5 tips for DJs with performance anxiety

Do you ever find DJing overwhelming? Are nerves getting the better of you in the booth? We asked a range of professionals for their thoughts and advice.

“What if I mess up the first mix?” 

“Can people see my hands trembling?”    

“Why am I breathing so hard?” 

If your mind races like this before a DJ set, it might help to remind yourself that you’re not alone. In fact, we might say the experience is common: by some estimates performance anxiety, in all its forms, occurs regularly for around one fifth of us. Anxious thoughts about your ability to perform and/or a focus on worst case scenarios are usually accompanied by symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations and/or an increased heart rate, nausea and shaking. A strong urge to escape the situation is also common. Wasn’t DJing supposed to be fun? 

It doesn’t help that figuring out what to do about performance anxiety can be as overwhelming as the issue itself. From therapists to coaches, self-help authors to doctors, psychologists to psychiatrists, there are countless schools of thought in approaching the issue. 

Our aim here, then, is to cut through the noise by speaking to a small group of professionals whose work sits at the intersection of DJing and mental health. Each of them approaches performance anxiety from a different perspective and recommends different things to consider or a different self-treatment to try. There’s an emphasis on the word try here because, like most mental health interventions, there are no universal solutions. What works for you, might not work for me, and vice versa. The hope here is that you’ll find something that helps, stick with it, and play more relaxed and confident DJ sets.  

Tom Middleton, composer, sensory designer, sleep coach

​​Performance anxiety, a form of social anxiety, is the fear of inability to perform under pressure, and in this case play music and entertain an audience. At its worst, people experience sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror, which reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks).

As a DJ or performer, if you’re naturally shy, crowd avoidant or introverted, loud, intense music, large audiences and the prospect of delivering an entertaining performance can all be instant triggers. You might also be suffering from an underlying general anxiety disorder, which leads to confidence issues or negative thoughts.

If we can understand the triggers and what’s happening in the mind and body, we can deploy techniques to reduce the symptoms and overcome these episodes of anxiety and panic. Lack of sleep and having to perform late into the night can also lead to elevating the body to a state of prolonged fight or flight mode, also known as the sympathetic state. (When we’re calm and relaxed it’s called the parasympathetic state, or rest, digest and recover mode.)

Anxiety activates this fight-or-flight response, which triggers the body to release cortisol and adrenaline, which increases heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. These in turn can upset the normal homeostatic balance within the mind and body and cause multiple symptoms, including increased heart rate, breathing difficulties, dizziness, trembling, a sense of panic, trouble concentrating and difficulty controlling worry. We can deal with short bursts of these hormones (eustress, or “good stress,” such as exercise), but if prolonged we begin experiencing all the negative side effects of distress.

You need to reduce the physiological symptoms resulting from cognitive distortions and catastrophising. Anxiety stops you from thinking clearly, so using refocusing and relaxation techniques such as grounding, breathing exercises and meditation is the stepping stone to reducing the symptoms and regaining clarity.

The “5-4-3-2-1” grounding technique helps you to refocus your attention to being present in the immediate environment. Take a slow, deep inhale and an even slower exhale.

See: Say five things you can see around you.

Feel: Say four things you can feel— “I feel my feet on the floor,” “I feel my toes wiggling.”

Listen: Say three sounds you can hear.

Smell: Say two things you can smell.

Taste: Say one thing you can taste—a recent food, or imagine a favourite flavour.  

When you’re anxious you often hold your breath, or it becomes shallow and short, which both fuel anxiety. Recalibrating to deeper, slower fuller breaths with a longer exhale is the most simple technique.

You could try “In In Out”: Inhale into the belly. Then inhale into the chest. Then breathe out with a big “huh” sigh.

Or “4-7-8”: Count four in through the nose filling the belly and lungs. Hold for seven. Then exhale for around eight, completely emptying the lungs.

Listening to relaxing music can also help, ideally something very slow (to reduce heart rate), while nature sounds can help you feel safe. Try my albums Relax Better, Sleep Better or Spatial Sleep Music

Finally, invest in consistent sleep during the week. (Admittedly not easy if you’re touring at the weekend.)

Routine: Establish regular wake (most important) and sleep times. Set reminders. Aim for at least 7.5 hours of sleep. 

Daylight: Walk outside in daylight (no shades!) for 20 mins in the morning to reset the body clock.

Movement: Take standing breaks if you sit a lot. It’s unwise to exercise too close to bedtime.

Diet: Eat light at night, two to three hours before bedtime. Aim for eight to ten glasses of water a day. Magnesium, L-theanine and 5HTP may help support sleep.

Caffeine: Avoid after 12pm, since it takes 12 hours to leave the body and is the worst sleep disruptor.

Alcohol: Booze ruins sleep quality, blocks REM sleep for memory and mood, meaning you’ll never wake up feeling refreshed.

Sleep environment: Remove tech and replace with plants. The bedroom is for sleeping and intimacy, it is not an office, dining room or cinema!

Sleep kit: Eye mask, earplugs and nasal strips, which can reduce snoring and help you achieve a deeper sleep.

Light and temperature: Avoid bright, white light around bedtime, which blocks melatonin. Red, orange or soft lights are ideal. Keep the room cool, at around 18 degrees (65 fahrenheit).

Digital detox / dopamine fasting: So-called “blue light” from screens blocks melatonin, so avoid scrolling, swiping and toxic screen addiction for at least an hour before bed.

Vanessa Maria, DJ, creative producer and broadcaster

As soon as I started DJing I began struggling with performance anxiety. I was overwhelmed with the pressure to be perfect, the pressure to do well and the pressure to perform. I was so crippled by this anxiety that I forgot to enjoy myself along the way.

The common term for performance anxiety is stage fright. When somebody is about to perform there is a set of emotional and physical reactions that happens to them. Symptoms include palpitations, trouble breathing, blurred vision, feeling nauseous, clammy hands and becoming stiff. It’s because a situation is perceived as a threat.

The threat was coming from several places for me. Not only was it the anxiety around the actual performance, but I also felt like an imposter. The spaces I was playing in were mostly male and white, and it became apparent that I felt like I had something to prove. I felt like I needed to “out-compete” my male counterparts to be considered “good enough.” As a woman, my early experiences were intimidating, and I began to feel my anxiety spiralling. Being on stage is very exposing and a very vulnerable place to be. If gigs, in general, don’t feel like a safe space, playing live can feel like a confrontation with the audience, and putting yourself in that position can be very difficult.

Performance anxiety can be a vicious cycle; your anxiety impacts your performance, which makes you more anxious and so on. The key is to cut that cycle. If performance anxiety gets worse people can turn to self-medicating with substances to get that numbing feeling. But there are consequences, as the quality of work being produced is not going to be as good. Instead, it’s about finding healthy ways to manage and cope, because there is help out there.

Short term solutions include breathing exercises before you perform, rehearsing and being familiar with the environment and eliminating the thought process that your performance is competitive—this is one of the biggest things that increases performance anxiety, the feeling you are competing against the whole world. Enjoy what you are doing. Your diet has an impact, too. Eat well, sleep well. When we are tired, we tend to cut corners.

Darlington Zvionere, a psychotherapeutic counsellor and head of clinical governance at Black Minds Matter, has some amazing advice. “We use an acronym called HALT,” he said. “Am I hungry? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired? Those things cause our behaviour to change. Ask yourself those questions. In the long term, if you feel your anxieties are getting out of hand, seek therapy. Some people can use CBT to challenge the thought process: Where is this coming from? When did I start feeling this way?

“I’ve also found peace in understanding the similarity between anxiety and excitement. If you take a step back and look at how you feel when you are excited, what are the things that go through your body and your mind when you have performance anxiety? I try to channel my fear into excitement and tell myself, ‘I am excited to perform.’ It’s about the choices we make when we are faced with fear. The biggest thing is to be yourself. Be the best you can be in the moment. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Think to yourself, ‘Today, I’m going to give it my all.’ Give the world your talent.”

Our mind is a powerful tool. Here are a few steps I take to let go of my anxiety and enter a more peaceful state of mind:

Allow yourself to feel the emotion

  • Do not resist it, do not judge it and do not try to change it. You will face resistance to let go—sit with it without resisting the resistance.

Focus on the feeling

  • Thoughts will come up but try to focus on feelings and sensations instead. 

Let it go

  • When you’re ready, try to let go of the anxiety. 

Rinse and repeat

  • The feeling might come back, which means there is more of it to let go of. Rinse and repeat the process until you’re feeling more peaceful. 

Clare Scivier, Artist development consultant, founder of Your Green Room, partner at Seven20    

For over 15 years, I have worked to apply behavioural psychology into more sustainable performance and development for DJs, artists, writers and producers all over the world. I previously worked in A&R at labels and in publishing, and this experience from the business side—delivering consistently high quality music, marketing and PR commitments, as well as heavy touring schedules—gives me a unique perspective for the work that I do.

Over the years, I have tried to raise awareness of the importance of mind-health in the industry. In my practice, I’ve noticed a disproportionate number (compared to the general population) of DJs and producers showing signs of autism and Aspergers, a wide, varied and colourful spectrum affecting people, who are often incredibly sensitive to light and sounds. Performing to large crowds in enclosed spaces (with bright lights and lots of noise) can bring on anxiety attacks as their senses are overloaded; changes in schedules and plans, constant travel and lack of sleep only exacerbates levels of stress that can manifest in physical illness. There are many ways I work with my clients to manage these symptoms, often working closely with their teams around them as part of the ecosystem of support, no matter what underlying additional needs they may require.

The overuse of caffeine, alcohol and drugs have for decades been seen as the quick fix for many of the issues attached to performance anxiety, exhaustion, imposter syndrome and other common fears DJs and artists face. Sadly much of my work has involved the terrible consequences of dependency on stimulants. People aren’t aware nearly enough of the long-term effects: worsening anxiety, greater depression, poor sleep health, lack of appetite, a catastrophic effect on relationships and sense of purpose.

I believe preparation and support in the early stages of a developing career are better than trying to find a cure in the midst of success, when there is so much to lose and things are done in the public eye. People are also unaware of the number of chemicals and hormones your body is releasing naturally during performance, and so adding other stimulants into the mix can be a lethal cocktail, putting your physical and long-term mental health at risk.

The life of a DJ is never going to be easy from a healthcare point of view, so my advice is always not to confuse YOUR career and working life with the social lives of those paying to come and see you. A balanced diet of good foods and healthy drinks (always have plenty of water) will help fuel your body and keep energy levels up. I am beginning to see a clear line between the “pro’s,” the super-league of DJs at the top of their game who want long-term careers, and those who are doing it for the lifestyle, which people should be wary of—it will eat you up and make you unwell. You must be clear to yourself why you are doing this and your end goal. 

Finally, because I notice this more amongst DJs and producers, don’t forget to go outside and grab some sunshine. Being stuck in windowless studios during the day and working at night, it’s easy to neglect getting natural vitamin D from the sun. We aren’t nearly aware enough of how important this essential “freebie” is to us as human beings. There are many new technologies that can help with the symptoms of anxiety, with seemingly endless apps for this purpose. Many of my clients enjoy yoga, meditation and fitness to connect with mind and body. Ultimately the foundation of your health, managing stress and anxiety requires work and maintenance. Understanding your motivation, then building a robust structure to support your career will make it last longer. When you are healthy you can achieve anything.

Florence Jimenez Otto, creative industries coach

“As-if-trance” is a method in which you experience a desired future. It’s based on Neuro Linguistic Programming. This approach enables you to change the way you think, see, hear and feel things, so you can produce more positive results. In order to “act-as if” you visualise a future moment when you will need to apply this method and pre-rehearse how it will all play out in your mind. When the moment comes, it should feel like you’ve already rehearsed it so vividly that it’s just a matter of going through the motions. 

Here are the three steps for the “As-if-trance”: 

Favourable verbalisation of the outcome

  • Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted and set an alarm for ten minutes.
  • Verbalise in one complete sentence what you would like to achieve and try to be accurate. Make sure to start the sentence with “I” and frame it in the present tense or as if you already act that way. For example, “I am enjoying mixing my favourite track collection and seeing people having a good time.”
  • Avoid any negation. For example, “I am not nervous” needs to become something like, “I am feeling well prepared.”

As-if-trance with all your senses

  • Again set an alarm for ten minutes.
  • Relax and envision the future positive outcome with all your senses. These questions can help you to visualise the situation: “How do you feel now, since you have already achieved what you wanted?” “What can you see, hear, smell?” “How does your body feel?” “What thoughts are going through your mind, what are you telling yourself?”
  • Try to stay in this “As-if-emotions and inner images” headspace for ten minutes.


  • You are still in trance and looking back from the future outcome to the present moment.
  • Now ask yourself what you have done to get there, as if you were describing the process to a friend. How often have you rehearsed? Which empowering thoughts were you thinking? Which role models came to your mind? Which body posture (heads up, shoulders back, smile) were you practising?
  • Try to gather steps and actions for at least five minutes.

Ultimately you can try to identify one particular resource that helps you to recall the positive outcome and use it as an anchor. This can be everything from words, thoughts, smells, symbols, body posture or gestures that creates the desired stimulus reaction chain.

Tracie Storey, vibrational sound practitioner and Qi Gong instructor

This is what I do when I feel that heart-pumping nervousness, when I feel like my senses are really heightened. Firstly, I ground. I put my thumb in the middle of the palm of my hand and just breath. I’m bringing myself back to the present moment, focussed on the slight pressure in the palm of my hand. And I’m breathing. I’m not doing any particular type of breathwork, usually just longer exhales, which helps ground me in the present moment. Then I swap over to the other hand. 

Then I will start doing some 4 / 4 / 8 breathing. I breathe in for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Then breathe out for eight seconds. It’s a nice, long, slow exhalation. This helps to slow down your heartbeat. This is for when my heart is pumping, when I feel like I’ve taken a shot of caffeine and the nervousness has taken over. The 4 / 4 / 8 breathing really, really helps. 

The other thing that I do is a grounding sound. In my sound practice I work with a whole heap of different sounds that do different things, they’re like sound shapes. This one takes you down to the ground. The shape of this sound is very much an earthing, grounding sound that goes downwards. When I make this sound it helps me to ground. I imagine roots coming from my feet. The great thing about this sound is that nobody even knows you’re doing it. I can be standing next to people before I’m about to go on stage, making this sound, and they won’t hear it. 

I make sure both my feet are on the ground. No crossed legs. Imagine roots going down. I take a deep breath in. And then: 


I feel that sound going down through my body into my feet. Then I do it again. Deep breath in. Make the sound. And wait until I can really feel the vibration in my feet.

If I’m really nervous or anxious it takes a little bit of time. I have to do it about five times because I’m just not grounded. But when I feel it slightly tingling in my feet I know that it’s working.  

Words: Ryan Keeling

Design: Olesia Li