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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Pallesen

"How Do I Stop Shaking?"

In my mental performance coaching work for performers, public speakers, and athletes, people often contact me who struggle with physical shaking while they perform or speak. And despite their best efforts at managing the anxious feelings, they feel like their nerves spiral out of control, leaving them mentally and physically unable to perform at their best.

For years, I approached this the way most mental performance coaches and self-help experts do: teach strategies and techniques to help people get their anxious energy under control and eliminate shaking. And yet, I often found myself frustrated at how inconsistent the results seemed. Why was it that it seemed to "work" sometimes and not others? And why would some people stop shaking for a bit, only to have it return in a few weeks or months?

That frustration prompted me to take a fresh look behind the curtain at what causes shaking when people experience performance anxiety. One day, a new thought occurred to me:

What if I've been looking in the wrong direction all along?

That curiosity revealed something that at the time went against everything I had taught for years, but on a deeper level, made so much sense and rang true:

Nerves aren't the problem. Trying to not feel them is.

In other words, what makes nerves become shaking isn't the mere presence of nerves themselves - it's all our effort to not feel nervous or fix/manage our anxious feelings that makes it worse.

To help illustrate this to clients, I often use the metaphor of a pot of boiling water. Most of us have probably put a lid on a pot at some point because we've learned it helps the water boil faster. Let's take a look at what happens "under the lid": As the heat rises and the water turns to steam, the steam wants to move. But because there's a lid on the pot, all that energy gets trapped and can't go anywhere. So the pressure builds and builds until eventually the pressure is so great it will often cause the lid to start rattling.

I think the same is true with us. The way it looks to me, nerves, like any other emotion, are simply life energy moving through us. And that's the thing: emotions and energy are designed to move through us. They're fluid and transient by nature. But because we've learned nerves are "bad", we worry that left unchecked, they'll get the best of us and get in the way of our work. So naturally, we employ every strategy we know to try and manage/control them. And that's like putting a lid on the pot. The energy doesn't have a chance to release or escape, so the pressure builds and builds, and boom, we're shaking.

So ironically, our effort to control nerves is what actually makes them control us.

In short: while managing the energy is a great approach if you want to boil water faster, it seems to me that it's not so great with anxiety!

Here's what I think is helpful:

Have you tried just feeling whatever you feel?

Now, you might think I'm crazy for saying that. I get it - you should see the looks I get from clients when I suggest that! 😂 But for me, it all boils down (see what I did there?) to the fundamental question:

What is actually causing the shaking? Is it anxiety itself, or is it our resistance to it and all our effort to not feel it?

If it's the anxiety itself, finding strategies to control it seems like a really good idea. But if that were the case, don't you think it would have worked by now?

But what if nerves are neither good nor bad, and are just another flavor of being alive? In that case, there would be nothing to "fix". I've noticed that when people give themselves permission to feel whatever they're feeling, the energy tends to move through them faster and more gracefully, and it never has the chance to "boil over" into something debilitating.

It might feel scary at first if you've been so used to not doing that! But many of my clients have discovered that the fear of the thing is worse than the actual thing; that nervous energy will indeed move through and pass on its own if they let it. And with managing the nerves/energy off your plate, you're free to be in the moment and do your work with more aliveness, freedom, and expression.

So if you're struggling with shaking and wondering why you haven't seemed to "figure it out" yet, I'd invite you to consider that perhaps it's not your fault. You're not doing anything wrong, or not working hard enough, or not doing the "right" techniques. It just might be time to look in a different direction from where you've been looking for the causes and solutions. Reflect on the questions I asked above and see what you see. And be open to the possibility that it might be as simple as taking the lid off and feeling the feels. No judgment, no resistance. Just feeling. Just being alive. And when you're allowing yourself to be alive, how much more alive will your work be? 🤗


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