The Science of Stage Fright: How to Understand & Conquer Stage Fright

Last Updated: July 6, 2021

If you feel like you’re trapped by your stage fright, paralyzed by fear before going up on stage, giving a speech, approaching that attractive guy/gal while out walking, or at any point; then this guide is for you. We look at using a scientific approach to understanding & conquering stage fright.

If you’re a musician, actor, or public speaker, and you experience stage fright, then it might feel like you’re trapped by your performance anxiety, and there’s no way that you can reach your potential as a performer.

But here, we’ll break down the science of stage fright in a way that is easy to understand.

We’ll explain exactly what happens in your body when you’re backstage. Why your palms get sweaty, your heart starts racing, and you get that nervous sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.

If you understand the science behind stage fright, then you will better understand how to conquer it.

We’ll also discuss a few different strategies to help you remain calm and composed before your next performance, so you can go out there and knock it off the park for your audience.

What stage fright feels like

Let’s get started by quickly discussing some of the symptoms of stage fright. Below, we’ll discuss what happens within your body before a performance that causes you to experience these symptoms.

The symptoms can vary between each individual, but we do see some commonalities among those who experience performance anxiety.

Stage fright typically hits you right before you’re about to walk out to deliver your speech or performance.

As you’re waiting backstage, you might start sweating profusely and your heart can start racing. Your blood pressure rises, a wave of anxiousness washes over you, and you feel that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your throat gets too tight, your breathing gets shallow, and your vision changes [1].

You feel stuck and frozen like a deer in headlights.

To make things worse, you know that you must regain your composure quickly if you are to deliver a good performance. But you can’t seem to talk yourself into calmness, which further increases your anxiety and panic.

The feeling seems similar to what you think it would be like if you were running for your life getting chased by a monster. And there’s a reason for that, as we’ll find out below.

What’s at the root of stage fright?

We’re social animals, and we’re hardwired to care about the opinion of others.

As a performer or a speaker, you probably care deeply about how the audience receives you.

You also care about how your performance affects your reputation amongst your peers, and how that might affect future opportunities [2].

And if we dig deep into the main reason why your heart starts racing before a performance, it comes down to fear.

You’re also fearful of rejection from your audience, and the pain of humiliation. You fear being judged as unimpressive, incompetent, and a failure.

How your brain is hardwired to react to “threats”

Obviously, having a bad performance on a big night could have real consequences for your career as a speaker, musician, or actor.

But it’s still quite a stretch to suggest that you’re in some sort of actual physical danger.

As we mentioned before, your body still reacts to the threat of loss of reputation in the same way as it did when our ancestors had to run for their lives getting chased by jungle monsters.

But why does the body react that way?

Darwin, the snake, and the primitive brain

Charles Darwin tested how his body would react to the theoretical threat of a snake bite at the snake exhibit at the London zoo.

He placed his face as close as possible to the glass in front of a snake that was about to strike and tried to remain as calm as possible.

But even though Darwin rationally knew that the glass provided ample protection from the snake, he would jump back in fear each time the snake would lunge at him.

He realized there was a disconnect between his reasoning and rational modern mind, and the primitive brain that was hardwired to operate on instinct.

The response from his primitive brain was the fight or flight response, which is a natural mechanism designed to identify and protect us from danger.

So, when you’re waiting backstage, you perceive there is a threat approaching your reputation and your career. Your primitive brain processes that information similarly to how Darwin’s brain was processing the snake attack from behind the safety of the glass.

Even though the rational mind knows there is no real physical danger, in either case, the fight or flight response still kicks into gear to protect us from harm.

Let’s take a closer look at the fight or flight response, and how it is responsible for your symptoms of stage fright.

What happens in your body before a performance

So far, we’ve learned that the fear of a bad performance and the consequent rejection and loss of reputation is at the root of your stage fright symptoms.

We’ve also learned that even though you’re not in any real physical danger, your primitive brain perceives the threat of humiliation as a real danger and activates the fight or flight response.

What is the fight or flight response?

When you’re under severe stress, such as the fear of your life, or in this case the fear of loss of reputation and opportunities, your brain triggers a stress response.

This stress response is also known as the fight-or-flight response [3].

The purpose of this response is to shift your body into survival mode. You switch to a heightened state and you get ready for the only task at hand; either fight for survival or run for your life.

All the functions that aren’t essential to survival at the moment (like digestion) take a back seat [4].

During severe stress, a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus activates the release of adrenaline into your blood [5].

Adrenaline interacts with beta-adrenergic receptors in the heart, which causes the heart to pump blood with more force.

This is why your blood pressure rises and your heart starts racing.

The stress response also shuts down your digestive system to make more resources available to the parts of your body that are necessary for survival. This is why you get the sinking feeling in your stomach and your throat gets dry when you’re experiencing stage fright.

Your vision is also affected. Your pupils dilate to enhance long-range vision, which is why you may have trouble focusing on the notes in front of you on the podium, and you become hyper-focused on the audience’s expression [6].

So, what it comes down to is this – Your stage fright symptoms happen as a result of a stress response, which is triggered by your fear of rejection, humiliation, or the loss of opportunities, all of which might be happening unconsciously.

Now that we understand why the fight or flight mode gets activated, and how that results in stage fright symptoms, we can begin to think of ways to combat stage fright before a performance.

But first, let’s discuss who is at a higher risk of experiencing stage fright.

What are the risk factors for stage fright?

Let’s look at some of the factors that might increase your risk of experiencing stage fright symptoms.

The perceived stakes

When it comes to stage fright, the perceived stakes matter.

You could be doing a presentation about a new idea to your coworkers in your office meeting room, and you don’t think twice about it.

You’re among your peers, and you’re not too worried about messing up, or how it would affect your reputation and your career.

But if you’re now doing the same presentation at your company’s annual conference, all of a sudden there are a lot of things to consider.

You’re now speaking to hundreds of people that don’t already know you and like you, and they’ll form their opinion on you solely based on your presentation. If you mess up, it could ruin your reputation within the company, or even your industry, and significantly affect your career.

Or worse, people might not like the content of the presentation, and you’ll embarrass your team and your boss.

Now the stakes are extremely high in your mind, and your fear of messing up can trigger the stress response, and result in a panic attack.

Your confidence in your preparation

This is an interesting one. It is not necessarily how well prepared you are objectively that plays a role in the severity of your stage fright symptoms.

Rather, it is how confident you are in your ability to perform, and how the audience will receive you.

This is why you’ll hear stories about world-class artists like Hugh Grant and Barbara Streisand suffering from severe performance anxiety to the point that they considered ending their careers.

But on the other hand, you’ll find talentless people confidently walk out on stage during the auditions of American Idol and sing their hearts out without a care in the world. They might be delusional when it comes to their singing abilities, but that’s also why they’re not affected by stage fright.

Genetics

Stage fright falls under the category of social anxiety disorder (SAD).

People with SAD are more concerned about being judged by others, whether at work, social situations, or just your average day-to-day situation [7].

And if you experience SAD, then your stage fright is likely to be much more severe.

Genetics plays a significant role when it comes to social anxiety disorder. So, if you have family members that tend to be anxious in social settings, then you might be more prone to stage fright.

Your brain structure can be another factor in SAD and stage fright. Some people have an overactive amygdala, a part of the brain that is involved in controlling how you respond to fear [7].

If you have an overactive amygdala, then the response to your fear of rejection and humiliation can be heightened, leading to a stronger stress response from your body and stage fright symptoms.

Your childhood experiences

If you experienced rejection or humiliation during your childhood, that could be another risk factor for social anxiety and stage fright [7].

For example, if you were bullied or teased excessively in school. Or if there was too much conflict in your family.

Overcritical parents can also cause children to develop social anxiety later in life.

If you felt like your parents (or teachers) were never happy with your performance no matter how hard you tried, then that fear of rejection could become a habitual pattern of thought later in life, making you more susceptible to performance anxiety.

Past negative experience with performing

Maybe you didn’t grow up with performance anxiety. But then you had a really bad experience with one of your musical performances or speeches.

And ever since then, you’ve been experiencing stage fright.

You’ll often see similar stories in sports. Some top-level pro athlete, who is typically clutch under pressure, has one big miss in an important game.

It affects their confidence, and the pain they experienced from letting their team down lingers for a while.

Their performance might not be at the usual level for some time, because they’re experiencing a mild version of stage fright.

Every time they step up to the plate, they fear they’d let their team down again, which triggers a stress response and affects their mental focus.

Why you need to learn how to handle stage fright

If you’re a performer that’s motivated by the experience of playing or speaking in front of an audience, then it goes without saying that stage fright can be a real hurdle in your career.

But even if you’re not a performer or a speaker, you may also benefit from overcoming stage fright. Or just learning how to handle the jittery nervousness in social situations, whether it’s a date, an interview, or when you’re at a party with lots of strangers.

Social anxiety and stage fright can also affect you during an important exam. That same fear or failure to deliver in high-stakes situations can trigger a stress response. And that can affect your ability to focus on answering questions on a test. This phenomenon is known as test anxiety.

Learning to handle stage fright can also benefit your professional career. Maybe once you learn how to stay calm and composed during a speech, you’d be more willing to speak at business meetings and conferences, and potentially open up new opportunities.

And the good news is that you can learn to keep stage fright at bay. And that’s what we will focus on in the next section.

Conquer stage fright with science

The first step to conquering stage fright is to realize that it’s not just something in your head.

As we’ve discussed above, your stage fright symptoms are a physiological stress response due to fear.

You can’t force yourself or talk yourself into calmness. You need to go deeper and address the root causes of the fear. And you need to equip your body with the tools it needs to remain calm under pressure.

Here is a 4-step approach to keeping stage fright away before your next performance or speech.

Step 1 – Exercise and nutrition

What you eat and how much you exercise can positively impact almost all areas of your life. And stage fright is no exception.

A diet that is low in processed foods, and rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and high quality proteins, helps your body get a wide array of beneficial nutrients to function optimally.

That also means that your brain will become more resilient when it has to deal with stress, and it will have an easier time maintaining equilibrium.

A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish like salmon) has been specifically shown to improve wellness and help against mood disorders [8].

Another key component is exercise. There is a lot of evidence that points to the mental health benefits of exercising, whether its strength training, cardio, yoga or a combination.

Exercise improves your heart rate variability (HRV) which is the measure of the difference in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats. HRV is also a measure of how well your body can handle a stress response [9][10].

In other words, improving your HRV through exercise will help you remain calm in stressful situations.

Step 2 – Prepare like never before

Steve Jobs was famous for preparing for hundreds of hours before delivering his famous Apple keynote speeches [11].

That may sound like a bit of an overkill, but the results speak for themselves. And you can try a similar approach to get rid of stage fright.

Even if you don’t have hundreds of hours to prepare, try to go way above and beyond your regular routine.

The point of preparing to the max is that you want to get to a point where the performance flows out of you naturally. It’s almost like you could perform in your sleep.

If you get to that level of mastering a speech or performance, it will significantly boost your confidence. And more confidence means less fear, which means your stage fright will be less severe.

For some extra confidence and familiarity with the performance situation, try to practice in the actual setting of the performance if possible.

Practice your pre-performance routine a few times. Wear the same clothes, the perfume, listen to the music or podcast that’s going to be playing on your commute to the actual performance, etc.

The point of all of this is to get your body so familiar with the entire process, that on the day of the actual performance, you reduce as many unknowns as possible. This allows you to focus on the task at hand, which is to deliver amazing performance for your audience.

Step 3 – A dose of calm performance formula

Consuming brain-boosting ingredients before a performance can help promote calmness and composure when it’s time to walk out on stage.

Specifically, GABA and L-theanine have been shown to reduce excessive activity in the brain and help achieve a calm and focused state that is optimal for creative flow [12][13].

PerformZen is a new supplement that combines both GABA and L-theanine to give you an extra dose of calmness before you walk out on stage.

But the supplement also includes other ingredients like magnesium, vitamin B6, theacrine, and Ginkgo biloba.

All of these ingredients work synergistically to not only keep you calm and focused but to also give you a boost of clean energy, so you can go out there and deliver a performance with intensity and enthusiasm [14][15].

Try PerformZen about 30 minutes to an hour before a speech or performance.

Step 4 – Trick your body into relaxation

Stage fright usually hits you the hardest right before it’s time to perform. That’s when the threat of rejection and humiliation is imminent, and that’s what triggers the fight or flight mode.

And this is when you can unleash your final calmness tool to trick your body into relaxation.

If you’ve been eating well and exercising, preparing the best you can, and if you’ve taken some brain-boosting supplements, then you should already be feeling better than usual.

But your stage fright is a result of human evolution combined with other powerful factors like social anxiety, and unconscious fears about rejection and humiliation. So, it’s not about to surrender that easily.

But this final trick will be too much even for your stage fright.

Deep belly breathing to the rescue

It might sound too simple to be effective, but deep belly breathing is a powerful relaxation tool in your arsenal.

Deep breaths into the pit of your stomach will deactivate the part of the nervous system that is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response. It will restore the regular function of your cardiovascular and digestive systems.

Essentially, you’re communicating to your brain that you’re not actually in any real danger and that it does not need to be in survival mode.

In fact, researchers have found that one single session of deep breathing can help control stress response in musicians with high levels of anxiety [16].

Here’s how to do it.

Go to a place where you can be alone around 10-15 minutes before your performance. Stretch your arms out above you and start taking deep breaths into the pit of your stomach.

Hold your breath for a few seconds and slowly release all the way out.

Then repeat the process till you feel yourself calming down. When breathing in and out, focus on the sensations in your chest and stomach. And try to visualize the ideal outcome of the performance.

Remind yourself that you’ve prepared well, and focus on how you will start your speech or performance. And then imagine your audience mesmerized by your performance, and that the evening ends with thunderous applause as you confidently walk off the stage.

So what is the science behind stage fright?

Stage fright can feel like an impossible hurdle to overcome.

You might be full of passion for your message as a speaker, or about your performance art, whether it’s as a musician, actor, or something else. But you’ve felt hopeless because every time you’re about to walk out on stage, you feel this wave of terror take over your body.

But hopefully now you have a better understanding of why you experience stage fright. And more importantly, you realize that you can pursue your career as a performer or speaker despite your performance anxiety.

Get started today by creating a plan to get started on an exercise and nutrition routine. And then prepare as you’ve never done before, preferably in a setting similar to your next performance.

And finally, for an extra boost in calmness and confidence, consider trying the PerformZen supplement 30 minutes to an hour before you walk out on stage next time.

Take a look at our other guides

How to Overcome Audition Anxiety
How the singer Adele manages her stage fright
How to overcome stage fright - a complete guide
Glossophobia or the Fear of Public Speaking
What is Performance Anxiety? What causes performance anxiety, what are the symptoms, and can you overcome performance anxiety?

Leave a Comment

PerformanceAnxiety.com Owner & Lead Writer

Anita is the owner and lead writer for PerformanceAnxiety.com. A seasoned musician and public speaker herself, she is no stranger to the very real fear and anxiety that can strike right before a high-pressure situation. That's why Anita is passionate about writing content that helps people learn about and overcome their anxieties & social fears so that they can perform at their best when it counts and live anxiety-free lives.