Any other actors out there get the audition nerves?
There was a time in my career where my nerves were debilitating in the room. I would start to sing and my legs would shake to the bone and my audition would turn to rubbish before I could even say thank you. Anyone else?
I dreaded auditioning for this reason. Those nerves come from our bodies responding to what’s known as “fight or flight” mode which is a signal the brain sends out (via the autonomic nervous system) when it feels attacked. The good news is this feeling is stimulated by the brain so it’s something most people can learn to control.
Fight or flight mode is super important in many circumstances and this form of stress (in moderate amounts) can actually be beneficial for the body, it can strengthen our immune systems and speed recovery from injury.* This form of stress is the brain’s subconscious response to the release of different hormones that create that feeling of adrenaline. This rush can also help quicken your pace when late to a meeting and give you a boost of energy when out running from the zombies after the apocalypse (kidding but it does aid in situations of perceived danger). This perceived danger is why our bodies tend to go into this mode when feeling that rush of anxiety and stress right before walking into the audition room for many actors.
P.S. Public speaking is actually the number one listed fear of American’s before loneliness at 7 and even death (#5). So it’s very common to experience nervousness before performing in front of an audience even a small one of two or more behind a table.
Fortunately we have the ability to control this feeling and use it to our advantage. When the body goes into fight or flight mode, despite the feeling of despair, it’s actually in its prime to perform. Now you’ll hear successful actor after successful actor tell you the best advice they can give you to conquer the nerves is : be prepared. Which seems like a no brainer but it’s more than just the feeling of being prepared. When your body and brain go into fight or flight mode your brain also reverts to muscle memory. Therefore, the best thing you can do is work, work, work, work, work (sing that in your best Rihanna voice) that muscle. Whether it’s vocal, monologues, scenes, dance steps etc work the muscle so when that adrenalin start pumping the only thing your body can do is do what it already knows. Having these things well prepared also gives the opportunity to drop into the character more easily. Being able to focus that energy on the character work you’ve done is the dream and channeling the chemicals your body is producing will only continue to fuel your performance to dig deeper into the choice you’ve made. Fight or Flight mode is literally your bodies way of springing into action and getting the job done.
However, just having it well memorized and rehearsed doesn’t necessarily help the body itself when it hits that stress button. Studies have shown that access to a regimented exercise routine for several weeks actually protects the brain in stressful situations.* Without getting into too much detail on the brain function itself, exercising can reduce stress and increase cognitive function ( aka clarity, and the ability to focus) in the areas that retain memory and mood. This is interesting in relation to the fight or flight feeling that’s aroused when auditioning and important to note. I’ve always been told it’s good for your body to exercise and it’s important for a healthy lifestyle. But, quite literally, exercising can decrease the stressors that effect my work (auditioning) on a day to day basis AND also help me focus better to be more present in the room. UMMMM THIS IS THE DREAM! And this can be achieved by getting in a good sweat several times per week. Oh, and did I mention this helps increase your mood?!
One reason exercise helps with focus is it requires a living in the moment experience. Stress itself is typically comprised of feeling out of control and typically out of control is comprised of worrying about the “what ifs” or what could go wrong. When getting in some good aerobic exercise you can only focus on one thing- getting through the damn workout. Each work out allows us to live in the present, which isn’t often accompanied by worry and anxiety (unless you are in immediate danger aka fight or flight). Living in the present gives our brains time to rest from the stress and anxiety from the next day, the next hour, or even the next minute. I’ve said present a lot…..which is something I STRIVE for in auditions. Being able to be present and focused is key. So, hello, presence, thanks for coming by and showing me life can just be sometimes, especially when I’m working out. Also, when I work out, I feel strong, and before I go audition, I try to remind my brain to keep its shit together because that heart rate has been way higher and can handle anything that comes its way.
Okay, so working out is great yay! But, breathing also helps, duh. Taking the time to slow the heart rate and learning to really breath is crucial as the adrenaline ramps up. It calms the nerves but keeps the brain active to respond. But, you can’t necessarily exercise and get a good cardio session in 10 minutes before an audition. A tool I use is meditation. I highly recommend this as a breathing exercise but also a non sweaty way to channel that staying present sensation. Again, there’s that keeping it present thing. Finding the ability to stay in the present moment and breathe instead of worrying about the “what ifs” is what it boils down to before that fight or flight mode kicks in (for me anyway). And the best part about meditation is it can be done anywhere. I know sometimes it’s hard to focus with all of the people chatting in the audition room. But, it doesn’t have to be some long drawn out process. For me, I take the time to meditate in the morning after my work out (to continue the presence connection) and as I line up for the audition I yawn, a lot. Yawning helps me take some deep, deep breaths but also tricks my brain into feeling present and calm. I’m sure there are all sorts of little meditation ticks that can be done before walking into the room but this one totally works for me, always. I can absolutely tell the difference between an audition where I’ve had a good, sweaty work out in the last 24 hours and the time to meditate or at least have some present moments then when I haven’t.
I used to dread auditions. I would come up with any and every excuse not to go. I was afraid and when my fight or flight mode would kick in, I would flee. I can absolutely say, without a doubt, these simple changes have completely turned my audition experience around. Simply knowing how these signals effect my brain and body have been a key to my change in spirit in the auditioning world. I can truly say that my fear, stress, and anxiety no longer control me or my brain because I have control over how that guy behaves just by giving it a break and trusting the muscle memories I’ve created for it by working out, being prepared, and staying present through meditation.
I can only speak for myself as far as my results and process, but studies have shown that the negative effects on the brain caused by stress can be diminished and reversed (even long term stress) by these small shifts. Even if you’re not an actor, I encourage you to spend some time in the present and give your brain a rest from the stress of life by adding in some small things for yourself daily (or even weekly). I’m also not trying to insinuate that my body and brain no longer go into fight or flight mode- they absolutely do but I now have a better set of tools to combat that feeling and am training all of muscles to work together to reduce the stress.
One last note. Did you know, that simply sharing or giving a smile to someone sends feedback to the brain that releases neurotransmitters in the form of dopamine and serotonin? These are known as the “happiness” chemicals that have been scientifically proven to improve mood! So, share a smile with someone before you go into an audition or a meeting or whatever “stressful” situation you are in and it will immediately give you a little boast of happiness and confidence.
Go shine that light, loves!… and continue pursuing your dreams fearlessly.
*This information was provide by the incredible Dr. Wendi Suzuki author of Health Brain, Happy Life. Go read her book now!! It is filled with fascinating studies involving the brain, memory, exercise, and much, much more.