Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety
Stage Fright is an affliction with a long history – and an equally long mythology.
Most performers suffer more than they need to from performance anxiety. There are now cognitive strategies to help deal with the typical adrenaline effects that occur when performing - the most common being 'the shakes', rapid heartbeat, sweating, nausea and loss of focus.
Counselling can change the typical ‘anxious’ thought patterns that accompany such physical problems. These include feeling a 'fraud', being afraid of being 'found out' by others, exaggerating mistakes and bad nights into 'catastrophes', fearing that panic can strike at any moment without warning, being over-sensitive to criticism and experiencing 'bad feelings' from fellow performers. In addition, stage fright may also accompany career burnout.
We see many people in the business with these problems. The great majority are able to learn to manage their performing nerves.
Those wishing to read self-help information on this topic are directed to our page on publications
Stage Fright - The Myths
Myth: "If your heart is beating fast and you have the shakes you have stage fright"
This may sound true on the face of it, but actually it is a myth. Rapid heartbeat, shakes and other symptoms are produced by adrenalin. But adrenalin produces exactly the same effects in other circumstances which are nothing to do with fear. For example:
These three different sets of circumstances all show bodily arousal, but none are associated with the emotion of fear. The first two circumstances involve anger and happiness. The third example tells us something even more important. We can feel physical effects like rapid heartbeat and fast breathing without any emotional reaction at all. It is crucial to break this automatic association between such physical effects and the emotion of fear.
Myth: "There are ‘good nerves’ and ‘bad nerves’ - ‘good nerves’ can work in your favour"
The expression ‘nerves’ is very unhelpful. Why? Because the way we commonly use it, it can mean two things:
As we have already stated, it is crucial to break this automatic association between such physical effects and the emotion of fear, and the word ‘nerves’ can cement these two together.
When people use the expression ‘good nerves’, or say of a successful competition winner that 'her nerves were working in her favour' it is usually an attempt to describe that body state of performance arousal accompanied by a positive emotion of ‘buzz’ or ‘challenge’. Because of the double meaning of the word 'nerves' one could get the impression that 'fear is good'. This is, of course, nonsense - as we shall come to see.
Myth: "You need to feel nervous at the start of a presentation or performance otherwise it’s no good"
At first sight this seems perverse - why does one 'have' to feel nervous? But there is a lot of sense in this if we think of nerves as adrenalin rather than fear. Research has shown that most people have a rise in adrenalin before performances. So if you feel a physically over-aroused at the start of a presentation, this is actually to be expected. After ten minutes or so you will settle back into your optimum state of performance arousal and from there on things should go fine. On the other hand, if you are under-aroused even at the start, through tiredness or whatever, then you may settle back into a more apathetic state and not be alert enough to give your best".
Myth: "You’re only as good as your last performance"
This is one of the most unhelpful expressions there is. It is usually used of performers but applies equally to the world of presentations and conferences. Most of us have spent years and years learning our knowledge and craft, and typically we can talk about this when we need to. This is the constant side of our ability. Subjectively, however, we can have wildly melodramatic ideas about how we imagine we have performed:
Such myths as the above have no place in a modern treatment of performance anxiety. They can be confidently replaced by much more helpful beliefs. The primary thing to bear in mind is that bodily arousal at the start of a presentation is normal. It should be simply accepted and tolerated as a discomfort, with its attendant rapid heartbeat, sweating and other drawbacks. By accepting it we can learn to manage it without panic.
In this way we can destroy the myth of ‘nerves’, and all the silliness of ‘good nerves and bad nerves’ and ‘having to have nerves otherwise performances are no good’. The affects of adrenalin are not ideal. None of us would want to be in a state of rapid heartbeat, sweating, shakes and nausea out of choice, unless we were indulging in serious physical exercise. Some of the effects - such as the shakes - are visible to others, as when we loosely hold a piece of paper with notes on to speak from. But all these bodily symptoms of arousal are tolerable in terms of discomfort, and will predictably decrease during any presentation.
There remains only the many negative beliefs associated with performance anxiety. Such negative thoughts should be dealt with completely separately, and replaced with coping strategies and more positive attitudes.
For a complete account of performance anxiety see existing and forthcoming Publications on the subject