skip to main content

Treating Performance Anxiety

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

Last updated: 20 May 2024

Different types of treatment for performance anxiety will work in different ways for each musician. One type may be sufficient for one person, while a multi-dimensional approach might work better for another.

Talking therapies

There are many different types of talking therapy, which can help you understand, rationalise and work through anxieties and their root causes. The right talking therapy can teach you physical regulation techniques to combat panic and anxiety, such as learning to change anxiety responses through relaxation, breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation techniques and compassionate responses.

Talking therapy may work for you if you are looking to work on:

  • self-talk
  • inner critic
  • self-trust and confidence
  • destructive thought processes
  • automatic reactions
  • threat perception
  • catastrophic thinking
  • negative visualisation
  • emotional regulation
  • overthinking and rumination
  • developing an anxiety response “tool kit”
  • coping strategies

There are specialists in the music profession who work with musicians on the psychological side of performance, but it may be that mainstream counselling or psychotherapy is more appropriate for you. Performance mentors and coaches trained to help in this area can be found online, as well as organisations that can provide support and signpost to the right people, such as BAPAM, Help Musicians and Music Minds Matter.

Preventing “choking”

When you are not over-thinking and on “auto-pilot”, you are in a zone of superfluidity. This is the sweet spot for your brain. We are not overly involved in the process – instead, it has been automated through practice, then committed to your fingers, muscles and mind.

When you are under pressure, however, your mind tries to “help” by intervening and taking control, but this interferes with the automatic process. Your attention shifts, your focus changes, and you can “choke” on stage.

Typically, when you are nervous, your attention is directed inwardly – how you are feeling and what you are experiencing. You may experience a heightened awareness of how you feel, e.g. becoming highly aware of your arms. When you are not nervous, you tend to focus outside of yourself. Finding ways to create distractions can help move your focus outwards and prevent an inward focus from dominating.

Creating distractions

Doing another task like singing along (even just in the mind) or tapping a foot can distract and refocus the mind. This can serve as a helpful distraction, diminishing the effects of anxiety and “circuit breaking” the current situation.

Biofeedback is a method of mind-body feedback, where the aim is to gain control of automatic responses and settle the body to a place of calmer functioning. This is an effective tool for self-regulation. By learning to control some of the body’s functions, you can make changes to certain reactions, such as heart rate and muscle tension, which in turn reduce the body and mind’s reaction to anxiety.

Relaxation techniques can be useful in learning to control muscle groups that automatically tense in order to discharge adrenaline, creating a calmer response and a calmer mind. Musicians may tend to adopt a tense posture when performing, which can in turn lead to heightened anxiety, so learning to relax posture on stage is a good way to disperse overall tension. Similarly, breathing techniques can be very effective in reducing anxiety in the body. If one method doesn’t work, there are many others to try.

Musicians often describe being consumed with worry about a difficult passage coming up on the next page. Typically, the anxiety mounts as the passage gets closer. Learning to manage this type of anticipatory worry can also help minimise the risk of choking on stage.

Performance routines

Sport is more advanced than music in terms of research and commitment to the psychology of performance, but there are many similarities between them.

Musicians and sportspeople:

  • both have to perform under pressure
  • are both exposed to great competition
  • both perform highly skilled and nuanced tasks
  • must both focus to intense levels
  • are both elite performers with extreme demands on their bodies
  • must both commit to intense, disciplined and dedicated training and motivation

Performance routines that draw on approaches from sport can help you build mental strength and overcome vulnerabilities in performance by formulating preparation plans that target specific areas. These might include:

  • Pressure training. You may spend a lot of time practising, but often you are not in the pressure zone when practising. Therefore, practise in ways that replicate pressure – e.g. not being fully warmed up, or having to wait in the wings without playing – to learn and apply pressure-management strategies. Musicians also tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves, or feel pressure externally, so it is helpful to learn how to take the pressure off and keep things in perspective.
  • Self-talk. Keeping an eye on what your self-talk is doing is a helpful tool. Through self-talk you strengthen thoughts and self-beliefs, so if those thoughts are not helpful ones, this is a key area to focus on.
  • Relaxation training. Usually, the automatic response to stress is to tense up, but with training, it is possible to teach yourself to respond differently. It is important to build awareness of tension, so you can spot it as soon as it manifests and intervene with adaptive responses.
  • Focus training. When your focus locks on to something negative, your mind can become consumed and dragged down a path that is unhelpful, destructive and energy-sapping. Through focus training, it is possible to prevent rumination, set focus points that enable functional and calm responses, and focus on the process of performing rather than the outcome. This enables musicians to connect with what actually enhances performance rather than what destroys it.
  • Visualisation is another powerful tool. Studies have shown that visualisation stimulates the same part of the brain as actually carrying out the task in real life. For example, imagine waking out on stage with an audience clapping. What do you feel? It may be excitement, it may be dread, but nevertheless, the thought makes you feel – and this, you can tap into. It can also be beneficial to visualise the performance unfolding and practice managing the pressure. Imagine walking out on stage – the audience, the first note and so on. Build this into practice to connect with the setting and build resilience.
  • Practising intended responses and mindset can be done effectively through visualisation. This might be how you wish to perform on stage, or, going deeper, how you see yourself responding to certain situations, so that first-time responses are not trialled during a performance. Of course, there is no substitute to being on stage and doing the real thing, but the alternative is not to bridge the gap at all, leaving you in a vulnerable position by stepping from the safety of the practice room to suddenly being on stage and under pressure.
  • Positive psychology is a useful area to explore, especially using reflection from performances that felt positive. You can tap into these experiences and draw on what worked well, then consider how to apply this where things are not working so well.
  • Setting realistic goals and translating them into keywords can help you stay focused on the most helpful elements, away from destructive focus points. This approach provides perspective through the use of clear, attainable goals, and helps structure a path towards the desired goal – whether this is musical or psychological.
  • Proper practice. It is important to ensure that proper practice methods are engaged, and that faulty methods do not seep in. Often, musicians do not realise that they have adopted unhelpful processes such as obsessive practice, panic practice, and practice that fuels a lack of self-trust. Practice is where you spend a lot of time, and where you prepare to feel ready for a performance, so it is important to ensure that proper processes are in place.