Hypnosis as an Alternative to Beta Blockers for Stage Fright
By Brian Sanders, MS, CH
Stage fright, which is often referred to as performance anxiety, it is a debilitating condition that can devastate a person’s self-confidence and career. Attorneys, athletes, CEO’s, and other professionals can also suffer from stage fight. However, this article will focus on stage fright from a musician’s perspective due to this author’s personal experiences with this problem.
As a young trumpet performing artist, I suffered from a very severe case of stage fright. Throughout my high school and college studies, high-pressure performance situations such as recitals and master classes would cause my legs to shake rapidly, my mouth to become dry, and my mind to draw a blank except for thoughts of inevitable failure. All this would occur despite hundreds of hours spent in the practice room, mastering and perfecting each and every note.
I explored many strategies to cope with stage fright, from yoga and deep breathing exercises to creative visualization techniques. Eventually, a professor suggested that I try beta-blockers but made me promise to not to tell anybody who advised me of this. I’m still keeping the secret, but this was my first exposure to what is commonly called the “musician’s underground drug.”
Beta blockers are medications which block our body’s receptors for the physical effects of a person’s natural fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an innate safety device triggered when our mind perceives a threat. It is a remnant from our prehistoric ancestors. Take the cave man, for example. He encounters a saber-toothed tiger. His adrenaline is released and an automatic decision is made: flee the situation and hope to outrun the ferocious predator or stay, roll the dice, and take his chances of killing it before it kills him. Most of us don’t have such worries anymore, but the mechanism is still present and is responsible for the behavior we experience when suffering from stage fright.
There are two views of thought about using beta blockers for musical performance. The first is that, despite the potential risks of hallucinations, nightmares, depression, decreased pulse, bronchial asthma, and heart failure that can lead to death, beta blockers can be a tool to assist an individual musician to perform at his or her very best. Many musicians are willing to take that risk if it increases their chances of getting a “gig.” On the other hand, there is a view (likely held by individuals who do not suffer from performance anxiety), that taking beta-blockers gives a performer an unfair advantage, much like an athlete who takes steroids. Although this is a topic of debate in the music community, a study of 2,122 musicians in major North American symphony orchestras reported that 22% of those musicians take, or have taken, beta blockers for performance anxiety. Granted, this figure only accounted for a small segment of professional musicians who were willing to divulge their use of the medication; it didn’t account for musicians in other smaller orchestras, military bands, opera and theatre vocalists, musicians working in other genres, etc. As such, it is likely that this figure is much higher.
I promptly made an appointment with my physician and, when I discussed my problem with him, he readily explained to me that medical students commonly take beta-blockers prior to taking exams. He then prescribed Propranolol, which seemed to do the trick for the physical symptoms. My legs stopped shaking and my mouth didn’t become dry. However, it did not solve the psychological problems: my mind continued to go blank and I still imagined inevitable failure. I settled upon the fact that any help is better than nothing at all, so I continued to use the medication.
In 2007 I found that the answer to my problem was far simpler than I could have imagined; it was with hypnosis that my problem with stage fright was finally solved. The source of my problems with stage fright stemmed from unresolved childhood conflict, or negative experience, which occurred before the age of eight; hypnotherapists call this source the Initial Sensitizing Event (ISE). A situation occurs which the mind is not mature enough to process or analyze. As adults, this ultimately manifests itself as stage fright. Most people suffering from stage fright have no recollection of the ISE and, as such, cannot explain why they have this problem. In their mind, it has just always been there.
There are two parts to our mind: the conscious part and the subconscious part. As you read this, you are using the conscious part to think about and process these words. It is always aware of what is occurring while you are awake. The subconscious part of our mind is like a computer hard-drive with thousands and thousands of computer programs that contain everything we have seen, heard, touched, and experienced.
Up until approximately the age of eight, both parts are of the mind are merged together. This is why children are so suggestible. For example, a child who experiences sexual trauma may repress those memories into adulthood. However, the experience has left a lasting imprint in the subconscious mind. That child then grows up to find him or herself following similar patterns, perhaps involved in drug or alcohol abuse or other negative patterns of behavior. However, the memory of the actual ISE is usually not present.
Hypnosis can be utilized to effectively “reprogram” the software in our subconscious mind. Once placed into hypnosis, the therapist invokes the feelings of stage fright to an almost unbearable degree and then uses regression techniques to take the client back to the time when they first experienced this feeling, the ISE. The client is then able to relive this experience with incredible detail by replaying it in his or her mind. Often, the event could be something silly or inconsequential to an adult yet seemingly devastating to a child. Depending on the severity of the ISE, the therapist could choose to reframe the experience to give the memory a positive slant or he could do nothing at all, simply allowing the adult mind to properly process and analyze the situation. The therapist would then have the client fast forward to any future negative imprints which generated similar feelings, the Subsequent Sensitizing Event (SSE), and deal with them in the same way. Finally, the therapist will have the client attempt to bring about the same feelings of panic and, if they are not present, then success was achieved.
In my practice at the Sanders Hypnosis Center in Glen Burnie, I have worked with dozens of professional musicians suffering from stage fright who fit this model. In one case, regression hypnosis for a graduate violin student yielded a childhood incident where she played poorly in a recital and had greatly disappointed her overbearing parents. In another case, a Russian piano player witnessed his private teacher get scolded and fired for working him too hard; he felt responsible for the teacher losing his job and going hungry. Certainly, from an adult perspective, an issue may seem relatively minor. However, to a child it can be extremely traumatic. The effectiveness of this approach is extremely favorable; one hundred percent of my stage fright clients have reported the complete elimination of their problem.
There is no question that hypnosis is a preferable alternative to beta-blockers. Hypnosis is completely natural and safe, and it has no negative side effects. Additionally, unlike beta-blockers, which temporarily address only the physical symptoms of stage fright, hypnosis can cause permanent physiological and psychological change.
For more information about hypnosis and stage fright, visit www.SandersHypnosis.com.
Published in The Baltimore Musician, the Official Journal of The Musicians' Association of Metropolitan Baltimore. Vol. 24, No. 4, June/July/August 2011.