Performance anxiety is one of the most common and widespread fears that people experience. Even if you do not play an instrument, play sports, or act, at some point in your life you will have to stand in front of a crowd and perform. In fact, public speaking is cited as the most frequently feared situation (Ebrahimi et al., 2019). Performance anxiety has a number of negative consequences; it can affect your ability to perform, damage your self-esteem (Marks, 2019), get in the way of your career (Fernholz et al., 2019), and cause significant distress. Having some anxiety before a performance is unavoidable, but fortunately there are some things that you can do to reduce these feelings of dread.
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Performance anxiety occurs because of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which triggers a range of physical reactions. These may include a racing heartbeat; trembling hands, knees, lips, and/or voice; blurred vision; dry mouth; rapid breathing; and nausea (Marks, 2019). The physical symptoms of performance anxiety are also often accompanied by emotional symptoms (e.g., dread, fear, worry) and cognitive symptoms (e.g., self-doubt, thought distortions). These reactions served the evolutionary purpose of helping us spring into action in the face of life-threatening danger, yet in modern society much more stress is derived from social situations than form life-threatening challenges. These symptoms of anxiety, however, tend to make our fears worse, in turn making it harder to present or perform as well as we would like.
The first tip for preventing performance anxiety should be obvious: know your topic, and practice it as much as you can (Sawchuk, 2017; Marks, 2019). If you are giving a presentation, consider questions that could be asked and prepare your responses. If you are acting, public speaking, or performing on an instrument, practice your performance for a few friends or family members. You can ask for feedback and get more accustomed to presenting the material in front of others. Going over the material thoroughly like this will make slip-ups less likely and will help you feel more confident that you can perform well.
Another simple measure to take to reduce performance anxiety is to sleep well and eat healthy leading up to the performance (Marks, 2019). Have a well-balanced meal before the performance so that you will have enough energy, but try to limit your caffeine and sugar intake, as these may compound the symptoms of performance anxiety.
It may help you to engage in controlled breathing, meditation, or other relaxation activities (Marks, 2019). Using deep breathing and meditation can be effective just before your performance, but even better is getting into the habit of using a relaxation technique every day so that you build up the skill for when you have to perform. In fact, in a study of performing musicians, those who meditated at least once a week reported significantly lower levels of performance anxiety (Diaz, 2018). Even activities like yoga or guided imagery music can help reduce anxiety (Spahn, 2015).
One way to reduce both physical and psychological tension is through progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation is the process of relieving the tension from all of the muscles in your body; this technique has been found to be effective at combating performance anxiety (Fernholz et al., 2019) and can help to treat insomnia and general anxiety as well (Stöppler, 2020).
To use this method, first find a comfortable spot to sit or lay down. If you can, lean back, spread out, and be sure that you do not have to tense any of your muscles to hold yourself up. Then, you will go through each area of muscles in your body and progressively tense them and release them as you breathe deeply (Stöppler, 2020). For example, start with your toes and your feet. Inhale deeply and contract these muscles for 5 to 10 seconds, then exhale sharply and relax them. Relax like this for 10 to 20 seconds, then move onto the next muscle group. Try to move upwards, from your toes all the way up to your face; this way, you will contract and release your toes, feet, legs, buttocks, abdomen, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, jaw, eyes, and forehead, respectively. As you move through each muscle group, notice the feeling of relaxation in that area, feeling the difference between the tense state and the fully-relaxed state. Practicing this exercise for 10 or 20 minutes a day can have a significant impact on the anxiety you face on a day-to-day basis (Stöppler, 2020).
In addition to physical relaxation, rephrasing maladaptive thoughts can be an integral part of managing performance anxiety. In a period of intense dread before your performance, you may engage in negative thought spirals like “This is going to be terrible” or “I’m so unprepared.” Specifically, these thought distortions can fall into a number of major categories (Cuncic, 2020; Spahn, 2015):
Whenever these types of thoughts occur, do your best to counteract them. For example, reassure yourself that the risk of a negative outcome is low (Chow & Mercado, 2020) and understand that it is very unlikely that audience members will notice or fixate on your mistakes as much as you will (Sawchuk, 2017). Realize that your performance does not have to be perfect for you to be a good performer or have a good performance. In fact, in many cases, performance anxiety is exacerbated by perfectionism. Among performing musicians, perfectionists are significantly more likely to struggle with music performance anxiety (Diaz, 2018).
It may even help you to rethink the way you experience emotions. Many of the symptoms of anxiety (e.g., fast heartbeat, anticipation, restlessness) actually overlap with the feeling of joyful excitement, and so reframing your anxiety as excitement may help you to see your performance in a more positive light (Chow & Mercado, 2020). After all, performing for others can often be a rewarding opportunity, especially when you are able to showcase a skill, demonstrate knowledge of a particular subject, or share your ideas.
Finally, when you are just about to perform, perhaps waiting backstage, try not to panic. Remember that the worst stage fright usually comes just before the performance, and it often goes away once you get to performing or presenting (Marks, 2019). In fact, for some people—especially athletes—performance anxiety can even have a positive effect and motivate them to succeed (Chow & Mercado, 2020).
As you begin your performance, continue to breathe deeply; this can help to ground you and keep you relaxed (Sawchuk, 2017). Laughing can also help you relax, so use any opportunity for humor if it is appropriate (Marks, 2019).
It may help you to engage more with your audience. This means making eye contact, smiling, and perhaps even finding a few friendly faces in the crowd to focus on (Marks, 2019). If you feel as if focusing on the audience will cause more stress, however, you may find it more soothing to instead focus on the material you are presenting or performing (Sawchuk, 2017). This can help you to think less about others watching your presentation and more about the presentation itself. Indeed, for musicians, performance anxiety is lowest when the focus is placed not on oneself nor on the audience, but on the task at hand (Spahn, 2015).
Learn to roll with mistakes. Making a fumble or blanking on the material for a few seconds can be incredibly stressful, especially if the performance is being closely scrutinized or evaluated. However, it is best to move on; dwelling on slip-ups can increase feelings of anxiety and make it harder to carry on with the performance (Sawchuk, 2017). Furthermore, it is likely that very few people have noticed a mistake, even if it feels huge from your perspective. For example, forgetting a word during a speech may cause a moment of silence that feels awkward and incredibly long, but the audience will only experience it as a brief moment (Sawchuk, 2017).
These tips and techniques should help to reduce feelings of performance anxiety. However, if your anxiety is persisting, causing you significant distress, or interfering with your life or career, seek professional help. Psychological interventions have been found to be effective in curbing public speaking anxiety (Ebrahimi et al., 2019), and medications like beta-blockers have been used for decades to reduce music performance anxiety (Spahn, 2015; Marks, 2019). There are many psychological approaches that have been developed for dealing with this issue, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and in some cases there is no replacement for a trained clinician’s help.
Although everyone experiences it at some point, performance anxiety can have devastating effects for some people, especially when a successful performance or presentation is necessary for one’s occupation or education. These fears can be enough to hold someone back from a career or damage one’s feelings of self-confidence. Nonetheless, there are many effective treatments designed for performance anxiety, from relaxation techniques to medical interventions. Performance anxiety can feel like an overwhelming burden, but fortunately it is not something you have to face alone or without help.
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Chow, K., & Mercado, E. (2020). Performance anxiety and the plasticity of emotional responses. Cognition and Emotion, 34(7), 1309-1325. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33094692/
Cuncic, A. (2020). Do you have musical performance anxiety? VeryWellMind.com. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-muscial-performance-anxiety-3024328
Diaz, F. M. (2018). Relationships among meditation, perfectionism, mindfulness, and performance anxiety among collegiate music students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 150-167. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022429418765447
Ebrahimi, O. V., Pallesen, S., Kenter, R. M. F., & Nordgreen, T. (2019). Psychological interventions for the fear of public speaking: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 488. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00488/full
Fernholz, I., Mumm, J. L. M., Plag, J., Noeres, K., Rotter, G., Willich, S. N., Ströhle, A., Berghöfer, A., & Schmidt, A. (2019). Performance anxiety in professional musicians: A systematic review on prevalence, risk factors and clinical treatment effects. Psychological Medicine, 49(14), 2287-2306. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31474244/
Marks, H. (2019). Stage fright (performance anxiety). WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/stage-fright-performance-anxiety
Sawchuk, C. N. (2017). Fear of public speaking: How can I overcome it? MayoClinic.org. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/specific-phobias/expert-answers/fear-of-public-speaking/faq-20058416
Spahn, C. (2015). Treatment and prevention of music performance anxiety. Progress in Brain Research, 217, 129-140. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0079612314000259?via%3Dihub
Stöppler, M. C. (2020). Progressive muscle relaxation for stress and insomnia. WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/muscle-relaxation-for-stress-insomnia