I’ve seen many performers backstage, fighting the tendency for their nerves to make their hands turn cold. Some run their hands under scalding hot water, or bring hot beverages, I’ve seen little pocket warmers and gadgets of every kind.
Why does nervousness tend to make our hands turn cold? When we get nervous, it triggers our old stone-age mechanism for survival….nervousness is simply old fashioned fear, and our body doesn’t know the difference between performance anxiety and “Shit! There’s a Sabre Toothed Tiger chasing me!”….so our core heats up, protecting our internal organs, and our circulation constricts in our limbs, leaving more blood available to our internal processes. I find that when I’m nervous, my hands are cold, but the rest of me sweats. When I’m REALLY nervous, my hands get the cold sweats, and it just ain’t right…..but that’s the reality of it.
How do we block an instinct that has kept us alive for thousands of years? Well, that takes me back to our good friend, Inderol. As a beta blocker, it will shut down that natural fear response, leaving your circulation and breathing unconstricted. The down side of Inderol is that some people complain that they don’t have the usual “nervous energy” which can make live performances so exciting for both the audience and the performer. Personally, I think if a person channels their mind and tunes in to their audience, that energy can be re-learned.
But can’t we overcome this “cold-hand” phenomenon naturally? I believe we can. First of all, it’s important to put yourself into the situation that makes you nervous FREQUENTLY. Like, WEEKLY, or DAILY if possible. Your physiological response to this fear will get weaker and weaker, and you will also come to terms with your psychological terror. You practice everything else to perfection…..why not practice getting stage fright to perfection?
Here are some more quick little tricks I have learned to get over some of the physical afflictions of stage fright
For cold or shaky hands, mind your breathing. When we get nervous, our breathing constricts. Lack of oxygen is going to make our limbs cold. Lack of oxygen also adds to the shakiness we feel when we are nervous. Breathe deeply and slowly, even expand your belly, hold the air long enough for your body to absorb the oxygen.
The next tip for cold hands is the opposite of what most people do:
Don’t WARM your hands! FREEZE them!
Have you ever had a snowball fight with no gloves? Your hands freeze….and then what happens when the snowball fight is over? Your hands turn HOT as all the blood rushes into them to warm them. It’s crazy, but it works. So, you might want to keep an ice pack backstage instead of those hand-warmers!
Watch Your Diet! Diet greatly influences your circulation and and shakiness
I am not a doctor. I’m not even a nutritionalist! In fact, before making any big changes in your lifestyle or trying any of my ideas, it would be best to consult with a doctor. But I think we can agree that poor circulation could be a contributing factor to cold hands, or cold extremities. Generally, if you improve your diet, and reduce your salt, sugar, fat, and bad cholesterol, your circulation will improve. Oh, and stop smoking. Smoking is a big contributor to poor circulation. Exercise is also a good way to kick your circulation into gear.
Thermogenesis is the process through which, due to various factors, the body creates heat during the breakdown of certain foods. Digestion of any kind produces heat, but some foods cause a higher rate of thermogenesis than others.
Certain Cruciferous and Root Vegetables, particularly cabbage, kale, potatoes (all kinds), and carrots are a little harder for the body to break down, and so they generate more heat just because there is more work involved in their digestion.
Hot Peppers stimulate the circulatory system, thereby raising the body temperature. Did you ever wonder why on earth hot peppers are so stereotypical of hot, desert climates? One would think that ice cream would be the food of choice in Arizona! Well, when the hot peppers raise the body temperature, it reduces the difference between body temperature and environmental temperature, which makes the hot weather not seem so hot! In addition, spice foods tend to make us sweat, which also cools us down. (but sweat can be a BAD thing for performance…so maybe hot peppers are good for a hike through the Grand Canyon, but maybe not for performing in front of your church congregation!) By the way, if you have ulcers, avoid hot peppers, and don’t burn a hole in your throat.
Ginger is a common remedy for nausea and digestive problems, but apparently, it’s “pungent” properties also trigger thermogenesis.
Green Tea contains both caffeine (a stimulant) and catechins, (an antioxidant) both of which boost thermogenesis. Obviously, you will want to curb your intake of caffeine or other stimulants if shakiness is a problem for you.
In summary, you have lots of tools available to you to help deal with the shakes and cold hands. But at the top of the list, I would say taking care of your health and eating right is the most important thing you can do. After that, it’s preparation and practice that are our greatest friends on stage! Practice getting nervous as much as you practice your pieces, and you will defeat the stage fright beast!
As the weather has been cold lately my hands are always freezing before I pick up the violin. Luckily I remember these tips. Before I play I just hold my freezing left hand in my freezing right hand for a bit and to my surprise they warm up enough.
Thanks again for the tips!
Thanks for the feedback! I know it works for me, but it’s good to know that it works for others too!
thank you for the tips on dealing with cold hands. I am not a musician, but I definitely appreciate fine music.
I found the cold hands tips helpful, (some even ironic.)
Red Desert is great all the way around.
Thanks for the supportive comment, Owen. I took a look at your website, and it looks like you know a thing or two about nutrition….so you would be aware of certain foods that can bring “heat” to our bodies, either through thermogenesis or just improved circulation. Keep up your good work! –L
Hi Lora- I love your way of explaining things– it really works for me! One comment on cold hands- I have had cold hands when I get stressed out in lessons. I have found that doing shoulder exercises help significantly. Think of moving your shoulder first straight up and down with your shoulder blades pulled together (=chest out and shoulder back)… then do shrugs with the shoulder slightly ahead of the chest (shoulder blades apart, chest a bit sunken). Then try to make a square- shoulder shrug up and forward, move to the up and back position, let the shrug down and keep the shoulder in the back position, then finally move it forward still in the down position. You end up drawing a vertical square. It could also be thought of like doing shoulder circles, but I find the specific square formation takes more thought and 1. gets the circulatiion going from the shoulder down and 2. distracts from the tension because you are trying to draw a (very unnatural) square with your shoulder). What do you think?
Kim! THANK YOU for this amazing idea! As I read your comment, I was trying the exercises, and I think you hit the nail on the head: It distracts your mind from tension by focusing on the square, AND it definitely gets the blood going from your TRUNK into your limbs. Another thing I think it does, as you are moving your shoulders about your rib cage and what not, it stimulates deeper breathing.
This is a fantastic little technique. I hope everyone will read this comment!
Thanks for the interesting read! Health and nervousness isn’t something that I’d usually associate with violin playing so I’m glad that you’ve brought it to my attention. Freezing hands when they’re cold to warm them sounds absurd at first but it makes sense when you explain it. I f I’m ever in the situation where my hands get cold from nervousness I’ll remember to pack some snowballs :p
I’m glad you found it interesting. Just make sure you don’t store the snowballs in your violin case. 🙂