I have been through many periods of intense performance anxiety, and also periods when it hasn’t been so intrusive. Similarly, episodes of disordered anxiety symptoms are common for me, as they are for a good many people- especially at present.
As we move towards a space in which live performance is more likely, I have been thinking about how my performance anxiety and general anxiety issues might relate. How are the symptoms similar and different and what can I learn from one about the other? Recently I have experienced symptoms of dissociation in relation to my general anxiety challenges, and it hit me how similar this feels to the day of a concert.
Dissociation is actually one of the most common but least spoken about symptoms of anxiety and depression. Around 50% of all people are said to have experienced a period of dissociation in their lifetime, and this can last from minutes, hours, days, weeks or years. For me, I feel it come on in periods of intense stress and make everything feel disconnected, unfamiliar and hazy.
However, in the context of a performance, I am starting to realise that many of the fears surrounding performance are linked actually to a fear of dissociation.
We can be terrified about losing our memory- a common symptom of dissociation. We might even worry that we will ‘forget’ how to play our instrument, or play in a way that feels unfamiliar to us. Some of my worst performances have felt miles apart from my true ability, almost like it was an entirely different person playing. It can leave us feeling incredibly frustrated about the apparent lack of control that performance situations incur. We beat ourselves up for not being present, ‘in the music’ and with lacking the strength to control ourselves.
Of course there can be wider reasons for a performance to cause anxiety, such as worrying about judgment and criticism. For me at least, all the fears come down to a fear of being out of control. Performance situations put us in an unfamiliar internal environment. This foreign feeling has the power to fill us with anxiety. As soon as we realise just how anxious and disconnected we feel, we struggle to accept it and look at ways to fight the feelings and emotions through mental rationalising. This only makes the situation worse.
Slowly, I am learning to accept the ways in which dissociation can change senses and perceptions of my environment. It is a difficult experience to accept because anything you touch or see just feels strange. It can feel like you aren’t in control of your movements. But it isn’t the feelings themselves that cause us to make mistakes, play not as we’d wish or feel out of control necessarily. It is our reaction to the feelings that dictates how they affect us.
I distinctly remember two different performance experiences, both of which I worked with severe dissociation. One of them was a solo concert at the Charterhouse in London in which my dissociation sent me into a panic spiral and I was unable to finish a Bach suite movement without numerous spontaneous abridgements! I felt so ashamed that I hadn’t been able to control my anxiety and my memory lapses were a huge source of shame. The other experience was when performing the Rococo Variations with the Bridgnorth Sinfonia. I was maybe the most zoned out I have ever been; chronically stressed and obsessed with every tiny thing that might go wrong. I remember beforehand trying to enter into the anxieties around memory loss and inability to play. I accepted them as possibilities, but not omens. It became one of my most enjoyable and interesting performances, even though the whole thing was very hazy!
If we are able to see dissociation as a stress response and not a lack of control on our part, it can allow us to be more compassionate and rational. If we realise that dissociation doesn’t have to alter our way of playing, then we start to respond to it with indifference.
My periods of dissociation outside of a performance setting haven’t affected the way I play. They have felt similar to performance dissociation and, of course, uncomfortable, but allowing the emotion to have its place is so important. It doesn’t need to be controlled or abolished. It is trying to protect us from the high stress situation, not trying to sabotage our performance!
If we take time to understand the reason we dissociate in a performance it might open up an opportunity to release the control it has over us. Memory slips are possible, but not probable. Playing differently or worse to how we desire or deserve is possible, but also important if we want to improve. Even if we fear the consequences of dissociating, these fears are no more than thoughts. Fear doesn’t enjoy being accepted or invited in.
Allow your dissociation to have its place and it won’t be able to take over.
I hope this might help anyone suffering with performance anxiety in the form of dissociation: