When we feel nervous, most of us turn to those old frienemies: our brains.
I’m not talking about our logic brains or our innate creativity - I’m talking about the chatty voices that like to comment on everything we’ve done or might do and what everyone else did or will think about it.
For me, this internal conversation goes something like this:
Why did I say that? She hated it.
HEY, just calm DOWN.
Ok, I’m trying… but NOW what do I do?!
Just act like you’re normal! Think of something great to say next!
While it might make an interesting play, it’s not particularly pleasant to live through.
I work a lot with clients (and myself) on making an internal shift in moments like this. We can sense what’s happening in our bodies, practice a breathing technique, or create a new narrative (such as framing our nerves as excitement).
In addition to these practices, we can also make choices around our external environment to thrive while nervous. These tend to be more concrete, which can be helpful when feeling body sensations or taking a deep breath feels out of reach. We never know for sure what will work for us in a given moment - so here are a few more toys to add to your Nerve-Care Toy Box.
Music can instantly improve our mood - shifting our breath rhythm and energy level or even providing catharsis. Before auditions, it’s very common to see actors with headphones in the waiting room. It’s grounding, sends a message to others that you’d like quiet time, and it can also be an easy way to enter the world of a story. If you’re preparing for something specific, you might think of a piece of music that reminds you of your overall message. Listening requires no effort, and can allow us to “sync up” with the deeper meaning behind what we’re about to share.
Several studies have shown how smell is linked to emotion. If you’re presenting virtually, awesome news! You can light incense or a candle with a smell you find grounding. If you’re communicating in person, you can still use essential oils. And in a pinch, merely imagining our favourite smell can have a similar effect to actually smelling it (try NOT to take a deep breath as you imagine a sea salt chocolate chip cookie just coming out of the oven… or is that just me?).
Cozy sweaters aren’t only for watching Netflix (especially if you’re presenting virtually). If you can, wear something soft that makes you feel nurtured and cared for. Fuzzy socks are also very welcome. In the transformative book "My Grandmother's Hands," Resmaa Menakam suggests rubbing your belly as away to calm the "soul nerve" (also called the vagus nerve - the largest organ in the body's autonomic nervous system, which connects directly to our lizard brains). Soft strokes can send a message that we're safe and resourced.
I almost always bring a mug of herbal tea to rehearsals. You might choose to have a special tea you reserve for presentation days. Anything to make the experience special, and frame it as “get to” rather than “have to.” You can even make a practice of it - every time self-critical thoughts come in, take a long and slow sip to re-center.
When I’m feeling particularly negative, I play the “three beautiful things” game. You look around the room and find three things that are beautiful. It could be the view out of a window, the color of a chair, even your computer background. For an especially advanced version, try this with people. As you walk down the street or gaze out at your audience before taking the stage, find one beautiful thing about each person. Suddenly, they’re your beautiful friends and not the “sea of judgers.”
All of these techniques are an invitation to move out of tunnel vision. And there’s WAY more to explore. If you like, post something you find helpful in the comments!