Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Conquering Performance Anxiety...

When I get in front of a group and try to do something I've memorized, I generate enough nervous energy to light up most of Manhattan.  It's a bit frustrating, as I fancy myself someone who has a bit of stage presence and could be a decent performer if I could just relax and let it happen.  One of the goals of the MFA experience is to develop some skills as an actor and also to get to a better place with my performance anxiety.

Another experience this Fall that provides some insight here was working with my daughter, Katie, as she struggled with her anxiety while entering college and the dorms.  Katie suffers from panic attacks and general anxiety.  She had planned to begin her freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus College living in the dorms.  Although she had experienced some anxiety when attending community college as a part of the PSEO program through her high school, she had worked hard at learning to manage it and it appeared that she was going to be fine.  Move in day arrived and she came down to St Peter to load in to the dorm.  I was already in St Peter, as this is where I am living during my time at Minnesota State.  Although it had not originally been the plan for us to be in the same town at this point, it turned out to be a useful coincidence.

I had a class to teach on move in day, so I arrived at he dorm after all of the college paraphernalia had been hauled up to the dorm room, including the refrigerator.  I would have felt guilty but the school arranges for the football team to hang out around the dorms and help the freshmen unload and haul things to their rooms.  It's very welcoming.  There are also crazy people all over the place cheering and whooping and hollering in welcome chants and greetings.  It is all very exciting.

Katie, on the other hand, was not excited.  Teary-eyed and sniffling, she glumly moved from activity to activity with us.  It was clear that her anxiety was overwhelming her.  At the same time, she was connecting with people left and right.  By the time we left her that afternoon she had two administrators and a couple of students dedicated to making sure she was happy and settled.

What followed was several weeks of anxiety, tears, panic and determination.  Although her anxiety was intense and consuming, she went to all her classes, attempted to participate in a range of social activities, made lots of friends, and learned how to utilize the campus counseling office.  By the end of the third week, though, it seemed clear that the only way for her to survive this experience was to get out of the dorm and move home.  Fortunately, home was my townhouse within sight of the campus.  Despite this, the stress of trying to be successful in school was still more than she could handle and the daily battle was to keep her impulse to run home to Plymouth and drop out of school in check.  While intellectually she knew that her anxiety was not rationale, there was no way for her to prevent the attendant consequences of her feelings.

Enter psychotropic drugs.

On a Thursday afternoon around 1PM, Katie took her first dose of an anti-anxiety medicine.  By 2:30, she was laughing and playful and unconcerned about failure.  It was an extraordinary transformation.  During the weeks that followed she would have moments of panic and even once had to use the Valium that they had prescribed for intense attacks, but her general level of anxiety slowly declined.

Quick story about the Valium.  Katie left the townhouse to go over to campus for a review session for her first mid-term.  To this point, she had been successful with her classes, but she was anxious about this new thing...mid-terms.  She went to the review session.  It went well, and when she returned to her car afterward she shut the door and immediately began to shake and sob uncontrollably.  I can't imagine how this feels...but it would be very frightening, indeed.  She wisely immediately took the medicine that she had been given for this kind of a moment.  It was the first time using this medicine and she had no idea how it would work.  She drove home and came crashing through the door sobbing and incoherent.  After a few moments I was able to puzzle out what had happened and as she continued to sob, "I took the pill but it's not working!!!" I pointed out that it had only been about eight minutes since she had taken it.  Sure enough, within about seven or eight minutes more she was calm, and then a bit giggly, and then clearly stoned.  Drugs...gotta love 'em.

By the end of the Fall she had cut her dose in half and is now ready to return to the dorm after the winter break.  Of course, it is not just about the medicine.  As school became a known experience and the rational fear of failure was replaced with a rational knowledge of her own efficacy, the physiological feedback loop of anxiety and panic became less likely to occur in the first place.  There will come a time when living at college and going to class will not be a life experience that she fears, and so she will probably eliminate the medicine completely.  Or maybe not.  There are lots of people who live better lives because these drugs put them in a healthier place to engage the challenges of daily living.

An interesting side-effect of all this has been that I have been able to re-evaluate some of my own behaviors in light of Katie's experience.  I don't experience the same kind of anxiety, but I do have my own bundle of irrational physiological responses.  When confronted with performance, I shake and lose focus.  When confronted with interpersonal conflict or intense relational moments, I obsess and experience great physical anxiousness.  Everyone does some of this to some extent or another, but is useful to noodle around which of our behaviors seem to fall within normal parameters and which seem to be a bit more neurotic.

So, back to performance anxiety.  As I expected, increasing my opportunities to perform and getting some training is, in fact, helpful.  Voice lessons and course work that focuses on the techniques of performance are extraordinarily useful in normalizing performance. By the end of the term I had, for the first time, sung a song in performance without losing the words and with some rudimentary expression.  I had also done a performance piece (which I was able to read rather than memorize) that received the highest grade in the class.  Memorization remains a challenge, but I suspect I will find opportunities to normalize that as well.  I will always struggle with memorization a little bit, as my brain does not hold onto words very well, but it is exciting to think about becoming more adept.

And, so, finally, I think back to yesterday's post about dancing and the idea that vulnerability leads to innovation, creativity, and change.  It seems clear to me that the act of being vulnerable in learning is the very act that allows learning, which is essentially a kind of change, to occur.  It is the same concept that educators speak about when they discuss the Zone of Proximal Development.  How much do you already know?  How much more can you internalize within this particular moment of learning?  How vulnerable do you, the student, need to be to make that change?  Educators forget the importance of creating an environment in which students feel free to be vulnerable.  It is that vulnerability of the student that is essential to learning.

I may shake when I perform, but I'll eventually do it with style!

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