Ask Parvati 39: Overcoming Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety – Part 1: What Is Stage Fright?

BY Parvati

Letting Go Of Fear And “Playing It Small”
Dear Parvati,
I had to give a presentation at work last week and I almost threw up because I felt so anxious. I always start to shake when I have to do any kind of speaking or performing in front of a group. When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. I was pretty good, but when it came time to perform at a recital I would just freeze sitting there at the piano, my mind a blank, my hands cold and clammy. Eventually I’d remember the music, but my hands shook so much I could barely play. One time I just ran off the stage in tears because I’d gotten stuck on the same mistake over and over. (The teacher got really mad at me that time.) This extreme “stage fright” is starting to affect my ability to move forward in my career and I really wish I could change this about myself. As a performer, have you ever gotten stage fright? What did you do about it?

Thank you for this question. I get it. The medical term for stage fright is “glossophobia”, derived from the Greek words “glossa” (tongue) and “phobos” (fear or dread). Stage fright happens when we feel anxious about speaking or performing in public settings. This fear is one of the most common fears, right up there with the fear of dying.
When we anticipate a situation that we perceive to be threatening, we feel anxious. Physiologically, our body then reacts in a flight/flight response. The adrenal glands release the hormone adrenaline (epinephrine) into our bloodstream, resulting in an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and irregular breathing. This surge of hormones can then lead to perspiration, uncontrollable shaking, shivers, flushing of the face, dry mouth, nausea and diarrhea, short-term memory loss, the weakening of the voice (resulting in stammering or stuttering), and in the extreme case disorientation or hyperventilation.
Our fear, that is, our emotional reaction to a perceived threat, is behind these physiological symptoms of stage fright. If we did not perceive the situation to be threatening and did not feel afraid, we would not have this surge of hormones, which comes from our primate days when we lived in a dangerous jungle. The fear and adrenaline surge protected our lives.
Although the work environment and life in general can be compared to a jungle, it is unlikely that most situations in our day-to-day life are truly life-threatening. But our stage fright tells us something different. In our worrying, anxious mind, we fear that if we perform badly, we will get fired; and if that happens we would not have the funds to support ourselves and perhaps our family; and if that happens we may end up on the street; and if that happens, we may die. Any of these are possibilities, but are they likely? When we think rationally, they seem perhaps far-fetched. There are a lot of “ifs” there. But something in the back of our brain kicks in, and our irrational fears say all of those events are probable. Why is that so?
If we think about it, we go about our day every day with many risks. We could trip at any time and come to our demise. Anything could happen. So then why do these deep fears arise as stage fright in front of a crowd? This perceived threat is specifically the fear of looking foolish in front of others and the fear of public humiliation. Clammy hands, dry mouth, shaking knees, racing thoughts, nausea and diarrhea are signs that we are reacting to a situation, anticipating something bad to happen. But that fear may not be grounded in truth.
I like a popular acronym for fear, which you may have heard before: FEAR – False Expectations Appearing Real. I find remembering that to be helpful as I go out into a crowd. When we have stage fright, we anticipate something bad happening in this specific situation. So what makes performing in public different than other fears? Unlike the possible fear of potentially falling down a flight of stairs, the fear of speaking or performing in public asks us to put our own expression out in plain sight. Our ability to perform a task is visible for all to see, and potentially judge. For most people, what we do has value to us, so we hope it will be well received.
In this way, there is nothing really “wrong” with feeling anxious before we put ourselves out there. It is natural. A few years ago, I had an inspiring conversation with internationally respected modern dancer Margie Gillis about stage fright and how she deals with it. She said to me that she suffered from debilitating stage fright for years until she went deeper to understand it. She realized that the fear was a sign of how deeply she valued what she was doing. Once we was able to accept her fear as a sign of how much she cared, it became less menacing. It was no longer an obstacle to her performance. She was then able to effectively channel the deep care she has for her art form into her performance with greater ease and fluidity. Performance coach Roger Clown once said something similar to me about stage fright: “If you don’t feel nervous before you go on stage, you are in the wrong profession.” Stage fright can be a sign that we care about what we do.
If we choose to truly understand the reasons for stage fright, we need to go deeper, look at our core beliefs and expectations. We need to develop our self-esteem, find self-confidence and ultimately, rest in self-love. This week, I will take a more in-depth look at the psychological reasons behind stage fright and how understanding them can unlock our true brilliance so that our fear is not debilitating, but liberating.
(Continued tomorrow with The Fear Of Being Seen: Playing It Small And Hiding)