Stress management is a huge business. A quick Amazon search yields 18,558 books, ranging from Stress Management for Dummies to Stress-Free Potty Training.

No surprise I suppose, because we’ve all experienced varying degrees of stress in the last year, on-stage and off. Heck, the last week…day…hour, even.

Kids fighting with each other in the back seat as we try to navigate rush hour traffic to get to a doctor’s appointment. Worrying about how we’re going to pay our rent at the end of the month. Having 15 different windows open on the computer, texting on one phone, while putting out a fire on the other line, having been so busy all day that we’re hungry, tired, and incredibly thirsty…but also have to pee really badly.

Stress sucks.

But could it be that we have it wrong? Is stress really the enemy, or is there something more subtle at work?

Stress kills

We are bombarded by messages about how bad stress is for us. How job stress alone costs the US over $300 billion in medical costs, missed work days, etc. annually.

How it increases our risk of chronic diseases, strokes, heart attacks, even gum disease, and makes us sick, depressed, shrinks our brain, makes cancer worse, ages our kids prematurely, is implicated in 60-90% of the things we go to our doctor for, and so on and so on (e.g. Stress Health Effects).

Indeed, an 8-year study of 30,000 people found that people who experienced lots of stress were at a 43% increased risk of dying prematurely.

Yikes.

But wait! There’s a catch.

This statistic was only true of those who believed that stress was bad. Those experiencing lots of stress who didn’t really buy into the “stress affects my health” notion actually had the lowest risk of dying.

So perhaps it’s not so much the stress that’s killing us…but our beliefs about stress that are the problem.

Check out this video of psychologist Kelly McGonigal at TED

It’s all in our heads

As it happens, this phenomenon is true among performers too. Sport psychologists have observed that some athletes thrive on stress and pressure because of how they interpret what is happening to their bodies.

When your heart starts pounding, when you feel your energy rising, and the adrenaline is pumping through your system, do you start thinking, “Oh, crap. Here we go again.” with a sense of trepidation and despair?

Or do you think “OK, it’s go time. Let’s do this!” feeling excited, and a bit nervous perhaps, but knowing that your body is primed to deliver something spectacular that isn’t possible when you’re in your normal calm state?

Totally calm performances might be more comfortable for you. They might make you feel more at ease, and probably even improve technical accuracy to a degree. But who says performing is all about you and what feels more comfortable?

Doesn’t your audience deserve an electrifying performance that reaches inside and lights a fire inside of them, melts their heart, or impacts them on some emotional level?

If audiences wanted technical perfection, they would stay at home and listen to recordings with higher audio fidelity and expertly engineered audio perfection. They could avoid the hassle of dressing up, fighting through traffic, finding parking, paying for tickets, waiting in line, sitting in an uncomfortable seat that keeps squeaking, squished between people wearing too much perfume, waiting in lines to go to the bathroom, squinting to see the performers, sitting through a piece they don’t want to hear, being stuck in a “dead spot” in the hall, etc.

If you want your audience to have a good time, it may be time to embrace stress as your friend. As your partner in crime. Like that workout buddy who can get on your nerves (ha ha), but ultimately forces you to bring your “A” game, resulting in more rapid gains in the weight room.

What message are we sending our students?

Researchers have investigated this in a range of performance settings, from academia to the military. In one study, Harvard undergraduates were given test instructions that implied stress and anxiety were a bad thing, while others were given the message that feeling anxious was a sign they might perform better on the test.

Students in the stress-might-be-helpful condition scored 50 points higher on the practice test, and 65 points higher on the actual GRE a couple months later.

Take action

It helps to have a strategy, and an understanding of how to utilize stress to our advantage (a pre-performance routine, for instance), but think back to your best performances ever. Didn’t at least one of them occur at a time when you were nervous, but somehow still managed to pull everything together and enjoy one of those transcendent performances that was a great experience for both you and the audience?

Remind yourself that feeling some increased energy or pre-performance activation (aka anxiety) can help you. That it has helped you in some situations. And perhaps this could be the message you explicitly and implicitly send to your students as well. Especially the young ones, who haven’t yet learned that stress is “supposed” to be bad…

Additional reading

Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart (@New York Times)

How to turn bad stress into good (@Wall Street Journal)

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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