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I am already sitting in the dim backroom of the comedy club when my symptoms kick in. There are still four acts to go before my improv team, Hot Cheese, takes the stage with no script, no props, nothing but the task of making people laugh.
The crowd seems supportive enough, even a little tipsy, but it doesn’t make a difference. My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing. Somehow, out of nowhere, my nose starts to run. I look anxiously at the clock and a nervous gag erupts in my throat, which I disguise with a loud cough. I wonder if people can see my pit stains. My leg bounces under the table and I can barely focus on the other comics on stage. I’ll be going up soon. I have to catch my breath.
My experience as a performer dates back to age 3 when I danced a very spirited tap routine to “Baby Beluga” for parents of my preschool class. Since then I’ve been in plays, pageants, choir performances, music videos and cheerleading competitions, and for about three years I’ve been doing improv comedy in New York City. But in every scenario, performance anxiety has affected me. About an hour before my call time, without fail, I become overwhelmed with fear and paralyzed by what-ifs as I obsess over mistakes I haven’t made yet.
The funny thing is, an improv performance isn’t even something you can prepare for. Sure, you can practice and hone your skills, but there’s no rehearsal. The entire idea is to let go, have fun, and see what you come up with on the spot. The more pressure an improv performer puts on themselves, the more likely they are to get in their own way—true for nearly all performers, athletes, and even business people. When our anxiety gets the best of us, that’s when we choke.
After about 20 years of suffering from performance anxiety, and realizing I wasn’t going to stop performing anytime soon, I worked up the nerve to ask around for some advice. I needed a remedy, something natural I could try to help take control of my own mind. When several people suggested meditation, I was somewhat surprised. I had tried (and failed) to meditate on my own once or twice in the past. But a fellow performer explained how it works for her: through regular meditation practice, she trains her mind to let thoughts pass through, without judgment or obsession, then let them go. She said she’s able to apply this skill outside of meditation as well, to disengage with unproductive feelings in her everyday life, like anxiety.
As for me, I knew my fears and worries were all irrational. I had already experienced the worst that could happen while performing: freezing up, saying something stupid, falling on my face. The embarrassment is always short-lived and the feeling of failure never lasts. So what was I even afraid of? I decided to stop letting pointless anxiety interfere with my life and instead, to do something about it.
I started by downloading the Headspace app and committing myself to Take10, a guided meditation for beginners that would only require me to devote ten minutes a day, for ten days. It didn’t seem like much of a commitment, and there would be instructions. Plus, I had two shows coming up that week, so it was worth a shot.
I began Take10 in the morning, a few days before my next show. Listening to Andy’s voice on the edge of my bed, he encouraged me to sit comfortably, notice the sounds around me and bring awareness to my body and breathing. Although I was distracted at first—what is my cat doing on the kitchen counter?—I was surprised how the act of breathing deeply improved my overall relaxation. I felt slightly relieved about the usual stressors of my morning, like my commute and the start of the workday. Could a few minutes of stillness have that much of an impact on my mood?
As Andy recommended, I continued Take10 at the same time over the next two mornings. The process got a little bit easier, and I was surprised at how fast ten minutes flew by. Each session resulted in a subtle relaxation lasting about an hour or two before the New York stimuli would overwhelm me and I’d become tense and frantic again. But it did appear to be working. I hadn’t realized how rare it was in my daily life for me to sit and breathe deeply, to take a moment to be still and free. Just making an effort to do that made me feel calmer.
It was the “Changing perspective” animation from session three of Take10 that gave me a conscious, clear way to think about stillness in my mind. In it, thoughts are compared to passing cars in traffic. The idea isn’t to stop these cars, but rather to let them go on by. In fact, the more you try to stop your thoughts, the more you actually fill your head. I’d noticed this pattern with my performance anxiety as well. The more I beat myself up for feeling nervous, the harder it was to relax. Perhaps, with practice, I could treat my feelings of anxiety like passing cars: acknowledge their presence and let them go by.
When the day of my performance finally arrived, I decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of sticking to my schedule and meditating in the morning, I wanted to see what would happen if I did it right before the show when my anxiety is at its peak. Heading toward the venue that evening, I tried to find a quiet spot in Manhattan during rush hour. The best I could do was a bus stop on Seventh Avenue, surrounded by traffic, pedestrians and honking horns. So I sat down, put on my sunglasses and tested the skills I’d learned so far that week. I accepted the sounds around me, then let them fall out of my mind. I counted each breath as I mentally scanned my body to become aware of how I was feeling. I was still and quiet for ten minutes in the middle of one of the busiest places on Earth, and afterward, I felt like a different person.
I walked into the bar five minutes before my show without rushing, without wringing my hands. I didn’t feel the urge to babble nervously or to have a pre-show cocktail. I wasn’t gagging or coughing, my shoulders weren’t tense. I wasn’t even sweating all that much. I just felt comfortable and ready for whatever was going to happen.
The performance itself wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but I loved how I felt so much that before my next show, I went to the same dirty bus stop in rush hour traffic and meditated again. In fact, I think I’ve found my new pre-show ritual. I’ve only ever managed to do ten minutes at a time, but I can already tell that if I keep it up, meditation could have a transformative effect on my anxiety as a whole.
In the meantime, I’m not being hard on myself. Learning to meditate is a process. Managing anxiety is a complicated challenge that takes time. So I’m being patient with my mind. After all, meditation and improv have the same cardinal rule: don’t overthink it.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.