Base tension levels too high? It may trigger stage fright

Base tension levels might be too high, like holding these hand grips!

If you suffer from performance anxiety, you may want to consider if you have a problem with base tension levels.

Everyone has a base level of tension or a collection of muscular movements – a ‘set’ – that they take into every activity. FM noticed this right at the beginning of his investigations into his own vocal hoarseness. He found that he made three actions with his head in relation with his body: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. He first noticed himself doing these things while reciting. Soon, though, he found he did them to a smaller degree in normal speaking, too.[1]

When we are engaged in an activity that requires more of us – like reciting a particularly dramatic piece of Shakespeare, or playing in front of an audience – we do our habitual ‘set’ of muscular tension more. FM realised that the three ‘harmful tendencies’ that he noticed in himself were relatively small and didn’t have any particular effect during normal speaking. When he recited, however, the three tendencies were larger and more pronounced, and he would become hoarse while he was acting.

I recited again and again in front of the mirror and found that the three tendencies I had already noticed became especially marked when I was reciting passages in which unusual demands were made upon my voice … what I did in ordinary speaking caused no noticeable harm, while what I did in reciting to meet any unusual demands on my voice brought about an acute condition of hoarseness.[2]

FM’s three harmful tendencies had an immediate and negative effect upon his vocal prowess. But the physical tensions that we carry around with us on a daily basis may prove problematic when we are about to perform in a very different way.

The Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has been around since 1908, and describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Put simply, if you are engaged in a fairly demanding task (like performing) and want your performance level to be high, then you need to hit a ‘sweet spot’ of arousal. You don’t want to not care or not feel anything at all, but you also don’t want your system to be so bombarded with stimuli and so full of stress hormones that you’re hitting the limit of what you can handle.

If your base tension levels are high, you sit at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson grave U curve.

We know that stress hormones are likely to create a level of arousal that could impact upon our performance – ageing parents, unruly kids, a difficult job are all likely to take their toll. Sian Beilock explains:

People with chronic stress in their lives are likely to sit at the top of the U under normal conditions, so when they are faced with the added pressure of public speaking they may be more likely to perform poorly than those who normally sit on the uphill side. If a spouse who is anything but a calming entity is put into the mix, the consequences can be disastrous.[3]

Physical stimuli matter too

We often forget, though, that physical factors are likely to do the same thing. Trainer Don Clark tells a wonderful story about a colleague who was asked to give a training session for a meat packing company, and was given for his training room a cold storage area! The trainees had so much excess environmental arousal from the cold room that the trainer had to work very hard to reduce the arousal factors within his course so that everyone could learn effectively.[4]

Physical stimuli might not be all external, however. The base levels of tension that we take with us everywhere in the course of our day are likely to have just as big an impact. Think about it: FM Alexander noticed that he pulled his head back MORE when he was about to recite some demanding Shakespeare. Similarly, we are likely to increase our base tension levels in response to the stimulus of an impending performance:

  • I walk around every day with (for example) very tight trapezius muscles and resultant raised shoulders. I’m already at a fairly high level of physical arousal. My system is irritable (used as a technical term here).
  • I raise my shoulders a little every time I talk, or walk, or buy an ice cream.
  • If I am about to do something more demanding – like perform in a concert – I will do the shoulder raising even more.
  • This shoulder raising is likely to have a negative impact upon my ability to perform. This is because it sends my arousal level into the danger zone where my system is overloaded.

The solution? Reduce your base tension levels!

There are a lot of things that can help: breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, forms of therapy like CBT all help. But Alexander Technique is uniquely a tool that helps you to notice and change your habitual use of yourself. You can look in a mirror like FM did, and see if you can spot and then prevent the physical movements that you make as a precursor to every activity. Or you can book in to see someone like me. We can work on reducing your base tension levels using a combination of discussion and hands-on guidance.

If you are more relaxed – physically and mentally – on a daily basis, you will be more able to cope with the increased demands upon your system that performing involves. And then you’ll be better able to give the truly captivating performance that you most desire.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] Beilock, S., Choke, London, Constable, 2011, p.316.

[4] Clark, D.R. (2010). Arousal and Performance. Retrieved from Retrieved on 27 June 2019.

Image of hand-grips Elfer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Image of Yerkes-Dodson graph from–Dodson_law, accessed 27 June 2019.

Reducing muscle tension: the whys and wherefores

reducing muscle tension

Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?

It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…

  • They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
  • They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
  • They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
  • They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
  • They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
  • They like it.

There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.

The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*

Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.

And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.

And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
Image by Ambro from