When people experience performance anxiety, the “fight or flight” response is activated. Nerve cells fire and chemicals are released into the bloodstream. The rational mind is bypassed, fear is exaggerated and thinking is distorted. The respiratory rate increases, blood vessels constrict to reduce bleeding if wounded, pupils dilate, sight sharpens, and the immune system mobilizes. Nutrients are sent from organs to muscles. People might grow pale or flushed. They also might start to shake. I had one student who fainted and vomited in the first singing lesson – quite an initiation into the work!
Three things that support vocal function also reduce symptoms of anxiety:
1. Keeping the sternum lifted and expanding the lowest ribs helps to pace the breath and slow respiration.
To find the posture of the breastbone, raise your arms above your head. This will lengthen the torso. When you lower the arms and relax the shoulders, keep the lift in the torso. You will find you could still elevate the breastbone more but that would be too high and create a pinch in the back. You could also collapse it, which would allow all of your air to escape and the anxiety to take over.
2. Keeping the lower ribs expanded the entire time one is speaking or singing stabilizes emotions. It creates calmness and supports levelheadedness.
If you put your hands on your lower ribs at the side of your body and grunt, you should be able to feel the muscles that expand them. While you don’t want to grunt while singing or speaking, you do want this engagement in the ribs.
3. Refining phonation and adjusting resonance create overtones that bathe the brain in nourishing biochemical elements like positive endorphins.
To find the overtones try humming on “N,” “M,” or “NG.” You can find the resonance in the front of the face by making a nasty “a” like in the word “cat.” Keeping the sensations created by these sounds when you sing or speak will help generate the overtones that stimulate the system. It also helps to smile.
As breathing and vocal function are mastered, the “fight or flight” symptoms begin to fade. They usually disappear altogether a few minutes into a performance, presentation or challenging conversation. The more you face anxiety, the more possible it is to become adept at neutralizing it or using the energy to inspire your message. Eventually, most performers and speakers find the excitement and energy empowering.