Bright, blinding lights stare down at you from the highest rafters of the hall. You look up with a sense of vertigo as the tiers of seats, the masses of people, and the cameras all stare back at you. What was once a thunderous applause has now receded to an ocean of silence, a void impatient and waiting to be filled. Your fingers and arms have been trained to perfection for weeks, months, even years, and all for this one moment. But when your raise your instrument, everything feels like jello. Muscles electric, hands sweaty, heart racing, and with a sense of dread, you wonder why you ever dreamed of being on the stage. This dream has become a nightmare, and it’s one all-too familiar to performers of all kinds. While some performers tackle their stage anxiety with beta blockers, extra doses of potassium and magnesium, and a myriad of good luck rituals, some research suggests that hypnosis is also a viable option to help performance anxiety.
When performers run drills in a practice room or rehearsal they are in a particular state of consciousness—one based on gathering information on how to improve and focus on mastery. In this state of consciousness, a performer must be open to new ideas, receptive of criticism, and forgiving of his or her mistakes. On the stage it is another story. This state of consciousness has been informed by all of the prep work that has been invested in order to bring about all of the dreams and expectations which a performer hopes to achieve with any given performance. Often times, this investment, these high hopes and intentions become too much to handle. The pressure builds, doubt arises, and the performer experiences a physiological melee of fear and tension as described above. How can one compromise these two states of consciousness, and perform with consistency between the two? Hypnosis may help.
During a normal day, we experience different levels of brainwave frequencies. When we are aroused, attentive, and focused, the frequency of post-synaptic currents is about 13-30 Hz. These beta waves are present when a performer is on stage. Alpha waves may occur during a performer’s practice time. With slower frequencies of 7-13 Hz, these waves are indicative of a creative process, one that is wakeful, tranquil and pleasant. The next rung of consciousness is the frequency of 4-7 Hz, or the theta wave. This occurs in dreams, deep meditation, and hypnosis. Here, instead of the highly perceptive beta and the cool yet thoughtful alpha, the theta waves promote a fleeting kind of visualization—one that isn’t thought-through but which comes organically from one’s consciousness. Here is where one can work with hypnosis to put the performance anxiety at ease.
Through means of hypnotherapy, many victims of performance anxiety have gained new perspectives and more successful performances. In Doctor J. Shaul Livnay’s publication, “Hypnotic means of enhancing “being” towards the improvement of “doing”: strategies in dealing with people suffering from performance anxieties,” nine particular practices aid in the treatment of performance anxiety. This outline includes:
Giving up a sense of certain failure.
This pre-hypnosis step is one in which a patient must practice visualizing a positive outcome. This practice invites the patient to consider a new perspective on their challenge and the outcome of this challenge.
Realizing that if one can gain power through hypnosis, then one can overcome fear.
Both events of performing and being under hypnosis involve experiencing a trance-like state. If a patient can learn to navigate and control the transit to and from each state, it is likely that they can focus more positive energies during a performance.
Visualizing yourself following success.
This is the first hypnotic stage and one in which the patient envisions his or herself (particularly facial features) after having achieved success.
Creating a comfortable sense of being.
Through what Livnay calls “positive anchors,” the patient imagines a scene in which no scrutiny, no criticism, no judgment can reach. This creates a kind of safe space for the patient to call back in times of anxiety and to make attempts to stay in.
Identifying anxiety-inducing situations.
Here, the patient deals with a certain anxiety-ridden scenario head-on. The aim of this practice is to gain control. After identifying each detail of fear and doubt, the patient gathers them all and envisions his or her mastery of these elements.
Envisioning a positive performance.
The visualization of a positive outcome is necessary in the next step. After embracing and controlling the worst-case, nightmare scenarios in step five, this next stage allows the patient to gain further confidence by seeing his or herself succeed.
Diminishing the critics.
Once the stage is set for a successful performance, the patient must also gain new perspectives on any sort of judgmental figure involved. Livnay suggests calling attention to the weaknesses of the judges—any tensions or anxieties that they themselves have, for instance—or to view them in a ridiculous light which is less intimidating. A patient can also focus on the fact that many times, the judgmental figures in these situations (audience members, family members, and teachers); all want to experience a successful performance.
Referencing oneself in a new, positive light. A performer often projects his or her own views and judgments on the way they perceive the audience. A patient must indulge a kind of narcissistic fantasy in which all perceptions of the performance (audience and performer included). Instead of expecting doubt and judgment to radiate from the audience, the patient envisions a positive and successful connection between his or herself and the public. In this way, the focus transfers from any inherent criticisms to actually reaching the audience through one’s art.
Dress-Rehearsing for success.
Shortly before the performance (perhaps a day or two), the patient must envision how the events leading up to the successful performance will occur. One must visualize entering the building, walking through a hallway, rosining a bow, tying one’s ballet slippers, eating a banana, anything which may happen leading up to the goal. In this way, the stage is set, the positive mental preparation is almost complete, and the performer will be poised and confident in any situation.
This exhaustive list provides insight on the many factors that contribute to anxiety, or our beta waves kicking in gear. The effort in hypnosis is to control these factors; to explore the fears and transform them into a positive and successful experience. The blinding lights will no longer glare down, the audience will no longer threaten, and the silence is not a sign of contempt but a show of respect, an invitation to share.