14 Minutes

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This article presents an insight into performance anxiety, also called stage fright. We begin by simply describing what performance anxiety is, giving a few statistics to highlight the prevalence of this form of anxiety. Next, we see whether performance anxiety is real or not, and if it is, then how is it real? After that, we list and elaborate the symptoms of performance anxiety to deeper understand what this type of anxiety feels like – something a reader can use to analyze themselves at the surface level. Performance anxiety can be of different types, for example, sexual intercourse, but our subject and consequent discussion will only pertain to stage fright.

Simply put, performance anxiety is the fear that one has in their own ability to perform a particular task. Even before executing a task, these individuals start feeling fearful and worrisome about potentially failing the task and facing humiliation.

Performance anxiety is also commonly called stage fright, as mentioned in the introduction, and it is not a mental disorder and is merely a response to a situation. This situation is usually highly stressful, creating fear and anxiousness among the individual, making them dread the instance they are in. Some people who suffer from this have been reported to want to choose flu, a viral infection, instead of this any day.

Let us now break this definition down so that one is able to understand, in context, the meaning of this term. Firstly, we must ascertain the meaning of anxiety in itself. Moving to a new location, starting a new career, or taking an exam may all cause anxiety. Although this sort of anxiety is unpleasant, it may push you to work harder and achieve greater results. Ordinary anxiety is a fleeting emotion that does not interfere with your daily activities.

If you have an anxiety disorder, you may experience terror all of the time. It’s powerful and maybe debilitating at times. This sort of worry may drive you to abandon activities that you like. It may prohibit you from boarding an elevator, crossing the street, or even leaving your house in extreme situations. If anxiety isn’t addressed, it will only become worse. 

It is important here to distinguish between anxiety and fear as they are commonly confused with one another. Anxiety is characterized by physiological tension and avoidance behavior in anticipation of a future worry. Fear is an emotional response to an impending threat that is more commonly linked with a fight or flight response – remaining to fight or fleeing to avoid danger.

The second fold deals with performance. What is performance? It refers to doing something that you are required to do, i.e., your job. It is most commonly associated with musicians, actors, and others such as celebrities coming onto stage and displaying their craft for the audience to enjoy, cherish and appreciate. This requires a degree of skill that one must possess and a whole lot more confidence for one to actually be able to display it. This is where ‘anxiety’ comes into play. One may be excellent at his craft but still fail to display it, and that is a result of suffering from ‘performance anxiety. Since such a display of craft is done on stage, most (and this is often the case) fail to even show up on stage. This is due to the performance anxiety that they have, which is also called ‘stage fright.’ Consequently; 

A common and easily discernible example of performance anxiety or stage fright can be seen when public speakers or even musicians are unable to talk or sing in front of a large (or even small) crowd and may sometimes even refuse to show up at all. This goes to show that performance anxiety or stage fright can affect anyone, even those who have a habit of standing in front of a pool of listeners. Recall how many times you felt a strange, unpleasant sensation while presenting an official meeting in the company of recognizable white-collar bodies or when you felt your tongue was swallowed when the teacher pointed at you to stand up and read for the entire class.

Indeed, performance anxiety, performance fear, or stage fright is very much real. In fact, Glossophobia, i.e., the fear of public speaking and some social situations, is more common than one might expect. In a generalized context, 77 percent of the population of the United States of America has at least some noticeable degree of performance anxiety, according to a report shared in July 2021. Yes, performance anxiety can be managed and controlled, but control is not always doable or even possible. Stage fright can usually be found in people with Glossophobia. This means that if a person has Glossophobia, he/she is more likely to have stage fright as well. Strangely, people with Glossophobia can dance in front of people but, at the same time, may not be able to talk. Hence, even a small degree of performance anxiety has its impact, only proving how real the phenomenon is.

People who already have social phobia are more likely to have performance anxiety (just as those with Glossophobia which is a subtype of social phobia) as it is easily triggered. We know that stage fright or performance anxiety is real because it not only has cognitive/mental symptoms, but it also has observable and physical symptoms – as we will find out in the next section.

Moving ahead, performance anxiety is not a made-up illness; it is an actuality that disturbs normal functioning in such a way that individuals cannot enjoy the day-to-day activities, for example, at work, and may then be a cause for career impediments.  Public speaking is also the most common type of phobia, exceeding the number of people suffering from fear of spiders, death, and heights. Some people have moderate levels of performance anxiety, while other cases are more severe. In any case, this type of anxiety is real and needs not to be overlooked.

We must first look at what causes performance anxiety contextually to be able to ascertain the symptoms which will follow. Mahatma Gandhi struggled with public speaking for years before becoming a civil rights leader. At the height of her success, singer Barbra Streisand suffered from terrible stage fright. Anxiety about performing does not imply a lack of ability.

People might feel vulnerable when they perform in front of others. They may be concerned that making a mistake would tarnish their image and make them appear less than flawless. Someone in a group performance can be concerned about how their actions would influence the rest of the group. People who already suffer from social anxiety may become more self-conscious.

The body’s fight or flight reaction can be triggered by extreme anxiety. Sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, nausea, and a shaky voice are all causes of triggering anxiety. They may have a strong urge to get out of the circumstance.

Anxiety over-performing is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fight-or-flight reaction in the body can cause distraction and impair performance. A singer’s voice may tremble, while a public speaker’s outline may be forgotten.

These errors may lead the person to feel that their concern was justified. They may decide not to perform in the future. This behavior hinders the individual from achieving achievement and proving their doubts incorrect. When the individual is called upon to perform again, their previous “failures” may increase their anxiousness. In short, the following are the causes of stage fright:

  • Underestimation of your talents Unrealistic evaluation of what is expected of you
  • Overestimation of other people’s opinions
  • Overestimation of the concept of rejection Unrealistic expectations of others’ reactions to worry

The symptoms of stage fright/performance anxiety differ in intensity and severity from individual to individual, but they are more or less the same. Our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode and choose which course of action to take, depending upon the type of danger – such as singing in front of a crowd, giving a speech, or any other form of public speaking that may be face to face or even through a screen.

Physiological symptoms:

The individual feels that all eyes are on him/her, creating maladaptive stress within the mind of the person. Pounding heartbeat and rapid breathing, like most anxiety types, are two of the most common symptoms of performance anxiety. Next comes having a dry mouth and a tight throat, as if the person’s throat is being clenched. One’s stomach feels as if it is knotted, and muscles all over the body begin to tense up. Sweating unnecessarily but having cold hands, nausea, headache, shaky hands and knees, and changes in normal vision are some of the physiological symptoms of stage fright.

Cognitive symptoms:

Cognitive symptoms include feeling as if one will be humiliated and ridiculed. Confusion and having a fear of failure are more symptoms that occur in the individual’s brain. Other cognitive symptoms include undermining oneself and their own capabilities while at the same time overestimating others’ ideas of their opinion. Even if they will not be rejected, this fear remains embedded in their thoughts, and they continue to fear this irrational and imagined rejection. These people with performance anxiety also create unrealistically high expectations from themselves, thinking others expect the same. A general distant feeling is also a cognitive aspect of stage fright or performance anxiety.

Behavioral symptoms:

There are also behavioral symptoms that take place. A person with performance anxiety may try to escape the frightening situation. If unable to escape and back out of the prior commitment, and if they are made to perform no matter what (not necessarily in front of a huge audience), they start stuttering and taking frequent long pauses between words and sentences. Even without initial performance anxiety, it is still possible to get anxious during a performance and start exhibiting symptoms such as long pauses in the middle.

You are not alone if you hate the prospect of performing in front of a group of people. As noted above, performance anxiety affects millions of individuals. In reality, the majority of individuals would rather be sick than performing. Performance anxiety is common among athletes, musicians, actors, and public speakers.

What we have established by now is that performance anxiety might keep you from accomplishing what you want to do and have a negative impact on your career. Worse yet, performance anxiety may have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem and confidence. Although it may be difficult to completely eliminate performance anxiety, there are a number of things you can do to manage your emotions and minimize worry and thus overcome it.

There are several tips one can make use of to overcome their fear of having to perform on stage:

  • Prepare yourself by practicing, practicing, practicing.
  • On the day of the performance, avoid coffee and sweets. Eat a healthy lunch a few hours before your performance to ensure that you have enough energy and don’t become hungry. A low-fat lunch with complex carbs is an excellent choice, such as whole-grain pasta, lentil soup, yogurt, or a bean and rice burrito.
  • Shift the attention away from yourself and your nervousness and toward the delight, you’re bringing to the audience. Close your eyes and imagine yourself laughing and cheering with the audience.
  • Don’t be concerned about what may go wrong. Rather, concentrate on the positive aspects of your performance. Visualize yourself as a winner and a successful performer.
  • Avoid self-doubt-inducing ideas.
  • Controlled breathing, meditation, biofeedback, and other relaxation techniques can help you relax and divert your negative thoughts. Regardless of whether you have a performance, it is essential to practice some sort of relaxation method every day so that you have the talent when you need it.
  • Take a stroll, hop up and down, shake off your muscles, or do whatever you make feel better prior to the performance.
  • Laugh, make eye contact, and see them as friends when you interact with the audience.
  • Be yourself and be natural.
  • Exercise, eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, and live a healthy lifestyle are all good things to do.

The most effective way to overcome stage fright, according to me, is to remember that stage fear is generally greater before a performance and usually subsides as you begin. You can also use mental techniques to help you perform with less worry. These are some of them:

  • Focus on the audience’s warmest faces.
  • When you can, laugh because it can help you relax.
  • Make a good impression. You feel better when you look nice.

It may be empowering to face your worries and learn how to lessen and control them. It will not only make you feel better about yourself, but it may also make you have a more confident performance.

Nonetheless, these suggestions should assist in reducing performance anxiety. If they don’t, go to a counselor or therapist who specializes in anxiety treatment. To overcome performance anxiety, you may benefit from more intensive therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. People with performance anxiety may also take beta-blockers like propranolol, which reduce the heart rate and neutralize the effects of adrenaline.

Children frequently experience performance anxiety. Before a sports game or a school performance, children may become nervous. Many children exhibit stomach-related symptoms, including nausea and belly pains.

Parents may help their children cope with their nervousness by assisting them in preparing for the occasion. A child’s self-confidence can be boosted by practicing the job. Parents may also ensure that their youngster has a nutritious lunch prior to the performance. A nutritious supper might help you feel more energized and focused.

Many parents try to calm their children down by giving them pep speeches. The following suggestions can help to reassure nervous children:

  • Recognize your child’s distress: Some parents dismiss their children’s fear outright, urging them to “stop worrying” and “just do it.” Few individuals, however, can easily overcome their phobias. When children are unable to manage their emotions as advised, they may become more anxious.
  • Recognize the significance of the event: Telling a youngster that a program or game isn’t “a big deal” might demotivate them. To prevent stress, your youngster may decide to miss the performance entirely.
  • Encourage your youngster as he or she is preparing: Praise may provide your youngster a much-needed confidence boost.
  • Provide unwavering support: When parents put pressure on or criticize their children, the child’s performance may deteriorate as a result of the stress. Tell your child that even if you want them to achieve, you will still love them if they don’t.

Children who suffer from performance anxiety may request that their parents allow them to forgo the event. To relieve their child’s tension, parents may be tempted to write a sick letter. While delaying a chore might help children cope in the short term, it can also hinder them from learning coping skills. Taking risks and stepping outside one’s comfort zone can help one develop resilience. Meanwhile, youngsters who run away from difficult circumstances are more likely to acquire performance anxiety over time.

Although the focus of this article is stage fright, it is important to discuss a type of performance anxiety that needs immediate attention. During sex, some people suffer performance anxiety. This type of anxiety is frequently linked to sexual problems like vaginismus or erectile dysfunction. Body image can also play a role in some situations.

Sexual performance anxiety may affect people of either gender. Men, on the other hand, are particularly vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy when they are unable to sustain erections. Anxiety can have an impact on sexual performance, which in turn can exacerbate anxiety, producing a self-fulfilling loop. Men with an anxiety disorder are more prone to have sexual performance anxiety.

Both members of a relationship are usually required to engage in therapy for sexual performance anxiety. The goal of therapy may be to create a sexual environment that is low-stress and low-pressure. A therapist can also assist a couple in rethinking their expectations for sexual success or failure.

People sometimes use beta-blockers, most commonly propranolol (Inderal and generic), as well as pindolol (Visken and generic); acebutolol (Sectral and generic); and atenolol (Tenormin and generic) to treat performance anxiety. Beta-blockers have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of excessive blood pressure, heart disease, and some forms of tremors, as well as the prevention of migraines and recurrent heart attacks. Yet, for more than 30 years, they’ve been used off-label—that is, for a disease that isn’t permitted by the FDA—to alleviate the symptoms of performance anxiety. (Doctors have the legal authority to prescribe any drug they see fit to treat a patient’s condition.) Some of the effects of adrenaline, the body’s “fight-or-flight” hormone, may be prevented by beta-blockers.

As to what, then, one should do to treat performance anxiety, it is advised to first try therapy (discussed below). If it fails, then resort to the following: 

  • Before using beta-blockers, see your doctor. “You should undergo an asthma screening and an electrocardiogram to look for cardiac problems,” Schneier advises. Your doctor should also search for other reasons for anxiety, such as alcohol withdrawal, thyroid issues, low blood sugar, mental illnesses, and the use of stimulants like coffee and nicotine.
  • Before the day of your performance, take a test dosage. “If you have low blood pressure, beta-blockers can produce lightheadedness,” Schneier says. “Seeing how things impact you while you’re not on stage is a wonderful idea.”

In conclusion, even though this usage is not backed by strong data from well-designed research, many people find beta-blockers to be useful in controlling the physical symptoms of performance anxiety. In addition to medication, behavioral or cognitive treatment for performance anxiety may be useful. It is recommended to speak with your doctor about possible causes and remedies for performance anxiety. If nondrug methods fail, beta-blockers should be used only after the dangers and benefits have been clearly discussed.

Therapies are used to treat stage fright

Techniques like pre-performance rituals, deep breathing, and visualizing one’s performance in a favorable perspective can all help some people overcome their nervousness. Other persons with significant performance anxiety may require verbal therapy and medicines.

CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), psychotherapy, and counseling can all help you figure out what’s causing your worry and dread. This may provide long-term relief from the symptoms of performance anxiety. Talking therapy can also assist in the development of coping skills for dealing with emotions as they emerge. To learn more about talking treatments for anxiety, go here.

In short different approaches can be used in psychotherapy to help treat stage fright:

  1. Cognitive techniques: based on psychoeducation, aimed at helping the patient understand that anxiety is produced by their own negative ideas.
  2. Relaxation techniques attempt to produce benefits comparable to those of anti-anxiety medications, but on a long-term basis rather than only for a few hours.
  3. Social skills are practiced through behavioral approaches.