The Best Natural Solution for Performance-Based Anxiety

Tuesday Sep 29 | BY |
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Beautiful young girl meditating in autumn park

If herbs and nutrients don’t help calm your anxiety, you should give meditation a try.

A few weeks ago, I talked about the herbs and supplements that can help calm anxiety.

Things like green tea, chamomile, dark chocolate, probiotics, and more have all shown in studies to have anti-anxiety effects.

They not only helped participants to feel calmer, but reduced levels of stress hormones, increased “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain, and even worked as well as anti-anxiety drugs, in some cases.

Though I’ve no doubt these things can be helpful for many people, when I’ve tried them myself, they’ve come up short. That’s because I experiences bursts of fierce anxiety, and I need something with more power to help me out.

The solution turned out to have nothing to do with nutrients or herbs.

Dealing with Intense Anxiety

Many people suffer from performance-based anxiety. This is a unique type of anxiety that comes on only when you have to make a presentation, speak in public, perform on a musical instrument, or something of the sort.

I regularly perform on the French horn. Anxiety can be a real problem, as it creates dry mouth, which stops the lips from vibrating, and results in shallow breathing, which robs the player of any support for a sonorous tone. Altogether, anxiety can make playing the horn an intensely frightening experience.

The same might be said of any performance-type activity. For some, it’s being on stage, but for others, it may be performing well while playing a sport, speaking to the boss, or even asserting oneself in any sort of group activity. It can come up when trying to make a good impression on somebody new, or when going through a job interview, taking an exam, or making a toast at a wedding.

“Performance anxiety is something most of us experience from time to time, in differing intensities and under varying circumstances,” says Jennifer Roig-Francoli of the American Society for the Alexander Technique. “It can hit when you’re confronted with a situation as seemingly benign as making a phone call, or one as potentially stressful as speaking or playing an instrument for an audience of thousands of people. No one I know likes it! It feels mildly or extremely uncomfortable, as if there were something very wrong happening, and when panic sets in everything seems to tighten up; now you’re ready to flee, fight, or freeze!”

We all have moments when we have to “perform,” in some way or another. How can we deal with the anxiety in those times?

The Answer: Controlling Your Mind

I’ve tried herbs. For some particularly scary concerts (where I had difficult, exposed solos), I also tried anti-anxiety medications. They all came up short.

Granted, performing in a symphony is an extreme situation. Like public speaking, playing a difficult solo in a large performance is like experiencing anxiety on steroids. The medication worked the first time, and after that it was like I hadn’t even taken it. Herbs didn’t touch it.

St. Louis University physician Kimberly Zoberi found similar results in 2010, when she published a broad-based review of natural treatments and anxiety. Her conclusion: herbal remedies have not been proven to be effective, and the best alternative to medications may be cognitive therapy.

In other words, focusing on your thoughts.

Turns out there’s a very effective way to do that. It’s called “mindfulness meditation.”

The Answer in Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a practice of paying attention to the moment, becoming fully aware of our inner and outer experiences and learning to accept them with compassion.

“Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking but which is aware of thinking,” states the University of California Center for Mindfulness, “as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body.”

They go on to state that mindfulness is non-judgmental and cultivated by “paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment.” Consistent practice of this state promotes an inner calmness and an ability to react less fervently to the activity in the mind.

In a recent study, researchers looked at 47 trials on meditation and psychological issues, and found that mindfulness meditation programs helped create small to moderate improvements in anxiety and depression.

Studies Link Mindfulness Meditation to Improved Performance

Mindfulness meditation is meant to be practiced on a daily basis. That way, we exercise the muscle in the brain that brings our attention to our thoughts—without judgment.

This is key, because it’s our reaction to our feelings of anxiety that typically sabotage performance. We sense that we’re becoming anxious, and react with fear, tightening our muscles and restricting the breath, which makes the anxiety all the worse.

Learning to accept those uncomfortable feelings without reacting can help us learn to manage better when under the lights.

A 2004 study confirmed this idea when it comes to athletic performance. Researchers noted that while traditional approaches encouraged athletes to control negative thoughts and emotions with a sort of mental iron fist, recent evidence suggests that trying to eliminate or suppress these internal states “may actually have the opposite effect.”

Instead, more recent experiments with athletic performance show that “mindful (nonjudgmental) present-moment acceptance of internal experiences such as thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, along with a clarification of valued goals and enhanced attention to external cues, responses, and contingencies that are required for optimal athletic performance.”

“The idea of ‘being in the moment’ is one that is commonly agreed on by proponents of all of these strategies as being one of the important aspects of a successful performance,” writes Shari Oyan, who obtained her masters of music from George Mason University. “Neuroscientist Richard Davidson (among others) has found compelling evidence proving that people who have practiced meditation throughout their lifetime are quite effective in controlling both their emotions and physical reactions to stressful and upsetting situations.”

Working with one’s thoughts, however, doesn’t involve only sitting and meditating. Becoming aware of the thoughts that inspire the anxiety—and then working on changing those thought processes—is the cornerstone of overcoming anxiety. Then we can employ certain techniques to help body and mind to stay calm.

5 Minutes a Day to Calm Fear of Public Speaking

Say the words “public speaking” to most people and their hands will start to sweat. It’s a common fear, yet many of us will be called upon to make presentations, speeches, toasts, and other similar activities at one time or another.

Again, mindfulness meditation provides a solution. Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend, talks in his book, 10% Happier, about panic attacks he suffered while he was on air. The problem, as he explains it, was the “negative chatter” in his mind, that “tornado of self-referential thoughts that get in the way of connecting with what you’re doing.”

Harris used meditation to get over the panic, and learn to tune out the negative voices. All it takes is five minutes a day, a simple exercise for the brain. The key is to sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath—which granted, is easier said than done.

“Meditation is a series of humiliating failures,” Harris says. “You are fighting a lifetime of habits. But every time you catch yourself and bring yourself back, it’s a bicep curl for your brain.”

Studies show it helps. Brown University researchers, for example, invited 52 participants to give an impromptu speech, during which they measured their stress levels. They then randomly assigned half the group to eight weeks mindfulness training (the other half did nothing different), and then had them come back and do the impromptu speech again.

Those who had gone through the training reduced anticipatory anxiety—the anxiety they felt before speaking—and also recovered much more quickly than the control group.

How to Try it Yourself

This technique has worked for me. I recently had an experience where I had to sit on stage for a good 10 minutes while the symphony played around me, and then I had to come in out of the blue with a passage that could be easily flubbed by the smallest of mistakes in technique.

Sitting and waiting. It’s the worst, especially under those hot lights. Usually I’d be quite rattled by the time my entrance came around, but this time, I really focused on the moment and on distracting my mind. What worked for me was thinking about my latest fictional work in progress, and literally forcing my brain to follow the trajectory of one particular character through the story. When the time came for me to play, I wouldn’t say I was completely relaxed, but I did feel calm, and the passage came out perfectly.

If you find yourself experiencing performance-based anxiety of any kind, the following tips may help.

  1. Commit to a daily mindfulness meditation practice: As Harris said, five minutes a day is all it takes, though you may soon find yourself wanting to do more. Mindful.org has great resources for beginners.
  2. Become aware of your thoughts: What are you thinking about? Watch your thoughts so you can figure out the source of your anxiety. Usually it all starts with certain negative thoughts like, “I don’t feel up to this,” or “I’m going to forget what I was going to say,” and the like. Try to trace the anxiety to its starting point, and go from there.
  3. Stop the negativity: Most likely the thoughts preceding the anxiety are negative (I’m going to mess up this presentation, I’m going to fail). Tell yourself to stop the negative thoughts, and replace them with something that demands your brain to focus. Count backwards by three from one-hundred, for instance, name every color you can think of, or solve a work problem in your head.
  4. Focus on your breath: We always take shallow breaths when we’re anxious. It’s time to count. Breathe in through your nose for 4-8 counts, and breathe out through the nose or mouth for 6-10 counts. Repeat, focusing on breathing from your diaphragm—from lower in your belly, rather than from your chest. The deeper your breaths become, the calmer you’ll feel. No matter how well you do, accept your feelings with compassion—don’t fight them—and keep breathing.
  5. Move: If you’re in a situation where you can move, do so. Walk, run, jump rope—anything to get your body moving. It will help shake off the nerves, warm up your hands and fingers, and normalize your breathing.
  6. Accept: One of the things we naturally do when we feel anxious is fight it. The symptoms are not pleasant, and we tend to tense up and get irritated or frustrated which makes the anxiety worse. It’s better to try to accept the symptoms. Yes, you’re feeling hot and sweaty, your heart is racing, and your mouth is dry, but it’s okay. There’s nothing life threatening going on. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not serious. Focus on your breathing and on distracting your mind and let your body be.
  7. Use every nervous moment as a chance to practice: This can be particularly helpful if you can accomplish it. Rather than seeing your upcoming performance as a do-or-die moment, imagine it as practice for your mindfulness technique. It’s a chance to use what you’ve been learning, and see how it works. Even just this slight change in how you perceive the event can help reduce anxiety.

Some helpful resources:

Have you found a natural remedy that works for anxiety? Please share it with our readers.

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Sources
Jennifer Roig-Francoli, “Performance Anxiety: A Way to Deal with it that Works!” Alexander Technique, http://alexandertechnique.com/resources/PerformanceAnxietyGuide.pdf.

Madhav Goyal, et al., “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” JAMA Intern Med., 2014; 174(3):357-368, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754.

Julie Corliss, “Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress,” Harvard Heart Letter, January 8, 2014, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967.

Elizabeth A. Hoge, “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity,” J Clin Psychiatry, August 2013; 74(8):786-792, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772979/.

“Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Central Pennsylvania,” MeditationScience, http://meditationscience.weebly.com/what-is-mindfulness-meditation.html.

Shari Oyan, “Mindfulness Meditation: Creative Musical Performance Through Awareness,” May 2006, http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-03312006-164516/unrestricted/Oyan_dis.pdf.

Frank L. Gardner, Zella, E. Moore, “A minfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations,” Behavior Therapy, Autumn 2004; 35(4):707-723, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005789404800169.

Carmine Gallo, “Five Minutes a Day to Conquer the Fear of Public Speaking,” Forbes, March 21, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2014/03/21/five-minutes-a-day-to-conquer-the-fear-of-public-speaking/.

“Cure the Fear of Public Speaking with Mindfulness Training,” Beginners Meditations, December 5, 2014, http://www.beginnersmeditations.com/cure-the-fear-of-public-speaking-with-mindfulness-training/.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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