Overcoming Performance Anxiety: My Story


Sweaty hands. Elevated heart rate. Shallow breaths.

Drop in the pit of my stomach, like tipping over the apex of a roller coaster.

Terror that I am incapable and everyone will soon witness it.

Head spinning about all the possible things that could and can and will go wrong.

And it will all end in public humiliation.

Several years ago I experienced several months of escalating and spiraling performance anxiety. In my previous years of training and performing as a pianist and collaborator I never really suffered from nerves, not like this. Of course, I got nervous, but the nerves never overwhelmed me. I always knew I would come out the other side. Oh, I had some bad performances and auditions, but it wasn’t like this new level of nerves.

What led to these escalating nerves was taking a class with my doctor on Mind-Body Syndrome. Basically, this syndrome is where people have real physical pain that is directly connected to emotions. I had shoulder pain for years and years, and it was only getting worse. Even though I had been in therapy on and off, and knew intuitively that my shoulder pain was somehow connected to emotions, I was unable to resolve it.

My doctor (John Stracks at Northwestern Center for Integrative Medicine) happens to be a specialist in this area and offers regular classes on the topic (let me know if you’d like his contact info, his class is marvelous, he is marvelous, and I found it life-changing). In his class, I quickly realized that I had a whole lotta emotions hiding underneath my ‘armor’ of tight and painful shoulders.

Once this became clear to me, I embarked upon a mission to heal my shoulder pain by feeling everything! Let it all out and I’ll overcome this shoulder pain and life will be great!

I was dismayed to find that the underlying anxiety was more than I could handle, and only seemed to increase exponentially as time passed.

I had two subbing performances during these months that involved some pretty technically challenging music. I became alarmed at how strong my nerves were in the first sub situation. The second nearly did me in and I became afraid that performance anxiety was my new normal. I went home after this second episode, and told my husband that I was going to quit being a musician. I started contemplating what else I could do in life, but getting paid to eat didn’t seem very realistic.

I did not enjoy performing with these new feelings.

Duh. Performance anxiety is the worst. Locked inside of you are all your good feelings for the music, the desire to be in the moment, to move people, to communicate, to be in flow. The good feelings are hidden behind an impenetrable fortress of anxiety. 

I felt stuck – I could go back to my old ways of shutting down emotion, and keep performing, and sorta feel in control, but have major shoulder pain. Or, I could keep digging and unearthing and discover where it would lead me, even though it might ruin performing for me forever.

When I would tell people about this new anxiety I received interesting responses. Some people would listen, with empathy and support, but not really have any answers or suggestions. Or maybe they had the right idea – don’t fight it, the more you resist the stronger it gets. Others would give unhelpful advice – just practice more. Or say things like, “You’ll be fine. You always play well.”

Really, no comments or advice helped the stark terror I would feel when contemplating being onstage. Because people’s comments are just words. And words are related to thinking and performance anxiety is an overwhelming feeling. Thoughts and logic simply cannot compete with the body’s instinct for safety. Or how completely out of control I felt when in performance. Because of this I drastically limited my playing for several months while trying to figure out a course of action.

The subsequent posts in this series are about the three major resources I used to heal my performance anxiety and the takeaway from each one that you can apply to your own performing lives.

  1. Beyond Practicing, an online class targeting performance anxiety (from the Bulletproof Musician)
  2. Improv classes at IO Chicago
  3. Therapy, with Melissa Sandfort, a life coach who specializes in Internal Family Systems.

Stay tuned until next week, for the first tool, from Beyond Practicing.