Exam week is here and with significant performance events can come nervousness and anxiety. This week I spoke with Dr Peta Blevins, a dance scientist, educator, and researcher specialising in psychological skills for performance and safe dance practice and asked her some questions about performance anxiety.
So what is performance anxiety and what can this look like for young dancers, particularly for events like exams, competitions, and concerts?
Performance anxiety is known by many names – nerves, anxiety, stage fright – and it can affect both amateur and professional dancers. Dancers may experience performance anxiety in high pressure situations where there is an aspect of social evaluation, limited control, and if they believe there is an imbalance between the demands of the situation and their ability to meet those demands. Understanding what is going on physically and mentally when we experience performance anxiety, as well as developing coping strategies, can help dancers manage their levels of arousal and perform at their best.
It can be helpful to reframe how we think of performance anxiety as arousal or activation. When we’re faced with high pressure or high performance situations such as exams, competitions, and concerts it is normal for our levels of activation to increase. This happens in two ways – physically (somatic anxiety) and mentally (cognitive anxiety).
Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms we experience when we’re nervous, for example, increased heart rate and breathing, sweating, tingling in our hands or feet, needing to go to the toilet more frequently. These symptoms result from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and are typically described as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This response is our body’s way of preparing us when we think we might be under threat. We experience this physical response very quickly, often before we’ve had time to make sense of what we’re experiencing. The interesting thing about somatic activation is that the symptoms are the same whether we’re anxious or excited. When we wake up on the morning of our birthday and we feel butterflies and a racing heart, we label this as ‘excitement’. When we wake up on the morning of our ballet exam and feel butterflies and a racing heart, we label this as ‘nerves’. However, the physical symptoms we’re experiencing in both situations are exactly the same! This is important because it tells us that our interpretation of the situation dictates the labels that we use to describe our experience.
Cognitive anxiety is the mental side of anxiety and refers to the thoughts and beliefs we hold about performing, and particularly the fears we may have about performing. Dancers may experience cognitive anxiety in relation to fears of performance failure, negative social evaluation, physical harm, situation ambiguity, or disruption to well learned routines. It’s important to understand individual perceptions and interpretations of performance situations to help support dancers when they are experiencing cognitive anxiety. If a dancer perceives the situation they are in as a threat (e.g., seeing a performance as an opportunity to fail) then they are more likely to interpret the physical symptoms they experience as negative or unwanted. However, if they see the situation as a challenge (e.g., seeing a performance as an opportunity to show what they can do) then they are more likely to interpret the physical symptoms as excitement or activation and readiness to perform.
What are some things parents can do to help when they think their child may be experiencing performance anxiety?
Practice reframing performance anxiety
Try to help your child understand that the physical signs of activation are just a message that they are ready for action and not to automatically label them as nerves or stage fright. By helping your child interpret physical feelings such as butterflies, increased heart rate, tingling hands and feet as signs that their body is activated and ready to perform you can help them reframe the these feelings as useful for performance rather than unwanted.
Develop positive self-talk
Practice positive self-talk with your child by helping them build self-enhancing thoughts to substitute negative or irrational thoughts. For example, a self-defeating thought such as “I’m not as talented as the other dancers in my class. There’s no point in practicing” can be framed as a self-enhancing thought of “Talented dancers work hard to be successful. I can improve if I practice”. Practicing positive self-talk regularly will help it become a natural process that comes more easily during performance situations.
Create space for your thoughts
A thought is simply something your mind tells you. Sometimes, however, we automatically believe our thoughts are true even when they are negative or unhelpful. You can help your child develop the skill of noticing their thoughts rather than buying into their thinking and believing it’s the truth. One way to start this practice is to take a thought (e.g. “I am no good at this”) and create some space by acknowledging that it is a thought (e.g., “I am having the thought that I am no good at this”). You can take this further by noticing that you are having the thought (e.g., “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am no good at this”). Meditation and mindfulness techniques can be useful in recognizing thoughts that you have without getting too attached to them which can help with reducing cognitive anxiety.
Use regulation techniques to create optimal levels of activation
Breathing techniques and imagery can be helpful in regulating activation levels. You can use breathing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing to help with relaxation (if activation is too high and you need to come back to an optimal level) or to energise yourself (if activation is too low and you need to pump yourself up for performance). You can also use imagery to visualize yourself successfully executing technical movements or performing at your best.
Preparation is an important strategy for eliminating unknowns and minimizing anticipation related to your performance. Teachers can help students prepare for performances by creating rehearsal environments that mimic the performance situation. For example, students can practice in the room where they will have exams or in the theatre that the concert will be in, and teachers can tell dancers about the examiner or adjudicator they will have. Dancers should also practice mental skills strategies (such as positive self-talk, imagery, breathing techniques, mindfulness) in the weeks or months before their performance so that when it is time to perform those strategies are embedded as part of their performance routine.
Support individual differences
It is important that parents and teachers recognize that all students are different and will react to performance situations (be it class, rehearsals, exams, or public performances) in different ways. Take time to recognize how the student appraises each situation (i.e., as a threat “I don’t want to embarrass myself; I don’t want to let my parent/teacher down” or a challenge “This is an opportunity to show what I can do”) and provide support and acceptance.
Your child may find it helpful to focus on things that are within their control, such as self-improvement and performing at their best, rather outcomes (e.g., placing at competitions, getting a particular grade for exams) or comparing themselves with others. Focusing on process goals, such as executing a technical skill cleanly, or performance goals like maintaining energy throughout a dance routine, rather than outcomes can help dancers build confidence and motivation.
Lastly, When should a parent seek help from a health professional and what’s the best pathway for that?
Performance anxiety is common among dancers and can be managed well with mental skills techniques. However, if you are noticing that your child seems to be anxious in general and it is having an impact on their day to day functioning then you might want to seek further help from your GP or mental health professional. You can talk with your GP or school counsellor or contact local health services. There are many helpful websites where you can access general information on supporting children experiencing anxiety, such as Raising Children (www.raisingchildren.net.au) and Beyond Blue (www.healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au).
The Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare (www.aspah.org.au) is also a great source of information for healthcare in the performing arts, with resources such as healthcare guides on a variety of performance related topics and a member directory of health professionals in your local area working in performing arts.
Peta is currently a sessional academic at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) lecturing in performance psychology. She is also a qualified theatrical dance teacher, having trained and performed in Australia and the UK in a variety of dance styles, and as a singer with Some Voices (London, UK) and the Variety Youth Choir (Australia). Find out more about her work at www.petablevins.com