How to thrive with performance anxiety

Nerves are normal and part of our human conditioning. These simple strategies can help you shine at your next audition, job interview or live presentation.
How to thrive with performance anxiety Embracing those scary butterflies and calling them 'excitement' is one good strategy. Image via Shutterstock.

Tahlia Norrish

Tuesday 12 January, 2021

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced this: you worked hard to prepare for an opening night or major pitch meeting and you'd been crushing it in rehearsal. But when it came your time to shine, for some inexplicable reason, you weren’t able to deliver that same level of excellence. 

This isn’t a situation that's unique to actors and those the creative industries – though we are likely to have a higher rate of exposure. Whatever your profession, rest assured that performance anxiety is a perfectly normal – and even potentially encouraging – experience.

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In this article we offer two methods to help you better manage. You may find your needs met with one or the other, or perhaps a mix-and-match approach. The fact that you're even aware of possible reframes and solutions is a huge step towards empowerment.

For those rare individuals who have already made the choice to build an identity that thrives under pressure, these processes are unlikely to move the needle, and those people may benefit more from continuing to bring fire to fire. But for the rest of us, the following advice could help.

If you take anything away from this article, take this: you aren’t broken if you experience performance anxiety. Your body is simply doing what it has been conditioned to do since the beginning of time. 

You aren’t broken if you experience performance anxiety. Your body is simply doing what it has been conditioned to do since the beginning of time.

When something notable arises (whether a woolly mammoth, Netflix audition or job performance review), many of us would say our body responds with some level of ‘nerves’. However, we could actually just as easily call this response ‘excitement’. As the renowned best-selling author, Simon Sinek, has said, 'Your body responds to nerves and excitement the same way. But you can learn to interpret it differently.'

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This is a monumental insight. Physically, nervousness and excitement manifest themselves in a very similar way: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, butterflies in our belly. That said, the two manifest very differently mentally: one is typically regarded ‘negative’, the other ‘positive’. As we humans have a negativity bias, we have to actively work to see the positive, but it's a mental investment that can massively change the game. 

So, in a way, experiencing performance anxiety can be seen as a clear indication that what you’re pursuing matters to you, which isn’t something everyone can say about their work. Let’s acknowledge the fact you’re involved in an endeavour you care about, despite it not being the easiest or most convenient option.

Method #1: Bringing stakes to practice

One way we can begin to alleviate performance anxiety is to start becoming more familiar with the pressure of ‘game day’. Because Press Night or an important interview tends to be the exception rather than the rule, we can be prone to over-emphasising the significance of the occasion. However, if we intentionally increase the perceived importance of practice and rehearsal, the disparity between the two will naturally lessen. 

If you're working on a monologue or pitch at home, could you film yourself while doing so? This needs to be done with the awareness that you aren’t concerned with how ‘good’ the result is – in fact, you can even delete the recordings without watching a second of them – but the purpose is to up the ante with the presence of a camera in the space. 

In a rehearsal environment, an example of this could see us inviting a handful of friendly outsiders to watch us work. This will inevitably intensify the atmosphere (so choose your outsiders wisely), but when implemented over time, this will enable us to acclimatise very organically. 

Method #2: Bringing composure to performance

Conversely, we can choose to decrease the perceived importance of the big event itself. This asks us to look at our practise and rehearsal routines to see what elements we could draw on to cultivate that same sense of comfort and confidence as the stakes rise. Habits are incredibly powerful things, so we’d be wise to make them work for us wherever possible. 

For us actors, for example, we could do something as seemingly trivial as wearing our rehearsal blacks pre-show before getting into costume. This may sound superficial, but our bodies pick up on these cues at the subconscious level. Probably not pyjamas, unfortunately – we do want to maintain the required focus and discipline – but we can get pretty inventive about leveraging our subliminal triggers. 

Or perhaps you're a writer who often catches up with a friend after a long day of word-smithing. When your next pitch to producers comes along, you could plan your day so you do the usual things after you've been seen.

A common move we make as actors and creatives is to block off the entire day to honour the gravity of a potentially life-changing opportunity – and of course it’s certainly advisable to leave a bit of extra time as a logistical buffer. But otherwise, it’s typically wiser to continue living our day and life as we usually would. So, if the said meeting falls on a Friday and we always have takeout on Friday, use that routine to dampen any unhelpful tension. Let it feel like yet another Friday where the choice between ramen or a curry and naan is the pivotal question (and, I’m sure, we can all appreciate what a pivotal question this is). 

It’s worth reminding yourself how admirable it is you’re doing difficult things to make your dreams a reality, and continuing to ‘enter the arena’...

Again, it’s worth reminding yourself how admirable it is you’re doing difficult things to make your dreams a reality, and continuing to ‘enter the arena’ as the wonderful Dr. Brené Brown would say. It’s only natural that we’ll encounter what we may observe as ‘nerves’ and anxiety, but we can choose to reframe and counter this opposition. 

Dealing effectively with performance anxiety will set us up for sustained success as well as preserving our wellbeing. And what more could we want as the ambitious actors and creatives we are? 

Read: Ask the mentor: Should I reinvent myself in my 50s?

About the author

Tahlia Norrish (@tahlianorrish) is an Aussie actor and writer currently based between Sydney and London. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (BA (Hons) Acting), Tahlia stepped up as Head Coach at The Actor’s Dojo – an online platform pioneering actor empowerment through mindset and strategy training.