During my senior year of high school, my choir teacher picked me to sing a solo for the upcoming concert. The song was Ave Maria, and my part was a simple two-line phrase in the middle of the song. It was all in Latin, and rhythm was not critical for my solo. However, it was much harder for me than I anticipated. The lyrics and tune were so foreign to me that my brain sort of rejected it any time I tried to practice.
As the day of the performance drew near, I was feeling tremendous stress, and sadly, at that time of my life I had not taken the concept of stress management seriously. I just pushed it to the back of my mind as much as I could. The moment finally arrived, and I stood on stage in the spotlight to sing. The pressure had finally hit full force, and my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember the words, the tune, or whether not I was wearing socks. I just sort of stood there not doing anything for a few moments. I had no choice but to fake it, which did not go well. Fake Latin lyrics do not easily flow in situations like that. When I finished, the awkwardness of standing in front of the audience was almost as bad as turning around to face the choir and stand with them again as they tried to finish the song.
Embarrassing right? Yes, but decades later, I still use it as an awkward story to tell at parties. It is also a good reminder of what can happen to our brains under high stress.
Has this ever happened to you? At some point in your life have you had that “deer in the headlights” moment where you needed a cerebral jump-start? Scientists have found that under acute stress, the brain will automatically shift away from the current activity (e,g, singing in front of a crowd) and it will jump into the fight or flight response. The primitive brain is ready for running, but not for methodically recalling Latin lyrics. The stress hormone cortisol goes up, the heart beats faster, and regions of the brain associated with reasoning and creativity reduce dramatically. This fight or flight response is part of our DNA which helps us to escape immediate danger, like running away from a wild animal
In absence of wild animals in our daily routine, the brain still uses this process. Stage fright is only one manifestation of this response, but it can come anytime you experience high stress. Whether that is during a performance review with the boss, answering the phone, or presenting in a staff meeting, the blank brain can be a big problem.
So you might be asking if there is a way to prepare your brain so that it won’t skip out on you at the very moment you need it. I believe you can. In addition to practicing your craft, whatever it may be, you can train your thoughts through mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation therapy that has received a lot of attention lately. The general idea (or at least one of a hundred ways to describe it) is that mindfulness is a practice where the individual achieves a mental state where they are aware of the present moment and accepting of all of the experiences of that moment.
To begin, find time to slow down and take a step back to evaluate your habits. Slowing down is not just a strategy, it is the canvas on which we draw the blueprints for our most effective strategies. Next, find a place to sit somewhere quiet, focus on your breathing, and focus on the moment by taking in the sounds, colors, shapes and other details of your surroundings. Some people add the concept of a gentle hug or tapping of the arms as a signal to your brain that you are preparing to be calm (Brown 2020). My voice teacher always told me to touch my forehead before performing as a way to remind my brain and nerves to relax.
The exact method for mindfulness is up to you, but do your research. There are many books, articles, and YouTube videos on the subject. Over time, your practice of mindfulness may help your primitive brain recognize that the current stress you are experiencing is not a predator trying to catch you. And until then, if your mind does go blank when the boss asks you for the quarterly reports, you can always use mindfulness as a way to calm down when you get home.