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Stage fright or performance anxiety refers to an anxiety, fear or persistent phobia related to performance in front of an audience or camera. This form of anxiety can precede or accompany participation in any activity involving public self-presentation.
Often the term "stage fright" is conflated with glossophobia, a broader fear of speaking in public.
Performance anxiety is also observed in sportspeople. In the latter case it is interpreted as a fear to underperform (in view of the actual public or implied publicity).
Quite often stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often long time ahead. It has numerous manifestations: fluttering or pounding heart, tremor in hands and legs, diarrhea, facial nerve tics, dry mouth.
Stage fright may be observed in ordinary people, beginning artists, as well as in accomplished ones.
Causes and solutions
Anxiety causes negative effects of the performance quality in many different situations: examinations, job interviews, athletic performance, and sex.
In the 1980s, Barrell, Medeiros, Barrell and Price conducted an experiment on performance anxiety, employing the methods self-observing, self-reporting and self-discovering. This way, five causal elements were found to be present in the experience of performance anxiety:
(1) I perceive or imagine the presence of significant others who are able to judge me.
One possible solution to performance anxiety could be that of reducing the significance of the other person(s). 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.
(2) I consider the possibility of my visible failure at a task.
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 way to do this is monitoring our own performance.
(3) I feel a need to do well to avoid failure.
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.
(4) I feel uncertain as to whether I will do well.
Uncertainty plays a major role in experiencing anxiety. It could be helpful to keep in mind that one cannot control other’s reactions or judgments, but only one’s own performance.
(5) I focus on my own behavior and appearance.
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.
In summary, optimal strategies of coping with performance anxiety include “focusing on process rather than results, the moment of experience rather than the future, positive approach goals rather than negative avoidance goals, and self-acceptance rather than self doubt”.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can be helpful.
References & Bibliography
- Barrell, J. J., Medeiros, D., Barrell, J. E., & Price, D. (1985). The Causes and Treatment of Performance Anxiety: An Experimental Approach. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 25 (2), 106-122.
- Better Playing Through Chemistry by Blair Tindall, New York Times, October 17, 2004. (Discussing the use of beta-blockers among professional musicians)
- Jackson, J.M, and Latane, B. (1981) All alone in front of all those people: stage fright as a function of number and type of co-performers and audience, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40: 73-85.
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