How to Use Cold Showers to Reduce Performance Anxiety

Professional musicians may be on stage several times each week. They can become more comfortable playing in front of people.

But the rest of us, who only share our music once in a while, we can get nervous. Playing for people can bring on panic and anxiety at surprising levels.

So what can we do to prepare ourselves for such nerves? One option is to use cold exposure (cold showers) to train our responses to stress. Crazy? Perhaps. But read on.

What Happens in Music Performance: Nerves, Panic, and the Stress Response

When we play for people (or speak in public), something primal and ancient happens in our brains. Deep down, we fear rejection.

Millenia ago, rejection meant we would be banished from the clan. And this meant certain death.

Now, the stakes are much lower. But the physiological response is still the same. It still feels much the same as it would have back then. This is our body telling us to get back to safety.

The Chain of Events Leading to Panic

When we get nervous, a few things tend to happen.

We tighten our muscles. And this leads us to take quick shallow breaths. We breathe into our chests instead of deep into our abdomens.

With the reduced oxygen from the shallow breathing, our capillaries constrict. This tightens our muscles and reduces fine motor movement.

Our heart beats faster to move more oxygen. Our blood moves from our torso and brain to our arms and legs (to help us escape or ward off foes).

Add to this the internal dialog of anxiety and fear, and we have the perfect cocktail for creating panic. Each element increases the others. We spiral out of control.

The body and subconscious mind send one message: “Get out of here NOW!

Stress and Our Natural Responses to It

The body performs this chain of events to protect us. It’s natural and meant to help.

Likewise, feelings of hunger lead us to find fuel. Thirst compels us to drink water. Arousal leads to procreation. And fear leads us to protect ourselves – either by escaping the situation or preparing us for battle.

These are all inborn and beneficial ways our physiology takes care of us.

However, playing guitar music for our families is not a life-threatening situation. But the body may interpret it as such. Our subconscious responses can be outsized and inappropriate.

Performing music takes delicate fingerwork and a calm focus. So when our bodies suggest we sprint or go to combat, there’s a mismatch.

We can assume our animal instincts will not go easily. So how do we deal with them?

How to Practice Responding to Stress: Cold Exposure

Most of us only perform occasionally. If we did so every day, perhaps we could get used to it.

But in the privacy of our own homes, we can still bring on this same panic at will. And then we can train ourselves to respond in different ways. We can do this using cold water.

When we turn the shower all the way to cold, we simulate fear. We constrict. We breathe shallowly into our chests. The same events that lead to stage fright happen right there in the shower.

When we stand in the cold water, every cell in our bodies cues us to flee. The same protective mechanisms go to work and create stress and panic.

So we can use this as a training ground for performance. If we can learn to “keep cool” in a cold shower, we can do the same in performance.

How to Practice Cold Exposure: Staying Calm and Keeping a Poker Face

So how can we reduce performance anxiety in the shower? We respond the way we would like to on stage.

Instead of making gruesome faces, contorting and writhing, we can hold composure.

We can breathe deeply, into our abdomens. We can release tension in our shoulders and chests. We can keep our hands loose and free.

In short, we do a whole-body “poker face.” We imagine someone watching us. And the goal is to not let them see anything amiss.

This is easier said than done. Especially in very cold water. We have to talk ourselves down from panic over and over. Each new moment brings more.

We can increase the time spent under cold water to level up our training. We can count the seconds and strive to beat yesterday’s time. Or we can set a timer. We can step out for a few seconds, then go back in for more.

And we can practice moving our arms and fingers freely under the cold stress. We can even visualize playing our pieces (if we have them memorized).

It’s a wonderful practice. And afterward, we feel energized and triumphant. There are also other known health benefits of cold exposure. We can learn to manage stress and live more relaxed and peaceful lives. Our music benefits, as do our days.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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