On Performance Anxiety

Reflection from Issue #2

“My fingers go numb before I do readings.” —Jason Christie
“I wasn't able to sing in public for years, possibly from flashbacks to a cruel music teacher in grade school. Not even silly karaoke. Fought through it, was the singer in a band for over a decade” —Cynthia Gould
“I did solo performances at music festivals growing up. Anxiety was a constant companion. In grade twelve, while giving my festival performance on flute, the anxiety was so bad that my arms were shaking, my mouth dried up, and this anxiety fed back on itself to the point where I briefly dissociated from my body.” —Julian Day

Like many writers and artists, performance anxiety has plagued me my whole life.

My first experience with performance anxiety occurred when I was eight years old. I was a funny-looking kid with a droopy eye, and my mother signed me up for a week-long drama day camp which she thought would be good for my self-confidence. It was a disaster.

All the kids knew each other because they went to the same school where the camp was held and knew the teacher. From the get-go, I was completely isolated. At lunch I sat by myself in the school playground and attempted to eat my bologna and mustard sandwich while I watched the other kids play. No one talked to me except one kid who came over to ask what was wrong with my eye. When I didn’t answer, he ran back to his friends laughing. It was the first time in my life I understood that people would not like me because of the way I looked. I didn’t necessarily want to be friends with these kids, but having absolutely no one to talk to was more than I could bear. My face burned in shame sitting on that little wooden bench where I soon discovered I could cry undetected behind my sunglasses if I didn’t move or make a sound.

While lunch time was pure hell, nothing was worse than the actual drama camp where we had to work in groups and perform a variety of acting exercises. Each time I was called on I froze. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. No amount of coaxing could pull me out of this state. The kids stared at me and snickered while the drama teacher waited for me to do something, anything. This happened a couple of times until he stopped calling on me all together. If we were doing an exercise in a circle where everyone had to participate, he would avert his eyes and just skip over me like I wasn’t there. And while it provided me with some relief from public humiliation, it felt worse to be ignored.

Needless to say, I never went back to drama camp, but the lifelong fear of public speaking had firmly settled in.

There weren’t a ton of opportunities for public speaking in my elementary or high school. In Grade 8, I had to read a speech on teen suicide which I remember being nervous about, but because I was delivering an “important” message to my peers, I didn’t freeze up.

The old drama camp performance anxiety didn’t rear its ugly head until I took my first creative writing workshop in poetry in my second year at Concordia University. The first day of the class the professor gave us a writing prompt. Everyone started scribbling madly, and I just stared down at my page like I was back at drama camp. I kept trying to write something, but all I could manage was to put a black dot in the middle of the page. Unlike the drama teacher, this professor called on everyone and no one refused to read their work. When it was my turn, I looked down at my journal and said: “There is a black dot in the middle of my page.”

The professor thew his head back and laughed and said, “Oh, I see, we have a minimalist in the class. Excellent.” And then he went on to the next student.

I liked the idea of being called a minimalist. That comment gave me the confidence to show up to the next class, but I made sure to stack my journal with pre-written poems that I could read in a pinch.

Throughout the rest of my undergrad and grad school, there were only a couple of opportunities where I had to perform my work publicly. It was excruciating, but usually brief. Writing workshops also caused a great deal of anxiety, but the writer was not allowed to speak, so I could hide comfortably within plain sight.

After grad school, I began teaching creative writing workshops. Although I was nervous about it, it didn’t fill me with the same fear that reading my own work did. As long as I was in service of others, I could get through it.

It wasn’t until I was accepted to the Canadian Film Centre’s screenwriting lab where my performance anxiety reached an all time high. I had been teaching grammar, business writing, and composition at a community college for a couple of years, and I absolutely hated it. Teaching in subject areas that I was unenthusiastic about to a group of students who were bored and more often than not outright hostile was brutal. As a sessional, I never knew from term to term whether I would be getting any courses to teach. The teaching environment was exploitative and demoralizing. Once a student asked me how I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I looked at him in absolute horror and said, “I’m not an English teacher.” He walked away utterly confused. On weekends, I would say to anyone who would listen, “The English teacher wants to kill herself,” and I meant it. The job was killing me, and I needed to get out.

I thought the Canadian Film Centre was going to change my life and save me from this job. I had put so much pressure on myself to do well that my performance anxiety kicked in big time. Whenever I got anxious or had to pitch something, I felt so dizzy I was afraid I would pass out.

So much of the program involved pitching and performance that I had to confront it. I was in a desperate state. My older sister offered to pay for a few sessions with a psychologist who specialized in performance anxiety for athletes. The first thing the psychologist did was have me lay on the ground so she could see how I was breathing. The reason I was feeling dizzy, she said was that I wasn’t breathing from my diaphragm and I was hyperventilating. She taught me box breathing and the triangle breathing method, and she gave me some cognitive behavourial therapy exercises that were somewhat helpful, but as I was gearing up for a big pitch event that would determine whether or not I would get a film made, it just wasn’t enough.

To make matters worse, I was pitching a ridiculous film idea called “The Shitter” about a man who is accosted by a housemate because his shit stinks. I went to my family doctor, and he gave me some beta blockers, a medication often given for high blood pressure that can also be prescribed for performance anxiety. I used the beta blockers for the event and even though the pitch was hell, it went okay. Miraculously my silly concept got picked. I never ended up using beta blockers again for performance anxiety because I didn’t like the way they made me feel. Although they can stop some of the symptoms of anxiety, they made me feel dead from the neck down which is not ideal if you want to connect with an audience.

My search for a cure for my performance anxiety went on over the years. I read tons of books on it. Most of them involved meditation or offered advice on changing your thoughts or calming yourself. I believed if I could be calm then I would perform better. I thought if I could try and hide how I was feeling, no one would notice and I could get through it. I even tried a method which involved suppressing my anxiety to such an extent I felt as numb as if I had taken a beta blocker. And while that worked in the moment, it gave me a full-blown anxiety attack the day after the event.

My next bout of severe performance anxiety occurred around the publishing of my poetry books. Getting a book published means that not only will you read at your launch but you may be invited to read at events or festivals if you are lucky. But I didn’t feel lucky. Every time I got a reading invitation, I felt trapped and tortured. Many of these events involved me reading with a shaky voice. Sometimes I would be so nervous I would faint a little or have to grasp onto a nearby wall because I was so dizzy. The boxed breathing didn’t help. The CBT didn’t help. Often, I would embarrass myself feeling once again like that little kid in the drama class.

For my second book of poetry, I decided to work with two acting coaches where I focused less on my nervousness and learned how to stop avoiding the performance and how to practise properly. I hadn’t really thought about practising before. Whenever I had a reading, I just dreaded it for weeks until it was over. But working with these two actors, I realized the simple truth—the more you practise, the better you will perform. They taught me how to read my own work and be in the moment—to make eye contact and use intonation and pauses for dramatic effect. It would have been fun, if performing still wasn’t HELL ON EARTH.

Around the same time, I discovered a YouTube Interview with Josh Pais, an actor and performance coach who talks about four access points for being present in any situation. I tried his process, and it really helped. It wasn’t a cure, but I quickly discovered that it is way better to accept, acknowledge and use the anxiety as energy for your performance than it is to suppress it or try to push it away. I strongly recommend his online program Committed Impulse.

With the help of the Josh Pais process and my two acting coaches, my performances went from being terrible to actually being kinda good which resulted in MORE reading invitations. Although I was no longer terrible, I was still suffering. Being good at something didn’t make me enjoy it any more.

Despite having a regular process for preparing for a reading or speaking engagement, the stress of performing was catching up with me. It started causing serious health problems. Every time I had to do a poetry reading, my back would go out. Sometimes I would be laid up for days or weeks—even months. This lasted for years until I finally decided I had to stop performing all together and give my body a break.

Between 2016 and 2018, I did not accept any readings or speaking invitations. For the first time in my life, I learned the art of saying no. It was so freeing. I finally felt in control of my life, and my back started getting better. In saying no, I learned that I didn’t have to say yes to every opportunity. The world didn’t fall apart if I didn’t participate. Going forward I decided I would only say yes to things I really wanted to do.

And the first thing I really wanted to do was a reading at knife | fork | book after repeatedly being invited and declining the invitations. The warm environment that Kirby provides as a host made reading feel possible again. It was the first reading I participated in that I actually enjoyed.

I still get nervous before events. Performance anxiety doesn’t go away in a snap, and there’s no magic pill. But the key for me getting through it was not only developing a series of tools I could use (breathing properly, practising, and being present) but also taking some control over what I will commit to.

Do you have a performance anxiety story that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below.

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Issue #2 of Send My Love to Anyone

Micro Interview with Chelene Night

It’s Queer to Have a Body by Kirby

About Kathryn Mockler

Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis and Send My Love to Anyone, a newsletter on all things writing. She is the editor of the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.

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