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Violinist Natalie Hodges on dealing with performance anxiety

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I can help you - four words with the power to change someone's life and to help them learn to help themselves. Back From Broken is a podcast from Colorado Public Radio that showcases the courage it could take to come back from mental health struggles. In a recent episode, host Vic Vela spoke with author Natalie Hodges. Hodges started down the path of becoming a professional violinist at a young age and poured everything she had into making her dream a reality. But as she got better, her performance anxiety got worse and worse.

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NATALIE HODGES: I started to just be on stage and feel absolutely flooded with nerves in a way that I had never experienced. And the way that that manifested itself was I actually felt like time had stopped in the performance. And then I would start to get really afraid to perform because I was afraid to feel that.

DETROW: Over time, Hodges was forced to choose between her dreams and her mental health. Here's Back From Broken host Vic Vela with the rest of her story.

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VIC VELA, BYLINE: Natalie Hodges kept working to push through her performance anxiety, and she had plenty of success. She went on to study music at Harvard. But that feeling of time stopping during her performances just continued to eat away at her, and she wanted to know why it kept happening. So as a sophomore in a biology class, she did a lot of research on how brains work. There were studies about this stuff, and learning about the neurological science behind it was a huge relief to Natalie. Getting that bit of understanding helped, but it didn't mean she stopped chasing her dreams. During Natalie's junior year, she geared up for a competition hosted by the orchestra at Harvard.

HODGES: I wanted to compete. I prepared the Brahms "Concerto," which is one of my favorite violin concertos ever. It's so beautiful.

VELA: It's a good one. Yeah.

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HODGES: I prepared, I think, harder for that than anything I had in my life, and I also prepared smarter. Like, I was - at this point, I was getting better at practicing. I was trying to figure out a way to - you know, to be more efficient. So I'm not just blindly, you know, banging my head against the wall, repeating the same runs over and over.

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HODGES: So I felt like I had practiced in a very creative way, and I felt pretty confident going in. And I went in and did my audition, and it was actually one of the best performances that I've ever given.

VELA: OK.

HODGES: I just - I felt - not only in terms of, I think, how it how it came out, but as how I felt when I was playing. I felt really free, more creative and spontaneous. And I knew - right when that happens, you just - you know. Like, you're making something in time, and it feels good.

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HODGES: I gave everything that I had. And I didn't win. I came in second. I was the runner-up.

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HODGES: I just remember after they announced the result, and I was like, it was OK. Like, I was very happy for the person who won. It was a beautiful day in the fall. And I sat there, and I just bawled. I just cried. And if - I felt like something was kind of like leaving my body. It was all of the tension of that performance. But it was also...

VELA: Wow.

HODGES: Yeah, it was a really strange moment. It was almost like when you're kind of consciously, like, falling out of love. Like, it feels like something is being released.

VELA: You're just letting go. You had all these struggles...

HODGES: Yeah.

VELA: ...And you were in your head for so long. And finally, you just said, wow, I really enjoy how I'm playing right now, and all these feelings are coming out.

HODGES: There was also this sense, too, that like, I played my best, and it wasn't enough. And no matter what, it's not going to be enough in terms of a professional career at the level that I want to pursue one. And that was the first time that I really knew that. I just remember having to make this choice - and I'd also majored in English and had really fallen in love with literature and writing during my college experience. And I remember actually sitting in the common room of the house where I lived and just thinking, like, it's not my voice. And I didn't really know why I was playing anymore, aside from to meet these certain standards or to soothe the desperation that I felt when I couldn't meet them. Like, that was my reason to practice at that point. So it didn't really feel like I was saying things with my music.

VELA: What a revelation.

HODGES: Yeah, it was terrible.

VELA: Yeah?

HODGES: Yeah. But freeing also.

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VELA: So Natalie let go of her dream of becoming a professional violinist, but her problems didn't go away. She still experienced anxiety. It just wasn't on a stage anymore. In order for Natalie to truly recover, she needed to get to the bottom of where that anxiety came from.

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VELA: During her senior year, she built on the research around performance anxiety that she had done earlier in her college career. And learning that scientists had observed other people experiencing this too helped Natalie feel like she wasn't alone. Eventually, she wrote a thesis project that combined science and memoir. It was so good, she actually got a book deal after graduating from Harvard in 2019. But a monkey wrench was thrown into Natalie's plans during the pandemic lockdown.

HODGES: I came home, and I was working on turning my thesis manuscript into the book, revising it so that I could get it published. Because I didn't have violin anymore, because I was, at this point, kind of like, I'm not going to apply to graduate school, that period of my life in which violin is this really central column is done. Like, the column has come down. And the anxiety, strife and the purpose that violin had held, all of that didn't have anywhere to go anymore. There was no container for it. There wasn't something that I could just go and do for five hours a day and feel like I was making progress or working on something. I didn't have that anymore. And then I think the confluence of that with COVID, the isolation of that...

VELA: Yeah.

HODGES: ...Was very difficult.

VELA: That's a lot to deal with.

HODGES: Yeah.

VELA: And you struggled, right?

HODGES: I did, yeah. I was lucky to be at my mom's house. I was living with her, and then my siblings were all home during that time. So that was a nice element of it that I think really saved me. But basically, the struggle that I ended up having was this surge of intrusive thoughts about anything that you can possibly imagine. Like, I really struggled with anxiety about my health, which, of course, makes sense since it's COVID. Like, I thought - you know, I would wake up and think that I had some terminal illness. I would wake up the next day and think I had another terminal illness. I had so many terminal illnesses during that time.

VELA: Yeah.

HODGES: You know, and I'd have anxiety about other things, too. And I would - all these thoughts that it was just so easy to latch onto and make real. And I remember just, like, lying in bed one night and feeling like I literally had - it wasn't a hallucination, but it was this almost visualization of myself. I felt like my head had cracked open, and it felt like the night was pouring in...

VELA: Wow.

HODGES: ...To - like, into my skull.

VELA: What a description.

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HODGES: Yeah. It was this really, like, awesome moment in - just in the, like, really actually terrifying sense of that word and the largest sense of that word.

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HODGES: It's been a lot of work to come to terms with the fact that that is there. But when I think back on it, it's almost like that was maybe at the heart of the performance anxiety - the need for control, right? And I'm sure violin prevented me from ever feeling that up until that moment...

VELA: Yeah.

HODGES: ...Because it was something that promised control. And I had to come to terms with the fact that none of us can do that, and I think that was what unleashed all of that grief and rage and anxiety that had been just bottled up for a really long time.

VELA: You put it so perfectly. I mean, that's just a lot to have in your head, you know?

HODGES: I think that's why the - maybe the image of it cracking open...

VELA: Yeah. I mean, and because you struggled to even get out of bed at that time, right?

HODGES: Yeah.

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HODGES: I did get to a point where I was like, gosh, like, I sort of didn't really know whether I wanted to be around to be experiencing that level of terror every day about stupid things and feeling, like, the shame of, like, why can't I just get over this stuff? Like, why do I have to think I'm having a heart attack when I'm not? Like, the frustration with myself - why do I need to sabotage my life in this way? And so that, of course, I mean, as anyone who's struggled with anything like this knows, the compounding shame of going through that doesn't make it better.

VELA: Without the violin to anchor herself to, Natalie needed a new outlet. All those hours that used to go into practicing started to get filled with other things. Writing became a way for her to feel grounded again, so she focused on her manuscript. She also started focusing on her mental health.

HODGES: I found this really wonderful therapist who basically pulled me out of that night.

VELA: That's great.

HODGES: Yeah.

VELA: Because people need to hear that, that there are answers to these things, right? There is help for you if you need it.

HODGES: Yes, there is. And I remember I called her. She was actually the first therapist I found because I Googled therapist health anxiety Colorado, and her name came up. And I called her. And I just remember being very embarrassed by myself as I was going on this long tangent of, oh, my God, I deal with all of these, like, (vocalizing) - these are my thoughts - in this 10-minute consultation. And she was very quiet. And then after I said all of that and I was like, pausing to breathe, she said, I can help you. Just those words, those four words, to be told that by another person - like, a stranger - like, that sentence made one of the biggest differences in my life, to know I wasn't past repair, and that just somebody would even care enough to say that.

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VELA: That's beautiful. Just a little sentence - I can help you.

HODGES: Yeah.

VELA: Just four words. So powerful.

HODGES: It was so powerful. They changed my life. She changed my life.

VELA: Natalie started regular sessions with her new therapist to help her work through the anxiety she was feeling and process all these pent-up emotions. She was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and the more she learned about OCD, the more she was learning about herself and how her negative thought patterns were holding her back.

HODGES: I would describe it as a stuckness that results from a thought that you don't want to have, which is called an intrusive thought. And everyone has those, but most people are able to brush them off pretty easily - be like, oh, that was weird that I just thought that. But with OCD, people - a thought pops into their mind - like, oh - like, a very common example is did I not turn off the stove...

VELA: Yeah.

HODGES: ...When I left the house? And instead of just saying, oh, I probably did, I remember that. Someone with OCD would be like, I think I remember it, but what if the house is going to burn down...

VELA: Yeah. Yeah.

HODGES: ...And I will be responsible for killing my pet or my neighbors.

VELA: And you're just kind of torturing yourself with the thought.

HODGES: Exactly. Now, it's not just maybe I didn't turn off the stove. It's I'm going to be a murderer because I didn't turn off the stove.

VELA: Yeah.

HODGES: And then the third element that I would say - and I'm not a clinical expert in this by any means - but is that you have to do what's called a compulsion or a behavior to soothe the thought and make sure that the worst-case scenario isn't going to happen. And then your brain is like, did you lock the door, right? And it's all of that whole process all over again.

VELA: Yeah. It just takes off.

HODGES: Yeah.

VELA: So how did you get better?

HODGES: Yeah. It's still - I mean, it's still ongoing.

VELA: It's a work in progress.

HODGES: Yeah. I guess, like, it's weird to say, like, what I like about this diagnosis. But what's really interesting to me about it is that having to be OK with uncertainty is so fundamental to the human condition, right? That's something that everybody, like, with that diagnosis or not, has to grapple with at some point in their lives. And so it's easy to just say, oh, it'll be fine - or to focus, you know, for me, really hard on violin so I didn't have to deal with that and to give myself this semblance of control.

But losing violin and then having to deal with this demon, I'm grateful for it in the end because I had to grapple with that really fundamental uncertainty that, you know, goes back to our mortality and our place in the universe and all of those things. That sounds hokey, but I had to confront it in a way that I never had been challenged to before, really. It's made me want to live better, to be a better person, a kinder person, to love harder. So I'm actually grateful for that in the end, even though some days it is still hard to get out of bed.

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VELA: Natalie's book is called "Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance And The Science Of Time."

DETROW: Natalie Hodges' story was featured on the Colorado Public Radio podcast Back From Broken, where host Vic Vella talks to people about their struggles and what it takes to make a comeback. And if you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Vic Vela