The main reason anxiety and frustration can snowball is that it is impossible to tell yourself not to be “anxious” or “frustrated.” This is because the subconscious brain is incapable of interpreting a negative instruction; it simply gravitates toward the goal that is set before it. The classic example of this is “don’t think of an elephant….” What are you thinking of?
Repeatedly telling yourself not to think of an elephant only reinforces the mental image of an elephant. The only way to remove it is to think of something else. You encounter this phenomenon all the time without realising it; in recent years most safety announcements have abandoned wordings such as “Don’t Run” and instead say things like “In the event of Fire walk calmly to the nearest exit.” This is because people instinctively quicken their pace when told not to run, but will likely slow down if told to walk. You also see it a lot in management, schooling and parenting techniques, but it is centrally important to sports psychology and performance as well.
Telling yourself not to worry – not to be stressed or anxious or angry or negative – is impossible as all you do is reinforce those emotions (just like the image of the elephant). Instead you need to supplant them with goals you can actively focus on achieving, rather than telling yourself not to do something.
These new goals can be to do with your vocal technique or they can revolve around your performance, communication etc. The key thing is that they are active focuses. For example, instead of trying to convince yourself not to worry about a particularly difficult phrase or a “high note”, accept that that these passages are difficult and concentrate on the techniques your teacher may have given you to help you through them. Similarly, instead of telling yourself not to be nervous in front of a large audience, try and zero in on what you are trying to communicate as a performer – on the story you are trying to tell or intentions of the character you are playing. (This applies equally to public speaking). Obviously these are very generalised examples – you can find more specific ones in your own repertoire – but you get the idea.
Getting nervous can actually be hugely useful, and any professional sportsman or performer can tell you how valuable adrenaline can be, but it has to be harnessed in the right way. Crucially this isn’t about empty platitudes or vague notions of “positive thinking” – it’s a matter of understanding and controlling your subconscious.
Hope this is of interest to some of you!