Remember those good old days at school when we had to stand at the front of the classroom and read a poem aloud? Me too. I can’t remember the poems to save my life, but I vividly remember how I felt at the time. The clammy hands, the shallow breathing, the certainty that my heart would shoot right out of my chest – I remember it all. Stage fright is very real indeed.
“Stage fright is a feeling of fear or nervousness that some people have just before they appear in front of an audience.”
– Oxford Dictionaries
Despite the fact that stage fright is rife wherever you look, and chances are – in anyone you encounter – stage fright isn’t exactly something that people admit to, let alone talk about. From some of the most seasoned performers on the planet to your quiet friend who takes a while to work up the courage to crack a joke at a party, we’ve all experienced it.
So why don’t we want to talk about it? Being someone who nearly went for a career as a professional musician, I’ve experienced my fair share of stage fright – and still do. And yet, the “cool” thing to say was always, “Don’t be nervous, it’ll be fine.” It’s almost as if having stage fright makes you weak.
Here’s the thing – it only does if you let it.
What exactly happens to the body when we experience stage fright? It starts from the perception of what is to come from a situation that is potentially dangerous or detrimental. What it could be.
Note that it’s all hypothetical. The key feature of stage fright is the fact that it starts BEFORE the situation has even set in. It could start weeks or months before an audition, or five seconds before the performer walks on stage. BEFORE the actual event has occurred. I hate to be cliched, but It really is all in the mind. Neuroscience baby.
And this is precisely where all the classic symptoms of performance anxiety originate – the brain. As soon as the brain conjures up all these worst-case scenarios, the sympathetic nervous system takes its cue to get carried away. The adrenal medulla releases adrenaline, which triggers noradrenaline release from sympathetic nerve terminals. These hormones are the key drivers of all the physical responses. There’s a reason it’s dubbed fight-or-flight after all; imagine a face-to-face encounter with a lion. Your breathing accelerates to get more oxygen into the bloodstream to fuel metabolism, your heart starts to pound to get that oxygen to your muscles, your body releases the glucose your muscles will need to help you run away. Your digestive processes also hit pause, because well… your priorities are anything but a toilet break right now.
In essence, it’s a response borne out of fear. Hardly pleasant – so why do we experience it?
I once had a coach who used to say that if you get nerves, you’re focusing too much on yourself. He was right. What fuels fear? A threat. When stage fright kicks in, a performer’s biggest threat is the audience. More precisely, the way he thinks the audience sees him. Instead of recognising the situation for what it really is – doing his thing but with a few more people watching than usual – his mind paints a picture of him at his worst, and that being what the audience sees. It convinces him that all those slip ups he dreads so much will be all the audience notices. During the actual performance, he will only see the yawns and blank stares in the crowd, and exclusively – masochistically – look out for more signs of disapproval. And when he sees them, he will believe them.
The performer has essentially turned all his attention inwards on himself, almost in self defence of this perceived threat in the moment – the audience’s attention. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in it, and spiral into ever growing self doubt and destructive self criticism. So how do we deal with it? Here are some of my favourite tips I’ve gathered over the years.
Get to know what it feels like.
Become friends with your fear. I personally used to deliberately make myself nervous, sometimes weeks before an important performance. Doing this helped my body get used to the physical feeling of being nervous, so that I learned how to deal with the changes in my playing when the nerves kicked in. It’s not the most stress-free way of managing performance anxiety, but it certainly helped me when I started to get complacent with preparing for a performance.
Instead of letting your stage fright get the best of you, use it to your advantage. Turn the nervous energy into excitement. Excitement to get out there and indulge in doing what you do best and what you’ve worked so hard on. Allow that excitement to fuel your performance and give it that edge it didn’t have when you were practising.
Be aware of your breathing.
This one is a classic – slow, deep breaths rather than fast, shallow ones. Take control of your breathing, and your pulse will soon follow. Getting the oxygen to your extremities helps with the tremors and cold sweat too.
Focus on your craft.
Give all your attention to your performance rather than yourself. This is where a love for what you do is so important, and all you have to do is let that burning passion take over. Indulge in the pure, unadulterated joy of doing what you love most – not for the limelight, not for the glamour, but for the way it makes you feel when you’re doing it. Enjoy it so much that it leaves no room for the fear to even creep in. Feel your senses heighten and help you notice things you hadn’t before – it could be a nuance in a phrase, a certain way your joints feel when you do that jump, or a particular way you could manipulate your voice that would give the delivery of a line so much more impact. In short – have fun.
I’d love to hear your experiences of stage fright, and how it worked out for you in the end – put them in the comments below! Hope you enjoyed this one and until next time – you go girl.
Disclaimer: All images used in this post have been obtained from Pixabay under a Creative Commons License and edited on Canva exclusively for thenellybean. J is not a qualified psychologist or performance coach by any means, she simply has a burning passion for performance psychology and will talk about it for hours to anyone who will give her the time of day.