Let's face it. We live in a stressful world. Traffic, money (or lack thereof), our relationships with family and friends, our jobs, and/or the threat of losing them all contribute to a feeling of insecurity. Our innate biological responses, which exist to motivate us in case of emergencies, kick in, and adrenaline and cortisol are released. Theses hormones are great friends when escaping a fire or providing superhuman strength to lift heavy fallen objects in time to save a life, but their continual production not only compromises our effectiveness, but our health as well.
Although children may have fewer daily responsibilities, the stress in their young worlds can be just as ominous. As all levels of education become increasingly more competitive, the pressure to perform well academically also increases. Anxiety over not fitting in, of course is an age-old trial of childhood. And now we are recognizing the prevalence and harmful effects of bullying.
In the world of acting, stress also has its benefits and detriments for both children and adults. Jeffrey Tambor is one of my favorite acting teachers, and when I confessed to feeling nervous on stage, he would say, "That's your talent!" Indeed there is a certain excitement actors feel when working, trying to create a sense of believability, while knowing we're being watched. But just as in our daily lives, that excitement can overtake us and keep us from effectively coping with the task of performing.
Techniques for handling performance anxiety is different for adults and children. A popular method used by adult performers involving a series of controlled breath cycles, inhaling for a number of counts, holding, and releasing is actually a form of pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga. Although pranayama holds a plethora of benefits for adults, the practice is not good for children under the age of sixteen. It can have negative effects on their nervous system that results in an unnatural aging process. Controlling the breath can also increase instead of lessen anxiety in children. However, breathing is certainly an element in releasing stress regardless of age.
Here are some simple relaxation techniques I use in my acting classes. Some can be practiced at home, others in the car or outside a casting office before an audition.
Before you begin it is important that kids get their jitters out. Remember, they have a lot more energy than adults, so they need to burn some of it up before they can calm down. Doing 10-20 jumping jacks or shaking out their limbs one at a time or their whole bodies, making sound can be effective means for releasing that energy.
1) Sit quietly with feet flat on the floor or lie on the floor with eyes closed. Pretend you have a lemon in each fist and you are squeezing all the juice from them. Squeeze every last drop! Don’t forget to breathe all the while! Then release and feel how limp your arms have become.
2) Lying on the on the floor with eyes closed, imagine you are a limp piece of elastic. See how floppy you can make your arms and legs feel. Now imagine that someone is pulling your head and your feet at the same time. Now stretch your arms on the floor above your head and imagine they are pulling your wrists and feet at the same time. Again, don’t hold your breath, even though your being stretched. Breathe! Now release and see if you feel even more floppy.
3) Standing on the floor with your feet as wide as your hips, drop your head and hang from your waist, imagining you are a balloon with no air. Pick your color and see how limp you can make your body. Then begin to fill your body with breath and make your body as big as you can. When you have reached your maximum size, immediately deflate again. See how limp you can be and take another breath or two before repeating.
4) Jump your feet a wide and interlace your fingers behind your back. Pretend your arms and fists are a tail that someone is pulling straight down. Keep your chin to your chest and your legs straight. Lift your heart to the sky. Take a big breath and let it out as you come forward, dropping your head and bringing your arms over. Stay there for ten counts, breathing all the while. Then come up.
Although some kids may complain about these techniques at first, practiced regularly, they begin to feel a sense of calm that they eventually come to anticipate.
Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar