Did you know that performance anxiety and excitement are linked in our neurology? The Sympathetic Nervous System and the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System are two modes of human functioning involving different brain chemicals that produce different psycho-neurological responses.

Panic and excitement are both results of the Sympathetic Nervous System, the amygdala, the “small” brain, the “fight or flight” mode. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol causing elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased sweating, cold extremities, muscle tremors, increased muscle tension, dilated pupils, digestive disorders, and shallow chest breathing (among other symptoms). In this mode, we are reactive and act on immediate impulse. These symptoms can either be helpful or problematic when we are performing music depending on their severity.

The Para-Sympathetic Nervous System is the “big” brain mode where the hormones and brain chemicals are normalized, our brain’s pre-frontal cortex is activated, we are breathing fully and calmly. Here we are fully sensing and rational.

The most efficient method of switching from one mode to the other is through our breath. Shallow chest breathing triggers the SNS mode while fuller, slower breathing brings us back into the PSNS mode. Belly or diaphragmatic breathing is a form of breathing that utilizes the full capacity of the lungs and calms our system down so we can function at our best. Try it:

1. Lie down on a comfortable surface.
2. Take a big cleansing breath.
3. Breathing in through the nose, let the belly extend out, then the ribs, then the chest.
4. Exhaling through the nose, let the chest, ribs and belly deflate.
5. Repeating this breathing method, gradually slow the breath down until it is longer and fuller.
6. Repeat 10 times.

Practicing this brief exercise once daily and during times of panic is one key to turning our performance anxiety into a more happy anticipation of and calm control during performances.