Your hands shake, and drip with sweat. Your voice cracks. Your legs threaten to collapse. Your mind races. Your heart drowns out all other sounds with its powerful thumping. Any minute now, the audience will break into small groups to discuss what a loser you are!
You've got stagefright.
Stagefright in its various forms is the most common phobia in the United States. It's often called “performance anxiety" because it doesn't really have to involve a stage. Anyone whose activity brings them to the attention of an audience, however large or small, can experience stagefright.
Stagefright is most commonly experienced as a fear of public speaking. However, people whose career or other interests require them to take the “stage" for other purposes, i. e. , actors, musicians, athletes, etc, will experience stagefright as an impairment of their own particular activity. A mime, for instance, can experience stagefright even though no speaking is involved. The best man at a wedding can experience it, even though all eyes are on the bride. So can a golfer, especially on the first tee.
Stagefright is very treatable. However, many people just suffer with it, with all the limitations and negative emotions it imposes. They either don't realize help is available; they fear they can't be helped; or they think it will be too hard.
While everyone's situation will vary in some ways, I find that there are four general ways in which people experience stagefright.
Some people go to great extremes to avoid any possibility of being “on stage". I've worked with clients who carefully chose all their college classes to avoid any presentations, and picked a career which wouldn't ever include any public speaking. These people usually succeed in avoiding presentations, but often have regrets about the way this fear controlled their life choices. If you belong to this group, you are probably troubled by both fear and regrets.
There are others whose fear is less extreme. They don't let the fear dictate their major career and life choices. But they do strive to avoid the occasional presentation at work, the wedding toast, and the leadership of a civic group. They usually keep their fear a secret, and try to find ways around it. As a result, they never feel secure. The problem hangs over their head for lengthy periods of their life, even though they rarely actually give a presentation. If you belong to this group, you probably suffer considerable anticipatory fear and shame.
Then there are those whose professional success has led them to the necessity of public speaking, even though they would rather avoid it: the attorneys, engineers, architects, authors, doctors, managers, teachers and others who have become so successful that they are increasingly requested and pressed to present their talents and knowledge before an audience. If you belong to this group, you must either develop the ability to face an audience, or cut short the successful arc of your career.
And finally, there are people with a passion for creative expression. In this group we find performing artists such as musicians, singers, actors and comedians. None of them are immune to stagefright. If you belong to this group and develop stagefright, you face a dilemma which cannot be avoided. Your spirit urges you to seek out the audience, even as your body warns you to stand back.
The good news is that stagefright is common and treatable. If you want to overcome this problem, you can! But in order to overcome it, you must first understand how it works.
The hallmark of stagefright is, of course, the panic symptoms you experience during a presentation or performance. But there is more to stagefright, and if you’re going to overcome it, you need to become aware of all its parts. Stagefright actually consists of four components, and you have to work with each of them if you’re going to overcome the problem. The four components of stagefright are:
Anticipation: the nervous, negative, and largely unrealistic thoughts and mental images you experience in the minutes, hours, days and weeks (sometimes months!) before a scheduled performance.
Avoidance: when you avoid performance situations because of fear, you unfortunately strengthen and maintain the stagefright. It prevents you from having the helpful experience of coping with the anxiety, and leaves you instead with the impression that you would have experienced a horrible disaster if you had actually tried to perform.
Anxiety and Panic: the fearful symptoms you experience during your performance before an audience. These symptoms may include physical sensations such as labored breathing, sweating, racing heart and dizziness, as well as numerous fearful thoughts about how poorly you are doing and how the audience is repelled by your nervousness and incompetence.
Appraisal: the period after a performance, when you come to some conclusions about how you did.
Let's consider the nature of stagefright.
In the first place, you should know that stagefright, like most anxiety disorders, is believed to stem from a genetic predisposition. This simply means that some people are good candidates to develop stagefright, by virtue of their physiology, and others are very unlikely to ever experience it.
But for those who do have such a predisposition, stagefright is the product of a particular way of thinking about the performance situation, and a particular way of trying to handle it as well.
It’s the product of thinking of the performance situation as a threat, rather than a challenge. Thinking of it as a threat sets off primitive “fight or flight” responses which would ordinarily help you fight off a predator, such as a rush of adrenaline, diversion of blood to your major muscles, faster heartbeat, and so on. . If you really were getting into a fight, all those changes would be helpful. But if you’re trying to give a speech, they tend to get in your way!
Stagefright is also the product of focusing on yourself, and your anxiety, rather than on your presentation or performance. When you’re focused on yourself to an excessive degree, you’re unable to immerse yourself in the role of the performer. Instead, you worry about how you look and sound; you imagine all the most critical thoughts, and attribute them to the audience; and then you try to control your anxiety by a variety of means. For instance, people will: cut short their presentation; rush through it; hand it over to a co-presenter; read it word for word; and avoid any interaction, including eye contact, with the audience.
The unfortunate aspect of these efforts is that they usually make the stagefright worse. They make the presentation less interesting, and create a barrier between the speaker and the audience. They lead the speaker to feel more alone, and therefore more self conscious and fearful.
If instead, the speaker could turn her focus to the task at hand, and get fully immersed in that, the process of communicating with the audience would flow more smoothly.
Why don’t people do that? Why don’t they just turn their focus to their performance?
It’s because they have the idea that it’s not okay to feel anxious up there, and they think they have to get rid of that anxiety. They think that, if they could get rid of the anxiety, then they could perform.
For a lot of people, it’s because they tend to think that the anxiety they have beforehand, the anticipatory anxiety, is only the start of the problem. They’re plagued by this thought: “If I’m this nervous now, how much worse will it be when I start talking?”. They assume that their anticipation is the low point of the anxiety, and that it will increase terribly once they get on stage.
The truth is, for most people, it’s exactly the reverse. The anticipation is the worst part of the anxiety. Once they get involved in the performance, they start to feel better, not worse.
But just hearing that isn’t usually enough to allow someone to manage the fear. A person with stagefright is driven to struggle against their fear.
That’s the problem.
A successful treatment for stagefright will help a person to accept, and work with, the fear, while they give their main focus to the performance.
Here, by way of example, are a few coping techniques for stagefright.
TIPS FOR COPING WITH STAGEFRIGHT
1. If you want to talk (or sing, act, etc. ), you have to breathe. And if you want to do these things calmly, you'll need to breathe diaphragmatically. This won't always come naturally, and you'll probably need to practice. You can find everything you need to learn how to do this at DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING.
2. Remind yourself that the audience isn’t there to see or hear you, unless you're a very famous person (or your mom is in the audience). They're just here to see the person who's talking about this topic (or playing this piece, etc. ). Today that happens to be you. That's not really important to them.
3. Expect, and accept, that you will feel anxious, especially at first. That's OK. If you allow yourself to work WITH the anxiety, not against it, you'll be able to calm down and proceed. If you resist the anxiety, you'll make more trouble for yourself.
4. Establish the right focus for your task. What do I mean by focus? I mean what you pay attention to as you engage in your performance. This, unlike the other three tips above, will vary depending on what kind of performance you're engaged in.
* If you are giving a talk, your focus should be your material and the audience reaction to it, because your task is to inform or persuade them. You therefore want to be aware of how they are responding, so that you can connect with them in various ways.
*Establish contact with the audience through eye contact and talking directly to them. Ask them questions to get them involved in your talk (i. e. , How many of you here have ever had this experience. . . ?) While your natural instinct will probably be to avoid the audience as much as possible, you will actually feel LESS anxiety once you get the audience involved with you.
*If your task is a performance art, your focus will be different. It's not your job to persuade or inform the audience. You want to perform a piece for their enjoyment. In this case, you can ignore the audience, and turn your focus to your music, or your character, and leave the audience to enjoy your performance on their own.
*Where you don't want your focus to be is on yourself and your anxiety. This is why it's so useful to develop an accepting attitude toward the anxiety, to take a few steps to calm yourself a little, and then shift your focus to the task at hand.
With Much Love,
Out of Darkness & Into the Light
43 Oakwood Ave. Suite 1012
Huron Ohio, 44839
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