It’s that time of the year again – the Christmas nativities! And as we approach the beginning of December, the countdown for Christmas has officially started! If your children are of primary-school age, the Christmas Nativities at school are often an exciting time for parents, not to mention the fact that for many of you reading this, this year may be the first opportunity since the pandemic where you will get to watch your child perform in person, which of course makes the whole experience extra special!
Those of us either as parents or who have worked in schools before, know the hard work that goes into putting the Christmas nativities and performances together: finding or creating the perfect script, the endless practising, learning Christmas songs word for word, the amazing costumes the parents create and tending to the last-minute nerves, forgotten lines, or costume disasters!
Amongst the busy-ness and the excitement, it can be so easy to lose sight of what a huge expectation the Christmas nativities are for our children. Whilst many children enjoy the opportunity to shine, there are also many others who can think of nothing worse than performing, singing, or speaking in front of an audience. It’s worth remembering that, even as adults, this is often something that fills many of us with dread! Further still, some of you reading this as parents may know all too well how difficult your own child finds these occasions and are keen to support them through these inevitable nerves.
So, if your child is feeling the anxiety as their day to perform looms ever closer, the ideas in this blog may just be what they need to hear!
So, what causes Performance Anxiety?
Performance anxiety can be linked to any event where an individual feels pressure to succeed or be at their best. This might include:
- Pantomimes, shows and performances
- Sporting matches
- Sitting an exam
- Job interviews or work experience
- Or answering a question in class
It can lead to:
- Shaking or trembling
- Feelings of dizziness
- Forgetting lines
- Stammering or stuttering
- Complaints of feeling sick or having a tummy ache
- A racing heartbeat
- A feeling of dread and obsessively thinking about the event – and feeling certain that it will go wrong.
When we look at how the brain works, it can help us to better understand how performance-related anxiety is created:
- The Amygdala, the primitive part of the brain associated with our fear response, is activated when we perceive a situation to be threatening or stressful. It’s important to point out here that what one person perceives as a threat, may not be deemed a threat to another – so, whilst one child may happily sing solo in front of an audience, for another, this can fire up the fear response in the brain. Our Amygdala, the pair of almond-shaped bundles of nerves buried deep in our brain, is responsible for what many of us understand as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is an important part of our survival instinct that alerts us to danger. When faced with a stressful situation, such as performing in front of others, our amygdala will spark a chain of events in the brain that will help to ensure our survival.
- As the amygdala, and other associated parts of the primitive brain, does not have an intellect, it can’t reason and rationalise with the idea that performing is not a life-or-death situation. It simply recognises a stressful event and springs into action, in the same way it would if we were face to face with a polar bear, or other risky situation that threatened our survival!
- The Hypothalamus floods our bodies with chemicals in response to stress. The hypothalamus is like a command centre in the brain which regulates automatic bodily functions, such as our heart rate, our breathing, and our blood pressure. During situations of perceived stress, this part of the brain will fire off neurons that send messages to our adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The usual, self-regulated bodily functions stop working in the usual way and our bodies’ energy becomes focused on escaping the perceived danger. It is these effects of adrenaline in our bodies that cause the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, such as tummy aches and feeling shaky and sweaty.
- The Hippocampus stores our subconscious behaviours. Together with the Amygdala and the Hypothalamus, the Hippocampus forms part of the brain that is responsible for our subconscious thoughts and behaviours. The actions we perform day-to-day without thinking, such as walking, riding a bike, or driving to work, are stored in this part of the brain, together with more unhelpful behaviours. For example, our Hippocampus stores our fear-based responses and it is this part of the brain that can keep the cycle of performance-related anxiety going. If we experience anxiety before or during a performance, but still survived, our primitive brain will think it has been helpful for us and so will encourage the same response in the brain again. In this way, we can see that the more an individual might fight or fear performance-related anxiety, the more likely they are to experience the uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations, because it fires up the fear response in the brain – and it is here we create that negative cycle of events.
How can I help my child overcome, or cope better with, performance-related anxiety?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that it’s not the events in our children’s lives that create the anxiety, but rather, the thoughts they have around those events. Therefore, when we can change the thoughts, we can change the behaviour.
And just like all behaviour, anxiety-related behaviour is a learned response. So, if we can learn an anxiety-based response to stressful situations, we can also unlearn it.
And, how do we unlearn something? By learning new, helpful, and healthy patterns of thinking and behaviour to replace the old, negative ways of thinking.
Dr. David Hamilton, who has done much research into modern neuroscience (the study of how our brains work) talks about how confidence is something we can learn. Our brain is made up of millions of little neurons that transmit messages between different brain cells and co-ordinate the many different parts of our body. Studies have shown how, when we perform an action repeatedly, we strengthen the pathway between the associated neurons which make the action easier to do next time. This is how all new habits are formed. Our brain learns through repetition – the more we perform an action, the easier it becomes. But this isn’t just related the physical actions we perform, but the mental actions too.
Our minds and bodies are inter-connected, so when we imagine positive imagery, our brain releases the same feel-good chemicals as if we were actually performing the action itself – and it is this knowledge that can help us when reducing performance-related anxiety and building superhero confidence in its place!
So, to get started, encourage your child to have a go at this simple exercise at home:
- Ask your child to recall a time when they felt really successful (it can be any time – not necessarily linked to a performance or the things they are finding difficult right now).
- Ask them to close their eyes and vividly recall that event in as much detail as possible – imagine they are back there now in their mind.
- Ask them to describe, in detail what they can see – colours, images, objects, people etc.
- Ask them to describe what they can hear – sounds, voices, positive feedback, own self talk in head etc.
- Ask them to recall how they felt – describe those feelings (confidence, proud, excited, etc).
Keeping them with their eyes closed, still imagining the memory, ask them to see if they can make those feelings even stronger:
- Ask them to tell you when they are a 10/10 for strength of feelings.
- When they have reached 10/10 ask them to picture a colour that represents those feelings for them.
Ask them to imagine they can now breathe that colour in and feel it filling their whole body.
- Let them practise breathing in the colour for a few moments and simply enjoy how confident they are feeling.
- When your child has fully and positively connected with that memory, their brain will be giving them a lovely dose of feel-good chemicals – and they should be ready to see themselves succeeding again with the future event.
Ask them to keep hold of that feeling and imagine themselves changing the event in their mind to the new situation they were worried about in the first place (singing, reading, performing etc).
- Ask them to describe it but going REALLY REALLY WELL!
- What can they see, hear and how do they feel (same as the previous time)?
- Then, in the new situation, ask them to breathe in their confident colour.
When they imagine the event as they would like it to be, the brain takes note and starts to work on and rehearse that new preferred outcome.
Encourage them to practice this positive visualisation each day in the run up to an event:
- When they are there for the real event they can bring their colour into their mind, breathe it in and notice how easily they can bring back those successful, confident feelings.
Confidence grows with practice and experience. Confidence in one area of our life does not guarantee confidence in another, but it does give us more confident foundations to build upon. As we encounter new challenges, both as adults and children, we may find that our confidence can wobble but if we stand on our foundations of previous successes (remembering and visualising when we were successful before) we can push into that new challenge and stretch to the next level of confidence and success.
If your child is struggling with performance-related anxiety and lack of confidence, and you are looking for further support for them, you can contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy to find out more here: