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The Root Causes of Performance Anxiety

Pinpointing exactly when and why performance anxiety manifests is key to understanding which intervention to apply.

Last updated: 20 May 2024

Pinpointing exactly when and why performance anxiety manifests is key to understanding which intervention to apply. Everyone has their own unique journey with performance anxiety. For some, it may stretch back to when they were young. For others, onset may be a result of something more recent.

Some people are more sensitive to stress and anxiety than others. It is important to look at life beyond playing to assess what general levels of stress and anxiety are present and what coping mechanisms are in place, as this has a significant impact on a person’s resilience to performance anxiety.

A person may be inherently anxious, lacking confidence and self-trust, which may lead to underdeveloped coping responses to stress and anxiety. Typically, such a person will negatively visualise scenarios, engage in catastrophic thinking, ruminate over negative thoughts, have little trust that things will go well, and feel overwhelmed with not being able to cope.

Some people have a highly developed inner critic, engaging in negative self-talk and perfectionism. It is important to keep these useful but potentially harmful tactics in check and make sure they serve their intended purpose rather than working against you. Remember: what you think, you strengthen.

Musicians who remember having anxious reactions as a child often suffer more performance anxiety. Early experiences are deeply embedded and stay with you as learned responses. This can cut deep, affecting many areas of a person’s life, requiring time and care to unravel the resultant maladaptive responses.

Sustaining an injury and going through a process of recovery can trigger performance anxiety. The physicality of being unable to play, either at all or in the same way, can cause deep stress. Additionally, the psychological impact can cause anxiety, with vulnerability, insecurity and uncertainty likely to manifest. Being detached from the pressure of performing for a long period can have a profound effect, and any return needs to be carefully managed.

Bad experiences can leave musicians with performance anxiety. These are often caused by circumstances that were not expected or planned for, and ineffective coping strategies may have been used. It is important to work through bad experiences to understand them, put them in a perspective, recover and rebuild confidence.

Rational thinking is challenged by the emotionally charged nature of music. Musicians invest so deeply: the financial investment and time that go into learning an instrument, and the dedication to preparing for performances. Then there is what a performance means to the musician: the potential outcome, how the performance is progressing, and recovering from mistakes – all of which can leave the musician highly emotional, allowing your emotional brain to hijack your cognitive brain.

Musicians may lack self-compassion due to the drive to be “perfect”. Everything is interlinked, with self-compassion – or the lack of it – all affecting your inner critic. Your inner critic then affects your self-talk, and your self-talk undermines your self-confidence. Musicians are rarely encouraged to adopt a compassionate mindset when practising or performing and are more often encouraged instead to be self-critical, which can result in unhealthy thought processes.

To understanding which of these different root causes might apply to you, it is helpful to ask:

  • Did performance anxiety manifest when you became self-aware in adolescence?
  • Did it manifest because of pressure from a parent or teacher?
  • Did it manifest when you went to college or entered the music profession?