What if Being Nervous Could Work to Your Advantage?

Nervous cartoon


Nerves. Jitters. Stage Fright. Fear. Performance Anxiety. No matter what you call it, I’m here to tell you that the experience is valuable and even helpful.


Nervous man pulling at his collar onstage



SAY WHAT?! Stop talking CRAZY Dana! Are you saying that my butterflies, shaky hands, sweaty palms, dry mouth, or tight throat can actually help me?






I heard this fantastic quote last week from the great tennis player Roger Federer during his post-win interview during the Australian Open quarter-finals.

During the interview, he was asked if he was going to watch the next quarter final match of his opponents Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori before he played his semifinal match. His reply in the video below is fantastic.

“As a fan, I’m going to watch a little bit because it’s great tennis. As an opponent, I’m not gonna go crazy watching the match (of Nishikori and Djokovic) otherwise I’ll get nervous too early. I’m going to need those nerves during the semis!”

Why is this so fantastic? Because it means that he actually sees being nervous AS A BENEFIT that he uses to his advantage.

This brings the experience of nervousness to a whole different level.

Instead of trying to get RID of the symptoms it is actually creating a RELATIONSHIP to the experience.

Ask yourself the following:

  • How can I be curious about how my body reacts when I get ready for a high-pressure situation?
  • How can I use this to my advantage? Is it a boost of available energy? Can it help me with stamina? Focus?
  • What if my nerves were actually trying to help me? If they could tell me something what would they say?

I tell my clients that what we call being nervous or even call anxiety*, is actually a blanket label we don’t challenge. (Keeping in mind that I’m not speaking about clinical and debilitating anxiety that may need more professional help.) But when it’s the more common stage fright or nervousness, we just assume the sensation is a negative experience and thus try to make it stop or get rid of it.

Instead, what if you could be curious? Observe it?

Excitement and nervousness involve the same process of the nervous system. The only difference in the experience is our own perception of it and the meaning we give it. This determines whether that physiological experience is interpreted as “good” or “bad.”

It’s experienced as “good” when we’re focused on what we want to happen, such as excitment to go see a rock concert or travel to a new country. We experience that same energy as “bad” when we are focused on what we don’t want to happen such as fear of making a mistake, having a memory slip or being rejected.

What if you could take the feedback from your body and learn from it?

First and foremost, fear is telling you that what you’re focused on is the worst possible outcome and the nervous sensations are telling you that your body is going into fight or flight based on the thoughts you’re thinking.

What if your body weren’t working against you but actually trying to help you?

The truth is that when we are on stage, we need more energy than in other everyday experiences.

The performance space is bigger than a practice room, there are exponentially more people whose eyes and ears are focused on you. To project your being, your sound, your story to the back of the hall requires a great deal more presence and energy than say, you by yourself in a practice room.

It reminds me of the advice about camping and grizzly bears. You know how they say if you’re out in the woods and you come across a Grizzly Bear (and if you’re in a situation where you can’t run), it’s advised to throw out your arms and roar and make yourself as big as possible? Well, that requires energy-physiologically, emotionally and mentally. We do this on stage, too!

So what if you could practice using energy to your advantage?

Let’s say you’re getting prepared for an upcoming performance and you start to feel nervous.

Start by asking yourself:

What am I focusing  on?

If it’s fear, then name the fear. “I’m afraid I’ll drop the bow.”

Then ask yourself, what will happen if you drop the bow?

“I’ll be a failure.” (Is this true? How can you be sure? Who decides that?)

Then instead of replaying the fear, try playing out the best possible situation, such as picking up the bow and getting right back to performing and no one notices or cares. Or perhaps the moment is comical and people are looking to see how you handle it, so you smile, pick up the bow and keep on going. After the performance people come backstage and congratulate you on your stage presence, how poised and flexible you were and how much they admired your ability to focus and not get derailed by dropping your bow.

If you can focus in great detail on what can go wrong, you can actually focus on what can go right too. Since it’s projected thinking about a potential future that hasn’t happened yet, it might feel better if your thinking is focused on ever greater details of what you WANT to happen and how your preparation can fulfill that, vs playing out a potential nightmare over and over.

While this blog is by no means conclusive on the subject, it is a starting place to challenge your assumptions and automatic habits of thought and perceptions about the somatic experience we label “nerves.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


1 Comment

  1. Great advice! I wish I could have been coached in this when I was performing music as a kid. Auditions would make me physically ill for about a week beforehand. Ugh!

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