How classical musicians can use mental discipline to bring their thoughts back under control
Usually, I love Monday mornings. My kiddos go to school and I get to do the work that makes my little heart soar with happiness and satisfaction. That is not a feeling I take for granted. Truly.
This morning, however, ANXIETY was having her way with me. All the things I need to do in a very short amount of time, all the things that are out of my control, and yet I feel the responsibility to fix, all the old feelings about never being good enough… All of it.
Does that happen to you, too? It’s like a wave stirs the junk and debris littering the floor of your mind and it swirls around and overwhelms you.
The more you think, the more anxious you become.
Once we are able to identify an anxiety spiral, we must engage an internal mental discipline to work through the thoughts in a healthy way.
(Just as a disclaimer, I am not speaking to diagnosed anxiety disorders or panic attacks, etc. I am simply offering support for humans who are getting lost in the worries of their day.)
Mental discipline involves:
Noticing how you are feeling
Identifying the contributing thoughts and categorizing them.
Taking action to bring yourself into a calmer state.
Intentionally working through the thoughts by creating a plan for the to-do’s and releasing the unhelpful.
1. Notice how you feel.
Each body will have its own reaction to anxiety. Learning to identify your physical response will aid you in recovering from anxiety more quickly. Check-in with your body and notice:
What is going on with my breathing?
How do my hands feel?
Does my chest feel pressure or heaviness?
Where are my shoulders and are they holding tension?
How is my heart rate?
What's going on with my digestion?
2. Identify the categories of thoughts you're experiencing.
When we are in anxiety, we tend to get micro. Lots of thoughts about lots of things. The more we try to keep track of the little thoughts, the more anxious we become. Try to elevate and get a bird’s eye view of what you’re worried about.
Is my To-Do list stressing me out?
Am I worried about a lesson or a performance?
Is my home messy and the clutter is getting to me?
Am I feeling doubt or shame about something?
Is the anxiety non-specific?
Am I concerned about a loved one?
Seeing the broad categories of what you are anxious about will help slow the thought spiral down. While you can’t solve every worry at once, you can throw worries into certain categories which results in feeling more equipped to work through them.
3. Take action to bring yourself into a calmer state.
We can’t solve problems when we are in a heightened emotional place. We need to get ourselves into a state of relative emotional equilibrium and balance first. It takes trial and error to know what works best for you, but here are some ideas to get you started.
Breath: take deep breaths in through your nose and audibly exhale through your mouth.
Mantra: Repeat something like “No matter what happens, I will be ok.”
Take a glass of water or a snack; give your body something nourishing
Splash cold water on your face
Stretch: Simply roll your head or reach to the sky for a few minutes
Listen to music that brings you peace or joy
Walk: ten minutes of movement, outside if possible
Affirmations: repeat to yourself the things you KNOW to be true
Gratitude: write down 3-5 things you feel genuinely grateful for.
4. Intentionally work through your thoughts.
Make a list. Get the junk out of your head and onto the page. When your anxiety is in a tangible form, your brain doesn’t feel the need to continue to hold on to it, mull over it, and continuously run the worry loop. This doesn’t need to be an hour-long journal session. It’s a brain dump - quick and messy. Just get it out.
Create a plan for the To-Do's. Based on the time you have available and your priorities, schedule the things that need to get done. It may mean that, because you value your practice time, other things will get pushed to later in the week. That’s ok! Or maybe, you’ve procrastinated on a project, and meeting the deadline is more important than practice. That’s ok, too!
You get to decide your priorities and how you best want to spend your time. Even if you procrastinated on something. You are not required to be perfect. You are doing the Best You Can. That is enough. Free yourself from having to do everything perfectly and embrace the agency you have as a functioning adult to set your priorities and schedule based on your values and the time you have available.
Release the Unhelpful Anxiety. “I’m the worst in my studio.” “I’m not going to be ready for the concert.” “So and so thinks I’m not good enough to be in the group.” “What if I screw up and get a bad review?” And on and on, right? Here’s the thing, some of those things might be true. You might screw up. Maybe you should have been more prepared for that concert. BUT, is it helpful to ruminate about it? Heck no.
The worry consumes the mental energy you need for productive thoughts and actions. The worry keeps you paralyzed when what you need to do is get to work. So, LET IT GO. Focus on what you have control over, what is nourishing and helpful, and move forward.
Just as you are disciplined with your practice, these steps will help you become disciplined with your thought life. Pull this tool out any time you notice you are in anxiety and know that you can move yourself into a productive and positive mental state.
Here's a Free Printable for you to put in your practice space for the next time your anxiety spirals out of control.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.