Dancer Crystal Nicholls shares her story of performance anxiety and how hypnotherapy helped

Dancing from the age of five, Crystal Nicholls has always been in the performance industry. Originally from Barbados, at 18 she moved to Canada to study performance dance at the Ryerson School of Performance.

After graduating she performed as a dancer on board Princess Cruises for a year and a half before joining the cast of Disney's The Lion King in London. She’s been performing in The Lion King for just over five years now, but last year a sudden onset of performance anxiety nearly forced her out of the industry.

Here she tells us more about her experience, why she turned to hypnotherapy for support and how her confidence on stage has improved.

Can you tell us how performance anxiety affected you?

I have always considered myself an anxious person but until a year ago it did not affect my everyday life. Last year, during our cast change period, we had lots of extra rehearsals and pressure to be at the top of our game. I had been in the show for four years already at the time so I was used to this. But for some reason, last year was different.

There was a manoeuvre in the show that I was having difficulty with all of a sudden. The more I tried to fix it, the more anxious I became, until it was all I could think of. It was on my mind during the day and well into the night and started affecting my sleep.

I started to get stage fright and would experience heart palpitations before the show. I was constantly panicked and in tears, feeling like I was a failure. I was also embarrassed because I felt silly to be reacting like this over a two second part of a performance.

Photography: Danielle Da Silva

What was it that made you consider hypnotherapy?

I did a Google search on help for performance anxiety, and a company called City Hypnosis came up. The practice is led by Aaron Surtees and with his 92% success rate, I had high hopes it would work for me too. I was also at my breaking point and was desperate for something that would give me quick relief, so I contacted Aaron and was booked in one week later.

Can you tell us a little more about the sessions themselves, how do you feel they helped?

The sessions were not what I expected. The media portrays hypnotherapy to be scary, often leaving the impression that you are not in control of your mind. In fact, I learned that hypnotherapy is a lot like meditation. It is a relaxed state of awareness and you have full control of your mind. I did four sessions with Aaron in total. In the first session, he asked me questions about how I was feeling on stage, then he allowed me to relax in a chair with my eyes closed.

He guided me through a series of relaxation techniques. Once I was fully relaxed, he used a series of hypnotic suggestions to change my feelings of fear to confidence. I felt calm and relaxed after my session but I wasn't sure how different I would feel once I got to work.

But the effect was noticeable, even though small at first. I could still feel the fear and panic, but it was more like a small voice in my head, rather than an overpowering feeling.

In my second session I went under more quickly because I knew what to expect. After the second session there was a much more noticeable shift in my mind. The fear had lessened significantly.

At the beginning of every session, Aaron asked me what changes I noticed on stage, and then he would alter the hypnotic suggestions accordingly. He was thorough and reassuring, and I felt like he really listened to my feedback. By the time I finished my fourth session I had my confidence back. I was sleeping better and I no longer experienced the heart palpitations and intense stage fright before performances.

The biggest thing I learned from hypnotherapy was that I am not my thoughts or feelings. I always knew this on an intellectual level, but hypnotherapy taught me this experientially. I can feel fear without allowing it to control me.

What advice would you give to someone reading this who may be struggling with performance anxiety?  

To anyone struggling with performance anxiety, you are not alone. I suffered in silence because I was embarrassed, and this is the case for so many others. My advice would be to find the treatment that works for you. Hypnotherapy was amazing for me and I highly recommend it, but there are so many forms of therapy available now that you can try. And if one doesn't resonate with you, don't give up, but try something else.

Speak to someone that you trust. You might be surprised to find how speaking about it can take a little of the weight off your shoulders.

The last piece of advice I would give is to find a way to reframe your anxiety. Your body is giving you feedback about something that is happening inside of you, but it could be excitement, curiosity, or passion. We can change the story we tell ourselves.


Hypnotherapy can be a powerful therapy for many. To learn more and to find a hypnotherapist in your area that can help with anxiety, visit hypnotherapy-directory.org.uk.