Mind-Mody Medicine, Stress, and Performance

Of course optimal nutrition, sleep habits, exercise, etc. are necessary for healthy lifestyle, but not sufficient. Taking better care of your feelings and cognition are important for everyone, especially performing artists. For instance, many people do not have diagnosable performance anxiety, but do have concerns about some aspect of their performance or participation in the arts. To what extent do their concerns affect their art? Findings from neuroscience and psychology have shown is that our negative beliefs do have biological consequences. If you worry and ruminate often, you may develop physiological symptoms (e.g. rapid heart rate, cold hands, muscle tension) which can interfere with your performing. The worrying will cause physiological symptoms, and those symptoms will interfere with performance. This is what mind-body medicine (also referred to as psychophysiology) is all about—identifying the relationship between negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes and changes to the physiology of your body, which, in turn, influence all aspects of performance at all levels, from practice to playing on stage.

The stress response occurs in response to perceived threat as when something causes your body to behave as if were under attack. Common sources are physical, such as an injury or illness, or mental, like problems in your marriage, job, health, other people in your life. Research shows that the most potent source of stress for most people is relationship stress with a family member you live with, or with someone you work with.

When stress occurs, the body immediately takes action by releasing hormones into the bloodstream and changing neurotransmitter release patterns in the brain. This preparation is called the fight-or-flight response. A few seconds later another release takes effect which causes a more long-term cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. Their net effect is to make a lot of stored energy – glucose and fat – available to cells. These cells are then primed to help the body get away from danger. The body makes glucose, which builds up in the blood and immediately enters the body for extra energy.

The stress system is in place to deal with the stressor then return to normal (baseline), all within a few seconds or minutes. The stress system was not created to turn on and stay “on” for long time periods (chronic stress). However, that is exactly what most people are living with, whether they are in the arts or in some other profession. When we are in bad relationships, worry too much, catastrophize etc., the stress response becomes continuous and the body adapts to that continual, heightened state. As a result, long-term stress can cause a situation whereby a person becomes acclimated to high levels of stress and these high levels come to feel normal. In cases such as these, vulnerable organ systems can wear out sooner and the person can begin to experience symptoms early in life. The symptoms are physiological as well as psychological; most people learn to block the psychological pain but the physiological part of chronic stress rages on, causing symptoms like cold, sweaty hands, muscle tension and pain, the “jitters,” etc. Then we compensate—one example is muscular bracing, which is overlearned high levels of muscle tension learned along with the art which really constrains performance.

Then, there is the mental stress–many long-term sources of stress are mental. Your mind sometimes reacts to a non-physically-dangerous event as if it were a real threat. However, to a musician, threat often comes in the form of potential loss of belief in ones’ self. It may be possibility of being shamed and humiliated in public. Unlike taking a test or getting stuck in a traffic jam, the threat pf public shame or being criticized in public, or possibly having your art rejected can be the worst possible kind. Musicians cannot just get up and leave the performance; they must stay there and see it through, regardless of how they perceive it is going. In mental stress, the body pumps out hormones to no avail. Neither fighting nor fleeing is any help when the “enemy” is your own mind.