Story 4: Performance Anxiety

Abigail’s professional specialty was movement disorders. She is a research scientist at a medical center, and had referred her Parkinson’s patients for Alexander lessons, believing the Technique could help them restore their balance and coordination. She was right! I offered her a gift of five Alexander lessons. The rest is history-- We began AT lessons eleven years ago and still work together today.

Abigail lectured medical students and gave papers at medical meetings. Prior to one of her teaching assignments, she asked that we work on her presentation skills. She reported physical symptoms and anxious repetitive thoughts that undermined her ability to be calm and clear even when delivering familiar information. Her anxious state of mind often occurred weeks before teaching. She had performance anxiety.

The Alexander Technique approaches this problem indirectly, by applying the principles of awareness, inhibition and direction. Addressing  Abigail’s habits of anticipatory thoughts (self talk) about speaking in front of an audience was our first challenge. What is curious about performance anxiety is its emotional base, and the physical response that this emotional state evokes. Changing one’s thoughts changes one’s physiology. You are what you think.

We began the process by listing the thoughts that undermined her equanimity and created  replacement thoughts. “I am skilled at this material. The students are friendly and eager to learn,” “this is not a test,” “I am in charge.” We practiced these new thoughts in connection with her newly developed  ability to be poised while speaking. The old thought arrives: “I cannot do this”; she pauses, and then substitutes the new thought: “I am skilled and in charge.”  For Abigail it became a game and she loved it.

Now I hear about her medical science lectures from the medical students she has sent me and they say she is a dynamic, interesting, often funny professor.