Arousal versus Nerves: What's in a Name?

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The Yerkes-Dodson curveThe Yerkes-Dodson curveA recurrent theme in my posts on singing and adrenaline over the past year has been the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows us how the varying levels of engagement of the sympathetic nervous system affect our performance. The problems people report with things such as shortness of breath or a dry mouth or getting the shakes come not from the existence of adrenaline in the system, but simply from an excess. Some adrenaline is necessary if we are to do anything well, so the trick then becomes to manage our preparation so that the extra burst we get at the start of a performance lifts us into the sweet zone rather than tipping us over beyond it.

Part of this preparation happens immediately before the performance, and relates to how we may warm up differently for a performance compared to a regular rehearsal in order to manage this.

But more of the preparation involves longer-term work develop ensemble rituals and shared meanings as a resource to support you on the performance day, and framing your goals in such a way as to maintain a sense of control over the outcomes.

I have been reflecting recently on how the shared meanings we develop around our response to performance occasions can have a significant impact on how we experience the physiological effects involved. Specifically, I have been thinking about the way sports psychology labels the effects of the sympathetic nervous system 'arousal' rather than 'nerves'.

This interpretation makes it much easier to embrace the focusing of attention and rushes of adrenaline as a positive contribution to the performance rather than a threat to it. Likewise, talking in terms of 'readiness for action' gives a more positive relationship with our responses than 'fight-flight' response.

There is a wonderful short essay by Oliver Sacks in which he discusses how the descriptions of Hildegard von Bingen's visions read awfully like the sight disturbances of migraines. But because of the contexts of faith and meaning in which she worked, she experienced these episodes not as a debilitating condition, but as a revelation. His point is that the relationship between organic processes and the meanings of human experiences is neither given nor simple.

And I think the discourse of performance nerves is a great case study for this. For even when we acknowledge the positive role that adrenaline has on performance, every time we label the experience 'nerves', it carries a negative emotional connotation. Take for example, the following useful bits of advice:

'You need some nerves, or the performance falls flat.'
'If you feel yourself feeling nervous, you should just think, "Oh good, my body works".'
'Nerves are not your enemy; panic is your enemy.'

They would all give you a much calmer and more positive sense of reassurance if instead of using the word 'nerves', they used the word 'adrenaline' or 'arousal'. The word 'nerves' encompasses not just the physiological response to an occasion that needs heightened capacities, but also a set of expectations that it will be a negative experience. The notion of 'nerves' implies all the symptoms of over-arousal, and invites a fear of their effects - which is likely to exacerbate them in an entirely counter-productive way.

It is also a discourse that places control beyond the individual. To say 'I get so nervous' is to say that the condition is both endemic (it always happens, it is a fact of your existence) and visited upon you without your volition. Whereas the discourse of arousal places control back in your own hands, with aberrations appearing as matters of a particular occasion. 'I got too excited and took a while to settle into the performance,' is a completely different story: it acknowledges that arousal is something we don't always manage perfectly, but that it is an important part of our make-up, and that we can build a good relationship with it over time.

For the experience of arousal can be extremely pleasurable. That is why people go bungee-jumping or white-water rafting. There's no need to give it a label that encourages us to fear its appearance. We need to give it names that welcome it, that embrace it as part of the experience, but that keep us responsible for managing our responses. I like getting 'lit up' for performances.

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