Stress Response: What Causes Stress

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Stress is one of the biggest factors which affects performance and is experienced by most if not all people daily. Stress can affect other performance-based disciplines such as sports and acting, as stress can affect people in these industries in similar ways. Stress is a natural response to a situation, even if the situation is non-life-threatening. There are two types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is the most common, and least damaging type of stress. This type of stress is experienced by individuals daily and is caused by minor inconveniences and stressors, ranging from things such as a deadline for an assessment coming up or getting stuck in traffic on the way to work. Stressors that are specific to musicians can include competitiveness with other players and comparing themselves to others, being unprepared which could affect the performance, and minor things for me a cellist, I worry about small things such as my string breaking halfway through a performance. The fight or flight response is the body’s natural response to stressful situations and is triggered by the release of hormones such as cortisol, which increases heart rate and blood pressure (1). Other symptoms of acute stress include nausea, sweaty palms, butterflies, and even memory blanks. As a musician, these symptoms can be particularly worrying. For example, as a cellist, sweaty palms can impact the way I play as my hands may slip around on the fingerboard and cause me to inaccurately and out of tune. Memory blanks during a performance can be very worrying for musicians, as it is usually out of our control and can happen to anybody. However, acute stress is usually non-threatening and the body’s natural response to stress means it is resolved fairly quickly.

The other main type of stress is chronic stress. This type of stress is triggered due to the body's natural response to long-term, prolonged stressful situations, and emotional pressures. People who experience chronic stress may feel as if it is out of their control, and it interferes with an individual's ability to function normally daily. Some of the causes amongst musicians of chronic stress mainly include the fear of criticism from others. For example, a musician may develop chronic stress if they are worried about the criticism they may face from other musicians, the audience, and even the musician themselves. For example, after a performance, I may criticize myself if for example, a certain passage did not go very accurately or how I expected. However, the audience may have not even noticed these mistakes, and therefore the criticism from myself has not had anything to do with actual reality. Another cause of chronic stress amongst musicians may be due to a tyrannical conductor, meaning musicians might be humiliated when making mistakes, or the conductor may make unreasonable demands for the musician. This causes stress because the individual may fear working with the conductor, and will put themselves under high levels of emotional pressure so that they don't face criticism from the conductor. Another way that chronic stress could be caused amongst musicians is more on an individual and unique basis. For example, some individuals may be more sensitive to feedback and criticism than other musicians, meaning they interpret it differently and therefore some people may be affected on a deeper level than others. All of these factors may also increase levels of anxiety in performers, and this makes the performance more difficult due to the previously mentioned symptoms such as sweaty palms and mind blanks. This means that personality type could have an impact on the levels of stress that a musician feels, and it will vary from person to person. These factors which contribute to chronic stress amongst musicians can lead to symptoms such as body pain, fatigue, headaches, and muscle tension. There is a large overlap between psychological and physical factors which affect performance, as these symptoms are physical, but may have been caused by psychological factors such as the sensitivity of the individual, as mentioned before.

Psychological factors can have a big impact on musicians and their performances, however, there are solutions and methods to this which individuals can take to reduce their stress and anxiety towards performance. Some of these methods include simple things such as having quality sleep and the use of relaxation techniques, and also more medical and complex methods for more serious cases of anxiety such as CBT, and the use of nerve-calming drugs, for example, beta-blockers. Buswell, D (2006) states that ‘ optimum performance is inhibited by stress and it has physiological implications’ (2). This shows that a musician's ability to perform directly relies on and is reflected by their levels of stress, which can have both psychological and physical symptoms. It sounds simple, but breathing techniques can be a very effective and efficient way to reduce anxiety and stress before and after performances, and during normal day-to-day life. In Performance Strategies for Musicians, Buswell, D (2006) suggests that the solution to correct breathing is making sure breathes is gentle and even, filling up the lungs completely, and breathing in through the nose and the mouth (2). As a cellist, I practice correct breathing before a performance as it helps to reduce ‘butterflies’ in my stomach, and helps to calm my levels of anxiety which reduces my sweaty palms, as having shaky and sweaty hands during a performance impacts how I play.  

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