If you are a performer you will probably know that adrenaline can make or break a performance. I saw a client recently in London at my Performance Coaching Practice in East Dulwich, and he told me that he thought he would give a better performance if he was completely free of nerves. He’s absolutely right, ‘nerves’ don’t serve us at all. However, ‘nerves’ are just another name for adrenaline. If you remove the adrenaline from a performance it can keep things safe and secure, but you definitely won’t perform at your best.

Why do we experience adrenaline when we perform?

All performance, whether in the arts, sport, public speaking or any other performance scenario causes us to produce adrenaline. Adrenaline is the response to a stressful situation, to enable your body to be ready to deal with the stress. From an evolutionary point of view its function is vital, to get us out of immediate danger. However, you probably know that your life is not in danger when you perform. So why do we experience adrenaline? This is a tricky one to answer. Performing on the one hand risks fear of judgement, failure, not being good enough, letting others down. On the other hand it can mean receiving validation, praise, acknowledgement, status, reputation. Both ways of thinking create pressure by placing expectation on the performer. When fear becomes the priority, adrenaline will rise and the performance will be compromised.

Ultimately the reason we should be performing is to share and communicate something beyond ourselves, to express something from a deep level, to engage in our creativity, to inspire, to bring light and hope to ourselves and others, to bring people together. Even in an exam or audition, that should be our focus in the moment. Think for a moment about how that makes you feel. For me, I get tingling down my neck, and a huge sense of excitement and joy at the prospect of connecting with other human beings in this way. Add to that, the experience of being on stage in a concert hall, that shared sense of unity with the other musicians on stage and the audience, and for me that is one of the biggest buzzes I experience in life. That feeling is also accompanied by adrenaline, but the difference here is my perception of that adrenaline.

So is adrenaline good or bad?

The fact that adrenaline is a natural part of performing means that you should welcome it and try to use it to your advantage. You have a choice: perceiving your adrenaline as fear, or perceiving it as excitement. Both are states of arousal which share the same physiology ,and a sign that your body and mind are ready for action. Most performance clients I see have a simple misunderstanding about ‘performance nerves.’

The fact that they have adrenaline is not the problem, it’s about what they think of their adrenaline. The moment they feel their hands trembling, their heart racing and the thoughts firing off in their heads they are tuning in to their made-up reality of ‘I’m not good enough, what will people think of me if I make a mistake, I’m going to mess up, etc.’ They think that their physical response is because they are nervous, and therefore they will mess up the performance. They start to feel out of control, trapped in a negative spiral of thought. That is the point they think they are suffering with performance anxiety, and that is the precise thought which is the straw that breaks the camels back. But how can one person think of it as nerves and the other think of it as excitement?

Even just calling it ‘nerves’ is not helping. Labels make it a problem, a ‘thing.’ The client who said he wanted to perform with no nerves at all was not aware that ‘nerves’ was his label for adrenaline. What if you labelled it excitement, or performance arousal?

Balance is key

Too much or too little of anything is a bad thing. The key to enjoying the benefits of adrenaline are to find the right balance. That will happen naturally if you are able to welcome adrenaline and focus on its benefits. The stimulant effects of adrenaline are like gold dust to a performer. Benefits such as improved focus, narrowed vision to block any distractions, increase of oxygen to the muscles to enable movement and enhance stamina, dilated pupils to increase vision. The right balance of this, combined with the right level of excitement is what produces an electric performance.

It’s all in a thought

At the point you think, ‘I’m really nervous,’ you are opening the door to all your past negative experiences, limiting beliefs, feelings of inadequacy and worry about judgement. That world is not real, it’s in the past and it’s not the you of today. You only ever exist in the here and now, in the moment. Your fear of messing up or making a fool of yourself is just a thought. It can’t predict how it will go in the moment. Have you ever felt really nervous only to find that the moment you get on stage everything is fine? That’s because you are so well-resourced to deal with reality as it is happening.

When you are caught in your own thinking you are caught in a made-up reality. When you focus on what you are doing in the moment you are incredibly naturally resourceful. That is the state of mind where you are in connection with your higher-self, a bigger sense of purpose. That is reality, and in performance we call it being ‘in the zone.’ It’s a state of pure flow. When we are in that state we give no credence to the thoughts which are passing through our minds. They are transient, and will pass.

So the next time you feel anxious before a performance, stop and think for a moment. Is this really anxiety or fear? Make it whatever you want. Give it a hilarious label, or make it into a cartoon character. For me, it’s Bananaman! I used to love this cartoon when I was younger, and I love the idea that this unassuming boy just transforms into a super being when he eats a banana, and becomes this bumbling, clumsy superhero trying to save the day. It makes me laugh! It also fits really well with fact that I always eat a banana before a performance, as brain food, and something which is easy to digest. So the moment I feel that adrenaline setting in, I just say to myself, ‘Bananaman’s at work!’ A label can change everything.