Over the last 20 some years of teaching singing I've noticed an increasing number of singers that struggle with anxiety, Performance anxiety has always been a problem for many singers, but anxiety disorders are on the rise. In my health coaching practice it's also a common thread.
This is the first in a three part series on how lifestyle can help anxiety, both clinical disorders and performance anxiety. I will be giving you tips and strategies to help you get back to feeling confident on and off the stage.
In this part we will discuss the impact of nutrition and what foods will help the most. The following parts will deal with physical exercise and sleep.
My own story with anxiety goes back to my childhood. I was a very VERY shy child. Though it was never diagnosed, it was social anxiety. Even as an adult I had a hard time in social situations and felt very awkward. The stigma of getting help was very real and my family had so many other issues that it seemed to me that my problems weren’t that big, so I never sought treatment. However, when I did change my lifestyle through exercise and nutrition it was if a veil had lifted! I suddenly found myself more willing to take chances socially and felt so much more confident in myself.
Though lifestyle factors can go a long way to helping alleviate anxiety, it’s important to realize that it can have many underlying factors that need to be addressed. A combination of improving lifestyle and working with a therapist specializing in anxiety disorders is the most effective way to treat anxiety.
Anxiety DisordersFirst let’s have a little background look at anxiety.
Anxiety is prevalent in our society. According to Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) 54 percent of woman and 46 percent of men experience some form of anxiety disorder.
Some common disorders are generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific phobias.
Many use medication to help alleviate their anxiety. Paxil and Zoloft, two of the more popular anti-anxiety medications, ranked 7th and 8th in the top ten prescribed medications in the US. However, singers should use these medications with caution since they can cause a dry mouth and dry out mucous membranes that can result in hoarseness, sore throat and voice changes leaving the vocal folds susceptible to injuries such as nodules.
Mental and physical health are closely linked. People with a mood disorder are at much higher risk of developing a long-term medical condition.
Just a few of the symptom of those who have an anxiety condition include:
Some level of performance anxiety is expected for any performer. Some even say that if you don’t feel nervous, you won’t give a good performance. It’s a natural state of being faced with an unfamiliar situation; your body’s fight or flight response. Usually the anticipation of performing is usually worse than the actual performance. However, for some performance anxiety can be debilitating.
There are many ways to learn to cope with performance anxiety that incorporate cognitive strategies (mindset, meditation, triggers). However, lifestyle here also plays an important role. It can help give you a reliable instrument for singing; energized, healthy, with an alert mind.
If you are tired or unwell, there is always the worry that you won’t perform as well as you would like and the very real worry of vocal injury.
Nutrition to boost you mood and performance
Studies have shown that adopting a healthier diet can boost peoples' mood. In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals, which are high in fibre and vegetables, while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars. Likewise, studies have shown that a “junk food” diet can have negative psychological effects.
Making healthy dietary change can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. These conditions have been linked to inflammation in the body due to how chronic stress adversely affects the body’s inflammation response. Eating an unhealthy diet, such as junk food, high sugar foods, and stimulants, stress the body, which can contribute to inflammation problems. Chronic inflammation is also linked to many diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and multiple sclerosis, to name a few. Eating a healthy diet can reduce the body’s stress load causing a reduction in inflammation.
Women in particular seem to benefit from dietary interventions for symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Though that’s no excuse for the guys to get complacent, since they are still at great risk of inflammatory conditions that will affect their health.
Performance anxiety also benefits from supportive lifestyle factors including physical exercise, sleep and healthy diet. The best strategy is to adopt healthy eating as a lifestyle choice. This will ensure decreased inflammation, which as we already discussed can prevent (and in some cases, reverse) many diseases that can affect your ability to sing and to sing with confidence.
On performance days you should avoid alcohol, high caffeine, high-sugar, high-fat and spicy foods before performance and eat easily digestible complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables, which will produce a sustained release of energy during performance. This will also help you better maintain concentration and focus.
Some great meal ideas include whole grain pasta with a mild primavera sauce, lentil soup, or a bean and rice burrito bowl. Avoid wheat/gluten products if you have irritable bowel syndrome or have a known sensitivity to wheat products.
Foods that boost your mood
Some of the causes of anxiety have to do with nutrient deficiencies. The nutrients and foods listed below will help boost your mood and make you feel energized.
B Vitamins and Folate:
Studies have indicated that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression have an elevated incident of folate deficiency. Vitamin B6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influences mood. Other B vitamins including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have positive effects on the nervous system. Deficiencies of these vitamins have been linked to increased anxiety.
Foods rich in B vitamins:
Aparagus, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, beets, citrus, spinach, avocado, broccoli, nuts and seeds, brussel sprouts, papaya, banana, carrots, sweet potatoes,
Antioxidants including Vitamins C and E:
When we’re anxious and stressed, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells. Researchers7 at the State University of New York found that anxious symptoms are linked with a lower antioxidant state.
Foods rich in antioxidants:
Kale, dark green leafy vegetables, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, dark chocolate, pecans, goji berries, artichokes, beets, goji berries, red cabbage, beans
Researchers have shown that magnesium may be an effective treatment for anxiety-related symptoms, as inadequate magnesium reduces the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
Foods rich in magnesium:
Whole grains, nuts and seeds, black beans, spinach, quinoa, avocado, tofu
Omega-3 fatty acid:
According to a study from Ohio University, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly effective when it comes to foods that help with anxiety. They are known to be highly effective anti-inflammatories and are the kind of fats our brains crave.
Foods rich in magnesium:
Chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds
They call the gut the second brain and it’s actually powered by our gut microbiome. Feeding the good bacteria in our gut can help with serotonin production. A link has been found between the consumption of fermented, probiotic foods and a reduction in social anxiety.
Foods rich in probiotics:
Sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, sourdough bread
I would love to hear about your experiences and if you've ever thought of food as a way to deal with anxiety. Leave a comment below or contact me.
If you want more ideas of how to get more of these anxiety busting foods into your diet, join our Vibrant Body Vibrant Voice community where I frequently share recipes and other anxiety busting tips.
Joseph Firth et al, The effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety, Psychosomatic Medicine (2019). DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000673
The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning by Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson | Feb 18 2003