In one month you’re going to present at a staff meeting, but you’re already losing sleep over it. You know that day (and long before) will be filled with fear, nausea, and extreme self consciousness. Your heart races just thinking about it.
Whether it’s a meeting, a job interview, or a speech before a large crowd — if the feelings above sound familiar, you may be suffering from performance anxiety, also referred to as stage fright.
Consciously you know you’re not a screw up, but your shortcomings are all you can think about when you experience this type of anxiety. It isn’t just “in your head”, the symptoms of performance anxiety are very real and very disruptive. But you’re not alone, and you don’t have to continue to suffer.
For folks suffering from performance anxiety, the thought of an upcoming interview or presentation at work can cause panic, sometimes weeks before the actual engagement. It is a disruptive and excessive fear that you’ll do or say something humiliating, that you’ll make a fool of yourself or appear incompetent. For many with stage fright, the overwhelming fear is that people will see you panicking — that your anxiety is visible and those who see you are judging you for your racing heart and sweaty palms.
This isn’t mere butterflies the night before a performance, but a diagnosable mental disorder.
According to the DSM-5 — the giant book used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders — you may suffer from diagnosable performance anxiety if:
While performance anxiety is a subset of social phobia, it is unique. If performing or public speaking isn’t the only time you experience this anxiety, you may suffer from a broader, generalized anxiety disorder.
The most common symptoms of performance anxiety are: high heart rate (tachycardia), tremors, and sweating. One study that compared people suffering from performance anxiety and those from a more generalized anxiety and found those with stage fright to have a greater increase in heart rate, an overestimation of the visibility of their symptoms, and an underestimation of the quality of their performance.
The initial symptoms of performance anxiety are often the physical ones — the increased heart rate and sweating, for example. But, these symptoms cause psychological symptoms — “people are going to notice me panicking,” “I’m going to bomb this,” “I look like a fool.” These thoughts create a vicious cycle, as they’re likely to worsen the physical symptoms which (to the anxious mind) confirms the negative self-talk.
When you’re mind is in this loop, you may recognize that you’re being ridiculous but feel powerless to stop the cycle.
The full list of symptoms you may experience with performance anxiety is lengthy:
Performance anxiety doesn’t mean you’re incompetent — remember, it’s based in irrational fears. People of all ages and experience levels experience stage fright, according to research and anecdotes. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, was said to have been long-plagued by stage fright. It’s been partially blamed for her insomnia and self-medicating drug problems. The famous composer and pianist Frederic Chopin is quoted as saying about his own performance anxiety: “An audience intimidates me, I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralyzed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces.”
You also don’t have to be a performer, actor or musician to suffer from stage fright or performance anxiety. A mere job interview or leading a meeting at work can trigger this type of anxiety. That being said, most research has been conducted on performers, as the experience is a well known job risk. A 2015 study of more than 700 Australian actors found 24% of surveyed men and 28% of women dealt with performance anxiety. The exact prevalence among non-performers is unknown, but it’s safe to say there are others silently suffering like you.
Because performance anxiety is different from generalized anxiety, the approaches to remedy it may differ somewhat. A doctor may be reluctant to prescribe anti-anxiety medications (used to treat general anxiety), if you’re only experiencing anxiety prior to a triggering event. However, there are other solutions:
Relaxation techniques and meditation. Perhaps the simplest and beginner approach to treating performance anxiety is meditation or relaxation. For some, this can mean regular exercise. For others, meditations focused specifically on the anxiety are helpful.
A small 2003 study among music performers found an 8-week meditation program to reduce performance anxiety and increase pleasure experienced through performing. Another, in 2007, focused specifically on Zen meditation and had similar findings — that performers who regularly meditated not only saw a decrease in anxiety, but improvement in performance quality.
Beginning a meditation practice takes dedication, like any new habit. Scheduling a 10 minute session when you wake up in the morning, every day, is a good place to start. Once you’ve created the habit and are an experienced meditator, using meditation to calm your mind prior to a triggering event may lessen your symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy and solutions seek to explore the connection between thoughts and behaviors or outcomes. They attempt to break that cycle of negative self-talk and physical anxiety symptoms. These skills can sometimes be self-taught, but are most often developed with the help of a psychotherapist.
A therapist (or really good book on the topic) can teach you how to: recognize the triggers that cause your performance anxiety, anticipate and prepare for the thoughts that worsen your symptoms, and restructure those flawed thoughts to lessen the anxiety overall.
For example, if you’re accustomed to telling yourself that you’re a failure and can’t possibly deliver a speech successfully, you can learn to logically counter those statements with rational thoughts — “What evidence do I have that I am truly a failure?” “What proof is there that I cannot deliver this performance?” By questioning the thought processes that feed your anxiety, you can learn to manage your symptoms.
One popular cognitive approach to performance anxiety is the Alexander Technique, popular among professionals in performing arts.
Beta blockers, such as propranolol, are most commonly used to treat high blood pressure. But they’ve been used off-label for the treatment of performance anxiety, too. Several studies have looked at these prescription drugs for their ability to provide relief of stage fright symptoms. It’s believed they work by primarily reducing heart rate, which lessens that cycle of anxious self-talk and physical anxiety symptoms.
Otherwise anxious subjects in a 1980s study, for example, experienced lower heart rate, less stuttering and stammering, and tremors after taking 40 mg. of propranolol when compared to non-anxious individuals. Numerous other studies since have confirmed these findings using several different beta blockers in the treatment of performance anxiety.