When you think about fear or anxiety, do you ever consider their timeline?
When did the fear arrive? How long has the anxiety been here (and has it always been the same)? Has it ever left or subsided? Could you picture it ending?
Before we can address the lifespan of fear, though, we have to unwind some terminology…
When we talk about fear or anxiety, we are often imprecise. Culturally, anxiety has become a bit of a blanket term that represents so much it is hard to pin down a definition. If we’re discussing performance anxiety, that’s a more specific type of fear, but it can still mean a great many things.
Even by using the words fear and anxiety interchangeably here I am muddying the waters while simultaneously proving the point that these words can mean many things and have varying degrees of severity. Stage fright for me might have a very different root cause than it would for the next person.
We might be afraid of performing for crowds because of the sheer number of people or we could simply be anxious about messing up in front of a lot of people who will remember. Perhaps flying gives us anxiety over a lost bag, or a greater fear of something catastrophic. You might know someone who is afraid of riding a bike, or perhaps someone who has anxiety about riding their bike around cars in the city.
It’s important if we feel fear, anxiety, or tension about something in life to understand what is actually scary.
Do we worry about the judgements of others? Are we afraid to mess up something that matters deeply to us and has taken up a great deal of time and effort? Maybe we are anxious that our efforts will not be deemed worthy of whatever we are striving for. Do you fear losing those who are important to you? Maybe you are afraid of letting someone down. There are many different hats our worry and dread can wear.
As musicians, I think it’s common to move through a variety of different versions of the anxiety and fear that can come along with auditions, performing, and all the various aspects of music making.
I’ve discussed this before, but over my life as a musician, I’ve gone from having no performance anxiety, to feeling the fear that I won’t be accepted at an important audition. I’ve had dry mouth, shaky limbs, a twitchy embouchure, and brain fog on stage among other symptoms. I’ve felt distraught over how I do or don’t measure up to others and found myself ruminating on these useless worries instead of getting work done in the practice room. I’ve been intimidated by many conductors and timid in my playing.
Luckily, I didn’t have all these symptoms of fear at once. They have ebbed and flowed throughout my musical life and, fortunately, have been intermingled with feelings of extreme focus and free, unburdened music making on stage.
It wasn’t until I was older and more experienced that I started to realize how much I actually got to decide about my fear and anxiety in both life and music. Meditation and yoga have helped me tremendously with this, as well as several books by performance coaches and elite athletes.
It only takes a little research to realize that everyone has some version of this to deal with, and that even if someone doesn’t feel fear, we are all responsible for sorting out the distractions that come with doing something performance based.
Perhaps it is only with enough time that we can gain the necessary perspective, but I do wish that someone had laid it out succinctly for me when I was younger that I’m in charge, and fear has a lifespan. It might be around for the long haul, but we can certainly outlast it.
So, what are the major events along the lifespan of fear?
*Feeling anxious, worried, tense, or afraid
The arrival of a fear can come out of nowhere - maybe even in the middle of a performance as it did for me once! This is no reason to live with the fear of fear, but rather the acknowledgement that many physical and mental factors play into our experiences of anxiety.
*We need to identify what is actually scary
When we experience stress or anxiety, it is common to make mountains out of molehills. A whole concert might feel paralyzing, but if we take a step back to consider the music we’ve prepared, perhaps we are preoccupied with a scary entrance or quiet high note and are letting our worries wash over the entire concert. Perspective goes a long way toward deflating a general feeling of anxiousness.
*Can you do the thing anyway?
Sometimes, if we are really lucky, identifying what is actually at the root of our nervousness will bring us back to a more manageable base line. If you’re not that lucky, you can still use the identification of the fear or anxiety to help you. Instead of just feeling the fear (racing heart, clamminess, unfocused thoughts), you’ve now established a culprit. When you catch yourself identifying with the feelings, label them and note the root cause then get on with the task.
*Shift your focus to right effort
A side stop on the last life span event, this is where we focus our energy and efforts on what we are doing rather than how we are feeling. This stop requires effort, but it’s right effort rather than feeding even more energy to our feelings and thoughts of nervousness. If you catch yourself re-investing in the anxiety, simply shift again and start over.
*Realizing fear doesn’t have a grip
Even a brief moment of success pulling our attention away from our feelings of fear is a success. Celebrate your successes and the knowledge that fear does not control you. Each time you succeed in redirecting your attention, you build resilience and the muscles of your attention. Moving through your fear is what opens up the space for better things
*Do (new) hard things
This saying gets used a lot, but it’s useful and an important stop along the life span of fear. Once you have realized you can do things while you feel anxious and have had some practice shifting your focus to right effort you can start to take on new, harder tasks. Even if some of the fear lingers, you can keep growing.
*Not feeling the fear anymore
Some fears have a much longer lifespan than others, but they will all come to an end if you persevere. Recently, I had an experience where something that had been a cause of anxiety for many years no longer felt scary. It was an unexpected relief that was the result of a lot of right effort and personal work.
A note of caution here, that we never want to become complacent. An old fear that has lost its power over us may still find a way to rear its head. This is why it’s important for us to stay detailed and vigilant in what matters to us. Your methods for dealing with the stressors and tension in your life will change over time, but maintaining awareness helps our successes stick.
How you choose to work through your fear points in life will be unique to you. Yoga and meditation have truly changed my relationship with my instrument, but I also rely on smart preparation, having a deliberate and detailed focus in my music making, and honest, frequent self reflection in both practice and performance.
I love hearing about what works for others because we never know when we’ll find another tool that fits just right in our box of resources.
Our lifetimes are long, and it’s absolutely worth the effort it takes to address the things that make us feel anxious. Because it’s so acceptable to discuss stress and anxiety now, there is also a comfort in relating to everyone having it rather than taking the sometimes tedious and mundane steps toward overcoming what stands in our way.
Timelines always look so different in hindsight. When we learned to ride a bike as children, it seemed the training wheels would always be there. The prospect of taking them away was scary (for most of us) and it might have felt like riding confidently without them took forever. In reality, that experience was a blip on the map. Even if a fear is with you for many years, there will be a time both before and after its lifespan.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.