Performance Anxiety

stage fright

Stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety aroused by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially (for example, when performing before a camera). In the context of public speaking, this fear is termed glossophobia, one of the most common of phobias. Such anxiety may precede or accompany participation in any activity involving public self-presentation.

In some cases stage fright may be a part of a larger pattern of social phobia or social anxiety disorder, but many people experience stage fright without any wider problems. Quite often, stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead. It has numerous manifestations: fluttering or pounding heart, tremor in the hands and legs, sweaty hands, diarrhea, facial nerve tics, dry mouth, and erectile dysfunction.

Stage fright may be observed in people of all experience and background, from those completely new to being in front of an audience to those who have done so for years. It is commonly associated with job interviews. It also affects actors, musicians, politicians, and athletes. Many people with no other problems can experience stage fright, but some people with chronic stage fright also have social anxiety or social phobia which are chronic feelings of high anxiety in any social situation.

An important component of performance anxiety is an acute awareness of one’s own behavior and/or appearance. When experiencing performance anxiety, one focuses one’s attention on the visible appearance of the performance. A possible way of reducing performance anxiety would be to increase one’s awareness of others, without considering them as judges. An attitude of service to others (focusing on helping or serving the audience, instead of oneself), can help one to shift out of performance anxiety (or any kind of social anxiety).

When someone starts to feel the sensation of being scared or nervous they start to experience anxiety, in the form of a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, and nausea. It triggers the body to activate its sympathetic nervous system. This process takes place when the body releases adrenaline into the blood stream causing a chain of reactions to occur. This bodily response is known as ‘fight or flight,’ a naturally occurring process in the body done to protect itself from harm.

The neck muscles contract, bringing the head down and shoulders up, while the back muscles draw the spine into a concave curve. This, in turn, pushes the pelvis forward and pulls the genitals up, slumping the body into a classic fetal position. In trying to resist this position, the body will begin to shake in places such as the legs and hands. Several other things happen besides this. Muscles in the body contract causing them to be tense and ready to attack. Second, blood vessels in the extremities constrict. This can leave a person with the feeling of cold fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Constricted blood vessels also gives the body extra blood flow to the vital organs.

In addition, those experiencing stage fright will have an increase in blood pressure, which supplies the body with more nutrients and oxygen in response to the ‘”fight or flight’ instincts. This, in return, causes the body to overheat and sweat. Breathing will increase so that the body can obtain the desired amount of oxygen for the muscles and organs. Pupils will dilate giving someone the inability to view any notes they have in close proximity, however, long range vision is improved making the speaker more aware of their audience’s facial expressions and non verbal cues in response to the speaker’s performance. Lastly, the digestive system shuts down to prepare for producing energy for an immediate emergency response. This can leave the body with the effects of dry mouth, nausea, or butterflies.

One possible solution to performance anxiety is reducing the significance of the audience. While experiencing performance anxiety, we often invest the others with imagined power, especially in their ability to affect us through their evaluation of our performance. Ways to reduce this imagined power is to increase the sense of one’s own power, to perceive the vulnerability of others and to accept oneself.

Another possible solution to performance anxiety would be to eliminate the imagination of negative possibilities. A negative outcome is always possible, but that does not justify worrying about it before it occurs. Focusing one’s attention on the present, rather than the future, is much more productive.

A third solution to performance anxiety is holding the performance in perspective by seeing its outcome as insignificant in relation to the totality of one’s life. By realizing that nothing catastrophic is likely to occur, the need to avoid failure may decrease and switch to a more positive goal. An example of a positive goal would be to provide others with pleasure. Furthermore, it is helpful to focus on the process, the moment-to-moment experience, rather than the results of a performance. Additionally, it is important to concentrate on the enjoyable aspect of the process.

Deep breaths can help alleviate the symptoms of stage fright. When the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance is restored, and the body receives an ‘all clear’ signal. This will cause the body to slow down and decrease stress levels. One ongoing debate on how to treat stage fright is the use of beta blockers. Beta blockers are drugs that prevent the effects of adrenaline. They fit chemically into beta receptors present in the heart, lungs, arteries, brain, and uterus.

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