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Understanding How Anxiety Manifests

Many musicians experience performance anxiety. It can be mild for some, but for others it can be debilitating and manifest into both psychological and physical symptoms.

Last updated: 21 May 2024

Many musicians experience performance anxiety. Symptoms can be mild for some, but for others it can be debilitating. Physical symptoms – e.g. shaking, a dry mouth, racing heart – can profoundly affect the ability to play or sing. Anxiety can also manifest psychologically, e.g. racing thoughts or making it difficult to focus. Depending on how your body reacts, these responses can affect your ability to carry out the fine and precise tasks needed to perform.

Performance anxiety has little to do with a musician’s ability or talent. Many eminent musicians have suffered from debilitating performance anxiety. Musicians might form negative ideas about themselves when experiencing performance anxiety, so it is important to understand it from a compassionate perspective, away from harsh judgement.


  • Anxiety is when someone feels worried, fearful or uneasy, experienced through thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms. It is your body’s natural response to a threat or stress, but when it is out of a comfortable range it can start interfering with everyday life. It can be mild or severe, grow gradually over time, or hit more instantly, presenting like a panic attack.
  • Panic is characterised by a sudden onset of intense and overwhelming feelings of fear, where our body’s normal response to stress or a threat is exaggerated.


Symptoms of anxiety and panic include:

  • feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • a sense of dread or impending danger
  • increased heart rate
  • breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • dry mouth
  • sweating or chills
  • feeling weak, tired or dizzy
  • difficulty concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • trouble sleeping
  • gastrointestinal problems

Experiencing any of these symptoms while trying to perform is challenging, unpleasant, and likely to detract from performing at your best. Some musicians may face particularly acute challenges around some of these symptoms, for example when a wind player experiences a dry mouth or a string player experiences shaking.


Musicians are exposed to many unique situations and pressures, which are perceived as threats:

  • feeling of being judged
  • fear of symptoms triggered by anxiety or panic (listed above)
  • fear of going wrong
  • difficulty focusing
  • fear of not playing well enough
  • fear of negative outcome (not winning a competition, not doing well in an audition)
  • fear of the unknown
  • memory lapses
  • developing anticipatory fear of the worry itself

In response to threat, musicians may experience automatic and instant responses such as dread, panic and fear. This is often felt physically as a knot in the stomach, an upset stomach, rapid breathing, racing thoughts or feelings of being unable to cope.

Another response to threat is to enter fight or flight mode, where the body releases hormones either to fight the perceived threat or run from it. If your body triggers fight or flight in non-life-threatening situations, you may react in unnecessarily heightened ways.

Cycle of anxiety

When responding to threat, you may enter a vicious cycle of anxiety.

A blue cycle diagram, showing threat, reaction and consequence as all connected as part of this cycle.

  • Threat: The threat appears and an automatic thought occurs, for example: “What if I make a mistake in the concert?”
  • Reaction: You respond, e.g. by tensing up, panicking, shaking or having racing thoughts.
  • Consequence: You are gripped by anxiety, affecting your ability to focus. Preparation for your concert deteriorates, and instead you are distracted and consumed by anxiety. This then increases the perception of threat, and the cycle continues.

Once you experience this cycle a few times, you start to learn this response, and it becomes expected and ingrained. Without effective tools to respond to anxiety, it is hard to break this cycle, thereby reinforcing it.

To stop the cycle from snowballing you must intervene. The best time to intervene is during the reaction phase, when you have the most control, giving you a better chance of breaking the cycle.

To understand how best to put in place the most appropriate interventions, it is important to look first at the root causes of performance anxiety.