How To Pull The Plug On Performance Anxiety
(Or: Your Mind Is A Maths Geek)
A visual equation for letting go of nerves in an instant
I’m no stranger to nerves. I competed in boxing and kickboxing for just under a decade. During that time I developed countless “coping strategies” to get past my pre-fight anxiety.
I had easy ways to calm myself down in the days leading up to a bout. But when the time to perform arrived — when every fibre of my being was trying to find a way to get out of fighting — I found that acceptance was key. I accepted the intense arousal of my system as a necessity, and allowed myself into a state of almost otherworldly focus.
At times it was like all but my opponent had been deleted. As if we were fighting under a thick, cold fog which muted the crowd and obscured all other information. And this worked… for boxing.
Finding the appropriate level
When we feel threatened, certain cognitive functions shut down completely. The body readies itself to fight or flee. Blood rushes to the extremities and the part of our brain which can think in a more evolved and logical way simply switches off. After all, who needs to stop and draw up an Excel spreadsheet when being chased down by an angry mob?
So although that fear fuelled focus seemed sensible in the boxing ring, such a heightened state doesn’t help if critical analysis or charming communication is required. My boxing self on the stage at a public speaking event would have been disastrous.
Last week, after a year of learning to play in my cosy sitting room, I braved an open mic session with my guitar for the first time. As the performance drew closer, that familiar old feeling of anxiety started to ramp up. This time though, rather than letting the fog descend, I seized the opportunity to practice some basic mental strategies.
What I chose was possibly the simplest visualisation technique in my repertoire. It took me no more than twenty seconds and the result was a wonderful (and actually quite startling) release. It was as if someone had pulled the plug on my anxiety and let it drain away onto the sticky bar floor beneath my feet.
I’d like to show you how it’s done.
First of all, you need to understand something about the elementary reasoning behind human thinking. Trevor Silvester, the creator of Cognitive Hypnotherapy, teaches us about “the algorithms of the mind”. This theory asserts that any thought can be broken down and understood as one of three basal calculations. These can be expressed in the form of simple equations:
Equivalence: A = B, where the mind decides “this equals that” (i)
Difference: A ≠ B, where the mind decides “this is different to that”
Cause & effect: C > E, where the mind decides “this causes that”
The technique that allowed me to relax and access my motor skills last week is called Spinning. It’s an NLP process which uses equivalence, visualisation and self-talk to enable a person to quickly change the way they are feeling.
To get started, when I began feeling nervous in that dingy Peckham pub I conducted the following inner dialogue. These questions are designed to elicit a visual representation of something that is felt:
Q: “If I could point to the position in my body where I feel the anxiety, where would I point?”
A: “My chest”
Q: “If that feeling had a shape, what shape would it be?”
A: “A rectangle”
Q: “If it had a colour, what colour would it be?”
Q: “And if it was rotating, which way would it be turning?”
[See the note (ii) for a point about use of language here]
I began imagining this spinning green rectangle somewhere just in front of my face (mainly because it’s easier that way). With this I had all that I needed to start taking control.
I should note that I did all this with my eyes open. No breathing techniques or sleepy meditative states are required to visualise in this way. To anyone else it would have looked as though I was just zoning out for a moment.
So, my mind had settled on the equivalence that my anxiety = this particular spinning shape (A = B).
The shape, colour and direction that I chose are arbitrary. It could just have easily been a yellow sphere (and may well have been on a different day). The important factor is that my mind had than decided that this equation is true.
Once the mind has settled on an equivalence, it strives to maintain that belief. This is how we develop phobias like “spiders = dangerous”. It’s how we form our personal tastes like “doughnuts = yummy”. And it also plays a part in our sense of identity: “I = charismatic/friendly/mean/sexy/logical…”.
The unconscious mind decides where our attention is drawn at any moment. It will actually warp our perception of reality in order that it fits with what we consider true. This is how someone with body dysmorphia manages to maintain the belief that they are fat when to the rest of the world they look like skin and bones.
We function based on what we know, and what we know is only ever what we have decided to be true in the past. The body dysmorphic’s mind has settled on the equivalence “I = fat/ugly”. Even though a more positive belief might sound enticing, the unconscious mind would still prefer to stick with the negative one purely because it’s known. Something familiar yet negative is safer than anything unfamiliar.
Although far less serious, my rectangle = nerves equivalence is also (now) a known truth, so my mind wants to keep it that way. This is what gives us the chance to change things.
The maths is simple. When you change one side of an equation, the same change must be applied to the other side in order for it to remain logically correct (or true).
A = B
A = B
A = B
. = .
And so there’s enormous potential to be taken from our stubborn adherence to existing beliefs. If I can change something about the shape which equals my anxiety, my mind will do its best to make a comparable change to the anxiety.
Back in the pub:
First, I wanted to test that the equivalence was set. I asked myself: “If that rectangle was spinning faster, would that make the feeling better or worse?” As I imagined the shape spinning more quickly, I noticed an increased surge of butterflies in my stomach. Great! This meant I had control. So next I visualised the movement slowing to the point of stillness, and then began to spin it the other way. I did this because if that shape turning counterclockwise equaled anxiety, then logically that shape turning the opposite direction should have equaled the opposite of anxiety (iii). And it did.
This was the point when the magic happened; my shoulders dropped, my forehead relaxed and with a sigh of relief I let the anxiety go (or much of it, anyway).
I chose to change the direction and speed because they are commonly effective variables. In NLP, these are called “submodality drivers”, you can learn more about them here). In theory, I could have altered any number of properties to achieve a shift; the size, the shape, the colour… Any change to the shape must mean a change to the feeling. All that’s left to do is to work out which changes mean the most positive difference.
For years I have witnessed clients’ gleeful surprise over the efficacy of this simple technique. But for one reason or another I hadn’t ever managed to make it click for myself before now. Presumably, the fight nerves I had tried to dampen were just too severe. This was probably because I had allowed so much of my identity to get mixed up with it all (more on how I dealt with that here).
It was quite wonderful to experience, firsthand, the power of the simple stuff I teach others. Almost — but not quite — as wonderful as the feeling of getting on a stage and playing a musical instrument for the first time.