Overcoming Performance Anxiety: improv classes

“I can’t do this anymore,” I said to my husband.

After 2.75 hours of sweating, flip-flopping stomach, racing heart, sweating palms, shaking legs, I was ready to be done. But our instructor had just enthusiastically said, “we have time for one more exercise!!!” 

Like that was good news.

This was our first night of improv class at IO Chicago.

My husband had done a year of improv classes at Second City before we met and always said I would really dig it. After the appearance of crazy performance anxiety 6 months earlier, I knew I needed a safe space to work on my fear without worry about totally falling apart on stage and getting fired. Improv seemed like a great choice. Until we got there that night.

I finished out class that night, and returned for many more, making it through 10 months of weekly classes. That translated into 10 months of weekly terror, sweating, butterflies in my stomach, racing heart, etc.

That also translated into 10 months of weekly opportunity to practice new skills, to let fear out from under my armor, to experiment, and ultimately to learn that I could survive, that I could even thrive while in fear. That fear was not the end, it was just a feeling. 

One tidbit I learned from the Bulletproof Musician is that the physical activation of performance anxiety is actually the same as physical activation of excitement. It’s what we label it that determines if we feel positive or negative. Every single class I would tell myself over and over, “I am excited, I am excited.”

The big takeaways from improv class? I can function while in fear. And even have fun at times! Inviting fear into my body, letting it take up space, letting it do its thing and not repress it, then it stopped the internal fighting, and which resulted in taking the pressure off. That allowed other emotions to be part of the process too – excitement, joy, curiosity.

If you suffer from nerves, finding a safe, practice performance space for experimenting can do wonders in overcoming fear. Finding a friend or colleague to support you through these experiments makes it even better - you can discuss, dissect, analyze, feel, cry, share better with a comrade who gets it.

Here are some suggestions of places and situations you could use:

  • Rep Rallies
  • A small group of friends in your home, practice room, work space
  • Church
  • Toastmasters
  • Acting class
  • Music lessons

Give yourself permission to play around with the feelings, be curious about your body’s response to the situation, take the pressure off by having low expectations for yourself. You might crash and burn sometimes - I certainly did in my improv classes!

Finding the right place to practice while in fear also gives you the space to reconnect with the joy of performance, the love of your art that brought you to this career in the first place.

This is 3rd in a series about my experience in overcoming performance anxiety. If you wish to read about Part 1 (the start of my anxiety) and Part 2 (Beyond Practicing). Coming up next week, coaching with a specialist in Internal Family Systems.