Help for performers when the fear creeps in
By now many of us have heard about how deep breathing helps calm the nervous system. But what does that exactly mean? Today we are going to unpack some of the science behind our limbic system so we can more easily trust the power of belly breathing and other supportive interventions when we are in a state of heightened arousal or anxiety, especially around important performances. However, just like everything related to being a musician, the real benefit of these tools occurs from consistent, daily practice.
Our nervous system is comprised of two parts - the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the fight or flight response to stress. Through a flash of hormones, the SNS raises our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate. All of this happens automatically and quickly, often before the brain can consciously register that there is danger. Have you ever seen those awesome dad videos where they save their kids with lightning speed from injury? That’s their SNS in action.
Our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) works to calm the body down after it has been stressed. It brings us back to a state of homeostasis where our blood pressure, breathing rate, and hormone flow come back to a normal level. The vagus nerve is a large nerve that originates in the brain and branches out in multiple directions through the neck and torso providing primary control of breathing, heart rate, and digestion when we are not under stress.
When we activate our vagal nerve during times of stress, we are telling our bodies that we are safe and do not need to fight or flee.
The body does not know the difference between being chased by a saber tooth tiger and stepping on stage to perform for an audience and it has the same physiological response to both stressors.
Through the use of certain physiological techniques, we can alter our bodies’ stress response and bring it back into a state of energized calm so we can perform with physical control and mental clarity.
When we consider this image of the vegas nerve, we see that there are two main areas of the body where the nerve branches out into larger clusters - the belly and the throat. As specific physical motions are executed to stimulate those nerve branches, the brain understands the stress period is over and it is time to reset.
This exercise is adapted from the John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital guide.
Find a comfortable place to lie on your back, knees gently bent.
Place one hand on your belly, one on your chest.
Breathe in slowly through your nose and imagine filling a balloon in your stomach. You will feel your hand moving as your stomach gets bigger and pushes out. As the hand on your belly moves up, your vagus nerve is being stimulated signaling to your body that it is time to calm.
Breathe out slowly through your mouth and imagine the balloon shrinking as your stomach becomes flat.
As you breathe in you can imagine sniffing a flower or your favorite food. Breathe in as smoothly and gently as possible.
As you breathe out, purse your lips and image you are gently blowing out 100 birthday candles or slowly blowing bubbles with a bubble wand (using an actual bubble wand can be helpful).
Aim for about 6 belly breaths per minute.
While it is important to engage in belly breathing during periods of stress or anxiety, you will build a resilient PNS and increase vagus tone with a regular, daily breathing practice. Setting aside 10-30 minutes to quietly breathe each day will profoundly help your body recover from the fight or flight process. For the musician, integrating a few minutes of breathwork during practice breaks can be a simple way to incorporate belly breathing into your life.
SINGING, HUMMING, CHANTING, GARGLING
The vagus nerve innervates part of the throat so singing, humming, chanting, or gargling stimulates the nerve.
Gargling: Try 10-20 seconds of gargling a few times a day. Perhaps every time you have a drink of water while practicing?
Singing/ humming/ chanting: This intervention gives you double the impact because it engages deep belly breathing (abdominal vagus stimulation) with the use of your vocal chores (throat vagus stimulation). Try taking a deep abdominal breath and engaging your vocal cords on the exhale by singing, humming, or chanting.
Just as with belly breathing, these physiological tools can be helpful during acute stress, you will find the most success when you implement them on a daily basis.
The physical and emotional benefits of laughter are something we have all experienced. But did you know you can “practice” laughing? Even though voluntary laughter will be fake at first, you still receive the benefits of laughter and may just have a jolly good time while you’re at it. While best practiced in a group, individual practice works, too!
These exercises are adapted from Simulated Laughter Techniques for Therapeutic Use in Mental Health by Ramon Mora Ripoll.
Hold-on laughter: Burst out laughing when breath cannot be held any longer.
Gradient laughter: Fake a smile; giggle, then laugh slowly and gradually increase in tempo and volume.
Crying laughter: Sad crying as you lean forward, laugh as you come back up.
Being a musician is serious, important work. BUT, when our work is infused with joy and playfulness not only is it healthier for our bodies, I believe our music is better for it, too. An added benefit? You guessed it! Vagus nerve activation that supports your parasympathetic nervous system. Win, win!
Our bodies and minds are woven together in a most magnificent way. As performers, when we utilize both psychological and physiological tools, we provide a supportive foundation upon which we do the brave work of making music. Try incorporating some (or all!) of these techniques to stimulate your vagus nerve and teach your body to quickly recover from periods of stress.
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.
First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!
Join the waiting list for my FREE mini-course, How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve and Calm the Heck Down.
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.