can move past the original emotional charge of the event with a new, healthier perspective. Hypnotic submodalities work is a fantastic way of achieving this result, and doing so in a very short period of time!
For some clients, lack of confidence can be a significant factor in their ability to even think about performing, let alone actually engaging in a performance. By addressing identified barriers to their performance (e.g., a negative past performance) this can help clear the way for helping the client create new positive associations and build their confidence, both in their ability to perform and their ability to cope in the performance situation. A great way of doing this is by using anchoring. Helping to connect the client to their own past experiences of confidence in other aspects of their life and creating a powerful association that can be used for future performances.
Self-esteem is a significant contributor to a client’s ability to perform and to cope with any obstacles or challenges during their performance. However, for some clients, even before addressing their past negative experiences and present negative beliefs, they may benefit from ego strengthening to help connect them to their inner resources so that they are able to go through active change work. Just like Jason, who had a whole host of experience and strategies that could help him perform brilliantly, your clients will have resources that will take their performance (and their own perceptions of their performance) to the next level. Sometimes you just need to help them connect to their inner resources and self-esteem…
In addition to addressing past performances, present beliefs and unhelpful behaviours, you can also use future pacing and mental rehearsal to your advantage with your performance anxiety clients. Future pacing can be used to explore a range of possible performance alternatives, to practice an ‘ideal’ performance, and, even more beneficial perhaps, to practice how to respond confidently and effectively to foreseeable obstacles and challenges! Jason imagined performing his presentation, stumbling over some words and continuing regardless, receiving a round of applause and congratulation at the end of his talk! This constructive use of future pacing and mental rehearsal helps build a positive association with the performance, giving the client the self-assurance to know that they can cope, whatever the situation.
A brand new performance anxiety hypnotherapy protocol
You’ve just read about some of the key areas that you’re likely to consider when helping your clients to overcome their performance anxiety. We at Hypnosis-Courses.com have incorporated all of these approaches (and more) into our exciting new performance anxiety protocol, which is about to be released (any day now)! We can’t say what it is yet (not until launch day), except that it’s a highly effective, evidence-based, ‘out-of-the-box’ hypnotherapy technique. So, if you’re looking for the best way to help free your clients from performance anxiety, you’re not going to want to miss this!
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As professional hypnotherapists, with the right tools and knowledge, we really can help clients make significant improvements to their performances. Working with performance anxiety can benefit clients much more broadly than simply being able to remember their presentations, or being able to perform a violin solo better. It can also help boost a client’s self-esteem, confidence and their resilience so that they are better able to cope with challenges in all aspects of their lives. If you’re ready to make a difference, and become a performance anxiety specialist, subscribe below (if you haven’t already) and we’ll be in touch soon! Until then, we hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on hypnotherapy and performance anxiety, and if you have any more questions about this topic, or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks