Can’t Stop Worrying About an Upcoming Performance? Here’s Why Practicing More Might Not Be the Answer.

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I was watching blogger Tim Urban’s TED talk about procrastination with my kids this morning, and we all laughed at the part where he described the panic monster, because I think we’ve all experienced the elevated level of stress and anxiety that kicks in as a deadline approaches.

I don’t know what it is, but there’s something that happens, perhaps no matter how well prepared we are, where about a week or two out from a performance or audition, there’s an increase in these nagging, repetitive, negative thoughts as the impending moment of truth draws nearer.

Like an escalating series of “what if” scenarios. And a regret-inducing avalanche of “should have’s.”

These difficult-to-shut-off repetitive negative thinking patterns, or rumination, is one of the hallmarks of depressive and anxiety disorders. But even if this doesn’t get to a clinically concerning level, it still makes for a lot of stress and anxiety during the countdown to an important audition or performance.

Which for me at least, would contribute to a sense of desperation or frantic-ness in my practice, which would often exacerbate an already crummy-feeling week. And not do a whole lot to make things better on stage either.

So is there anything we can do to reduce this repetitive negative thinking phenomenon in the leadup to a performance? Other than ramping up our last-minute panic-practicing?

Sleep and repetitive negative thinking?

Well, there’s been a good bit of research over the years which suggests that there’s probably a meaningful relationship between sleep and these negative thought spirals that are often associated with generalized anxiety and depressive disorders, PTSD, OCD, and social anxiety.

Specifically, that impaired sleep – whether it be not enough sleep, or poor quality sleep – tends to go hand in hand with repetitive negative thinking.

But there’s another sleep-related question that hasn’t been looked at very much. And that’s the timing of sleep. 

I’ve often heard it said that regardless of how long you sleep, we should try to get to bed before midnight. Even though that’s when all of the best infomercials are on.

But is there any truth to that? And is there any chance that our bedtime could have an impact on repetitive negative thinking too?

100 university students

Researchers at Binghamton University (Nota & Coles, 2014) recruited 100 students to complete a whole range of sleep and rumination-related assessments.

There were questionnaires related to worry, depressive rumination, obsessive-compulsive thinking, and the repetitiveness and intrusiveness of one’s negative thinking. As well as others related to mood, quality of sleep and sleep/wake times, and the degree to which one was a morning person or night owl.

So were there any meaningful relationships between sleep and any aspects of repetitive negative thinking?

Results

Turns out there were a few interesting links.

Those who got less sleep in the last month tended to report experiencing more ruminative thinking than those who got more sleep. And those with a later bedtime, reported more obsessive and compulsive thinking than those who had an earlier bedtime.

Participants who reported getting less sleep also reported repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts, and more difficulty disengaging with what they recognized as being unproductive thoughts, than those who got more sleep. 

And maybe more interestingly, later bedtimes was also independently associated with this kind of disruptive, distressing, difficult-to-stop repetitive negative thinking. Whereas those who went to bed earlier reported experiencing less of this type of thinking.

Caveats

Before you start buying blackout curtains and cutting out infomercials from your life entirely, it’s important to note that this study didn’t have any before-and-after element, so it’s difficult to know for sure if there’s truly a causal link between later bedtimes and increased repetitive negative thinking. 

As in, we don’t really know for sure, from just the data provided here, whether sleeping later is what causes more repetitive negative thinking the next day, or whether it’s repetitive negative thinking that leads to later bedtimes, or both. To know for sure which way this relationship goes, some participants would have had to change their sleeping habits, and then we’d be able to answer this question a little more clearly, based on what sort of change there might be in their thinking pattens, after making the change to their bedtime.

Takeaways

Even so, there is a good bit of previous research which does suggest that getting enough sleep is an important part of providing us the resources we need to be able to better control our ruminating and negative obsessive thinking.

And also, there are some indications that when our sleep-wake cycles and the natural light-dark cycles of day/night are not in sync, our executive functioning and pre-frontal cortex (which is involved in attention control, working memory, and inhibition) do seem to be negatively affected. Which can make it more difficult for us to turn off the repetitive negative thoughts popping into our head.

And at the end of the day, sleep experts do say that going to bed before midnight helps to ensure that we get more optimal sleep, even if the number of hours we sleep is the same.

So this doesn’t mean that you have to force yourself to zonk out at 9pm every night, but there’s probably nothing truly urgent on TV past midnight that’s worth sacrificing sleep for.

And if you’re saying to yourself, who watches TV anymore, I don’t even have cable, everything I watch is online? Well, then there’s totally no excuse to delay bedtime and get sucked into the YouTube rabbit hole. Because is it really so important that we learn all about the logistics of grocery stores , hear Tig Notaro tell the longest non-story about Taylor Dayne , or watch a total kitchen amateur try to make crab cakes in 15 minutes guided only by verbal instructions from Gordon Ramsay ?

Well, in theory, I think the correct answer is no…but, full confession time…these are all actual things from my YouTube history in the last week, so maybe it’s a little easier said than done. =)


References

Nota, J. A., & Coles, M. E. (2014). Duration and Timing of Sleep are Associated with Repetitive Negative Thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 39(2), 253–261. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-014-9651-7

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

One Response

  1. Hi Noa,
    This reminds me that Dr. Andrew Huberman commented about how exposure to light after 10pm can have a negative affect on the dopamine system (related to circadian rhythms). Maybe it’s related to the negative thoughts and stress…
    Best and thanks for this wonderful podcast!

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