I remember clearly the first time I had a panic attack on stage.

I was in high school, performing a play in drama competition. It was a two-person show; just me and another actor in front of the audience for 45 minutes. While I had acted in a similar style piece before, this felt much more high-stakes. It had been years since my school had made it this far in the competition and I took this responsibility both seriously and personally.

We were the second show of our night. Before us had been a lively and intense piece with a large cast. Now, as I stepped out on stage, that entire cast was sitting in the first two rows of the audience staring up at me. They were buzzed from their performance, with too much energy to sit still. They chatted amongst themselves, so loudly that I could hear them clearly on stage. Thank goodness this was the time before cell phones. 😉

As much as I tried to stay focused on the scene, my mind was distracted by the voices floating up to me from those first two rows. I began to wonder if they were whispering about me. I worried that the reason they weren’t paying attention to the show was my fault, that my acting wasn’t good enough. It felt like my performance was slipping away from me and with it, my school’s chances in the competition.

That’s when the panic set in. My legs began to shake, my vision started to blurr and I felt like the room was spinning. I thought I was going to pass out, or worse, that there was something seriously wrong with me. I looked around desperately for something I could hold onto to steady myself, but our set was so minimal that there was nothing for me to use. The best I could do was wander over to a wall on the edge of the stage and place my hand on it for support. Thankfully, my scene partner responded to this sudden change in blocking and shifted his own to match.

Somehow I got through the rest of the show. And thankfully, the incident didn’t keep me from getting back up on stage again. But throughout the years I always wondered: was there something I could have done to help myself during that moment onstage? Was there a way I could have settled the panic, and continued the performance in a grounded way?

The answer is yes.

This exercise is a game-changer. I wish I known about it earlier. But I am so grateful I know about it now.

It is simple, quick and astonishingly effective. It seriously feels like instant calm.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand with your feet planted underneath you, toes and the rest of your body facing forward (or you can do this seated).
  • Turn your head to look over one shoulder, keeping the rest of your body facing forward.
  • Very slowly begin to turn your head to look over the opposite shoulder. As you do this, notice the space around you in detail; the items in the room, the colour of the walls, etc.
  • Breathe as you do this.
  • Once you’ve turned your head completely to the opposite side, notice how you feel.

That’s it. That simple.

There are two main reasons why this exercise works so well.

  1. It activates your vagus nerve.
  2. Your vagus nerve is the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system. It runs from your brain through your torso and branches off into many of your major organs. Its main job is to calm your system when your body is stressed. By turning your head from one shoulder to the other you are stimulating your vagus nerve, and your body responds by slowing your breathing and heart rate, and releasing hormones that make you feel relaxed.

  1. It deactivates your fight or flight response.
  2. When you panic, your body believes it is because you are in physical danger. It responds by heightening your physical senses and your feeling of anxiety, so you are ready to flee the scene or fight the danger at a moment’s notice. By noticing your surroundings as you turn your head, you are showing your body that you are actually safe, and not in immediate danger. Your body responds by relaxing, and you feel calmer.

Pretty cool! 🙂

Even better, you can do this exercise anytime, anywhere. And no one will know you’re doing it. It just looks like you’re having a glance around the room. You can even do it in the middle of a performance. You can do it while you’re singing, speaking lines, playing a guitar, or even in the wings right before you walk on stage (oh, and it works for so many situations in the rest of life too…).

So try it out! It’s one of those handy tools to keep in your back pocket, ready to pull out when life (or the audience) gets a bit too overwhelming. I hope it helps you as much as it has me. 🙂 

Much love,

P.S. I was taught this exercise by psychotherapist and social worker, Katherine Belfontaine. I am so grateful for all the support and guidance she has given me. She’s one amazing woman. <3

Act(ing) Mindfully is a part of my work with Five Winds. It’s a space where I explore the connection between performance and energy, and offer tips and ideas on how to stay balanced and healthy (body, mind, emotions and spirit) while living the life of a performer.

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