What to do when you freeze

Most of us have had that moment when your mind just goes blank when you are in front of the audience. For some of you it will be your biggest fear as a performer, that you will forget where you are, what you are saying, or even say or sing completely the wrong thing. It's something that happens to the best of performers, but what can you do when it happens to you?

This episode is about practical things you can do so that you can know you have a strategy for when it next happens.....

Podcast 15 Title

The Courageous Performer Podcast

What to do when you freeze

Read the episode transcript here:


I'm Hattie Voelcker from Find Your True Voice, and today I want to talk to you about something I was talking about with a client yesterday. So this client had a big performance, it was a meeting coming up, and the one thing they didn't want to do was freeze for their brain to go blank for, you know, just everything to stop. And I don't know about you, but I have definitely in the past felt that way, and it's definitely something I want to avoid in the future, and I am capable of avoiding these days, not always without fail. And so I wanted to talk to you about the strategy I spoke to, with my client about and the strategies I also use with myself. Some of them work all the time, some of them work some of the time, but one of them will work every time, and it's, it's this really interesting thing of what happens, what is going on when we freeze when our brain goes blank, when we want the stage the room to swallow us up.



So this client, we've just started working together. So we haven't done a huge amount of the transformational stuff that I do. But it was really important for them to be able to go into this meeting and have the confidence that they weren't going to freeze. And they want a practical tips, in case it happened and what they could do if it happened. And I think most of us, as I say most of us have had that feeling. And what happens when we freeze or our brain goes blank is it's our limbic system taking over. And it's that fight flight freeze moment. We either want to lash out with anger, run away, or stop, so no one can see us. And, and that's what the brain freezes about as well, you know, just stopping.



And the limbic limbic system is there to protect you. These are primaeval things that that are there to, strategies, neuro strategies to keep you safe. However, they were designed for sabre toothed tigers, or you know when a car is hurtling towards you, for real life threatening scenarios. And they get triggered in these scenarios where those where our life isn't threatened. Well, not our physical life, but we might feel like our, you know, our work life, our career life is threatened or potentially threatened. And the thing with the limbic system is it works nanoseconds faster than our prefrontal cortex. It has a link directly into the memory. So it pulls on things that it goes, "Yeah, this is similar to that I'm going to react that way, because that will keep me safe."



But the bit of us that our conscious mind that does the proper thinking. No, I don't mean to say proper thinking because our subconscious does some shithot thinking! The bit of our brain, where we think about our thoughts and can process things in that way, in a more conscious way, is disconnected as is thrown out of it because it works just slightly slower. I mean, again, nanoseconds slower. And if I give you, there's a wonderful hand theory of a hand model of the brain. So if you hold up your hand, and this works much better when I'm on video, but if you hold up a hand, it doesn't matter which one, and then you look at the palm of your hand and how it goes into your wrist and your arm, that's your brainstem. Then your thumb is your limbic system and amygdala. Now fold that into the palm of your hand, and that, you can see how closely that sits to your brainstem and how much it is the centre of your brain and then fold over the top fingers over your thumb, and that is your prefrontal cortex. And the weird thing is it does kind of look like a brain.



What happens when we panic, or when we feel threatened in that way, in an existential way, is we flip our lid so flip your fingers back up, and actually the thumb goes out. But the first thing to reengage is that thumb. The amygdala and the limbic system which is your emotions and your lizard brain, and this is the reactive part of you. So the bit when we when we face a perceived threat, the bit that engages first is the bit that is reactive fight flight freeze, and is not always a bit that's most helpful when we're in the middle of a presentation or a song or an audition or whatever it is.



What we really want is to fold those fingers back down over the top, because that prefrontal cortex can actually released calming chemicals into our limbic system and calm the whole thing down, if we can get the messaging right. And so this is where you get some strategies for dealing with panic attacks, which are very effective, where what they do is they say, Name five things and give five characteristics to those things, or it can just be three things, you know, I'm looking at a hard table. Hard, table. I'm looking at a squigy cushion, I'm looking at a hollow cup. Because to do that requires your prefrontal cortex, we have to be using our brain, our conscious mind to be able to do that. And if we do that, we have to engage it.



So this is a way of bringing back down that lid. And Dan Siegel talks about naming it to tame it, because if we even just name what's going on for us, so if you were to say, we tried various things out with this client, and one of the things we sort of tried naming, 'I'm panicking,' but I think when we say we're panicking, actually, that can lead us into panicking more. Whereas if you say something like, 'Oh, look, my limbic system is taken over.' The mere fact of saying my limbic system is taken over, takes you out of being in the limbic system, it means your prefrontal cortex has engaged so that you bring down that lid. But more than that, it takes you outside looking back at yourself, essentially. And we're apparently this, Dan Siegel says we're the only mammals that can do this. I don't know if that's true. But it allows us to sort of go to another level and look at our thoughts from an outsider's perspective and go, 'Oh, look, this is what's going on for me.' And that fact puts you back in the driving seat.



So one of the first strategies we came up with was this idea of name entertainment, going, 'Look, my limbic system is wanting me to fight flight, or fly or freeze.' And don't worry, this takes again nanoseconds to do. So even if you're in the middle of a song, you can go, Look, this is happening. And that brings you back into yourself, it brings you into this state of presence, which is really, really useful. Because then you are more present to communicate with your audience and do a good job.



The second thing you can do is to do with your audience. And this is what I find very hard, but it's one I practice lots, because it really works for me. And that is to look at your audience. Now, that might send horror into some of you because you think 'No, I can't look at my audience because I will just panic more.' And there's that awful old strategy. And I do say awful. And that's very, very judgmental of me, isn't it, of looking over people's heads at the spot on the back wall. But if I don't know if you've ever seen anyone do that, but I feel left out as an audience when they do that. So I don't like it when they do that.



So what I do is say look at the audience, because it's that idea of they are not the threat that your brain thinks they are. In that moment, we think we're going to die we think we're going to, you know, metaphorically die. But when we look at people, it reminds us that they are just people. You know, that's the idea behind looking at people in them being imagining them naked or just wearing socks or whatever it is, humanise them, they are there they are there, they've got a job to do, potentially, if it's an audition panel, or it's a business meeting, or they're there to be entertained. They have their stuff going on and really, they're not that bothered by your stuff. And your stuff comes in from the periphery.



But you can start to just reconnect with them and that again, brings you presence. And I have somebody who really struggles with eye contact who's trying this more and more. And she says amazing how the more she does it the calmer she becomes and I think it was talking about eye contact last time in the last of the transformations. So one of the things it can do is it can bring you out of that freeze that panic that I want to run away from here, mode.



And the third thing you can do is refocus on what you are doing. Now this is what I did most recently, I read in church for the first time in donkey's years decades, and I was really nervous about it, and I really struggled with the eye contact. As I say eye contact can be the place I disappear from most quickly. But what I did manage to do was refocus on what I was saying, and remember and this is a really powerful bit. If you remember that actually, you can talk incredibly slowly and as long as people know and even you listening to this podcast, I can leave a gap, and you can still know, I'm coming back in to talk. And as long as people know that you are coming back into talk, you can go as slowly as you like. And I slowed the whole pace of it down, really focused on what I wanted to communicate, really focused on how I wanted to communicate it. And it came out so much better than I feared.



Next time, I'm going for the eye contact and but this time this, and actually I had a number of people come up and say that they really enjoyed how I read it and how I paced it bizarrely, I thought I was going ridiculously slowly, but as I say, you can go really slowly, and people will let you as long as they know you're gonna carry on.



And all of this is about re engaging that prefrontal cortex, becoming present, and getting over, it literally doesn't matter what mistake you've made, you have two choices in that moment, you can leg it, run offstage. And sometimes that might work, sometimes, if suddenly all your clothes have fallen off, you might want to leg it and run off stage, that's okay. Or you can go I want to make the most of the rest of this. This happened, but now all I can deal with is the rest of this. So that coming back to presence, pulling out of yourself yourself out of panic, reengaging your prefrontal cortex, and being present so that the rest of what you do goes as well as you can, is the answer.



Because the temptation is to go into that inward place to shrink to close down to try and solve the problem intellectually with your brain and go into yourself. But actually, the answer is to come back out to not be swallowed up by your emotions and your limbic system, but to take a step outside them. And so each of these different strategies that I've talked about will help you do that.



First, name it to tame it will reengage your prefrontal cortex, it will pull you into talking about it, and looking at yourself from the outside. So again, you're not caught in the emotion, you're looking at the emotion from outside.



Re-engaging with your audience, again, reconnect, suddenly, there are human beings and you're not, you then pull yourself outwards, rather than allowing yourself to shrink inwards and become smaller. And it will bring you to being present.



And thirdly, to focus back on your material. Do it Pace, pace yourself, because time is time is relative. And time goes more slowly rhe more relaxed you are, and more speedily the less relaxed you are. So if you relax into focusing back on to material, you will have more time. And when I talk about, it doesn't matter what mistake you've made, I just want to bring in this idea of forgiveness because forgive yourself for the mistake, you can come back and sort out what was behind the mistake, if there's anything you can do to change that (maybe just stuff happens) later, but right in the middle, it's not the time for solving it. So forgive yourself and move on, and be kind to yourself.



And one final thing I want to talk about today, and this is this idea of one of the biggest predictors of panics, panic is your belief as to whether you are going to panic. And this this, basically the more you believe you're going to panic, the more likely it is you're going to panic. And the more likely it is when you do panic you go 'Well, I knew that was going to happen, because that happened last time and it happens every time.' So how do you step out of that belief? What can you do to affect it? Now, again, this may be something that you go, 'Oh my goodness, I don't think I can do this.' But asking yourself what's the worst that can happen? And really taking it to the extreme. So what's the worst can happen? I can forget my words. Okay, what will happen? If you forget your words? What will you do? 'Well, I'll with a song I'll stop and start again. I'll sing when I got in my head. I will just keep going. I will...' You know work out what it is you will do. What do you worry about? What is the fear? What's the reason you worry about forgetting your words? 'Well I worry I won't get the job if I get forget my words.' Okay, so dig into that. What's your fear about not getting the job? What's your fear about what they will think of you as to why they won't give you the job?



Because 999 times out of 1000 when you dig into your worst case scenario, and you really go, yeah, what's that about? What's that about? What's that about? What's that about? 999 times out of 1000 the fear isn't as big as you think it is. The examined fear is so much larger than the real fear. So dig into your worst case scenarios, dig into what will you do if that happens, because not only does that explore the fear and reduce it, I guarantee it will reduce it, it will also give you a strategy so that, you know if the worst happens, you know what you're gonna do. We can't guarantee you'll do it, but if you have a strategy, you go, it's okay. When I forget my words, I'm going to pick up my notes when I forget my words, or I'm going to trust that I'm going to remember my words, and just seeing what comes out of my mouth. I mean, I can't tell you the number of stories I have of people who've won competitions or got to finals and competitions, singing the wrong word or complete gobbledygook in one of their songs, and some of them being actually complimented for it. 'You know, you've got through and you're saying it beautifully, even though verse two was complete rubbish.'



The audience don't think about things in the same way that you do. So, dig into your worst case scenario, know that you've got a strategy for dealing with it, know that after listening to today, you've got a strategy for dealing to deal with, if you start to freeze, if you start to notice, it's all going horribly hideously, spirallingly wrong. Think of those three techniques, name it to tame it, refocus on your audience, and refocus on what you are doing and how you were doing.



Because it pulls you out of how well you're doing. When I mean, when I say how you are doing, I mean, not how well you are doing it,  what you want to express how you want to express it, the technicalities of that, as opposed to how well or badly am I doing? 'Oh my goodness, I'm panicking, this is all going to go wrong.' Refocus, refocus, bring yourself to presence.



So those are three things I would like you to take from today, and overall, there are two bits there aren't there. One strategy for dealing with if you freeze and two strategy for taking the panic, the belief that you're going to panic out or down a level, knowing that you have strategies for dealing with it.



Anyway, thank you for listening today. I'm Hattie Voelcker from Find Your True Voice