What is performance anxiety? Causes, symptoms & exercises

Last Updated: June 30, 2021

We determine what Performance Anxiety is, what causes it, and how to overcome it. We also discuss several hacks & exercises that can help you overcome performance anxiety before your next high-pressure situation.

You love the idea of performing.

You’re motivated by the thought of rocking your audience with your songs, or by taking them on a journey with your acting performances. Or perhaps you want to make a positive impact on people’s lives as a public speaker.

But every time you try to perform for an audience, this wave of anxiety washes over you, and you feel stuck like a deer in headlights.

If that sounds familiar, then you might be experiencing performance anxiety, also known as stage fright.

Here, we’ll discuss what performance anxiety is, what causes it, and how to overcome it.

We’ll also include some quick hacks to beat stage fright before your next upcoming performance.

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is the fear someone experiences before and/or during a specific type of performance. When someone has performance anxiety, they might fear that the performance will be a failure even if they are well prepared.

Often, the fear is tied to the potential humiliation or rejection that might result from a failed performance. And although performance anxiety can exist around any type of task, it is usually more prevalent among people that have to perform under pressure.

Musical performers, actors, public speakers, and professional athletes are some of the professions where performance anxiety is common. This is why performance anxiety is also known as stage fright [1].

It is natural to experience a little bit of nervousness before one has to perform or speak in front of an audience. Some performers even use it to increase their mental focus and intensity on stage.

But for others, performance anxiety can be debilitating to the point of panic attacks. It severely impacts their ability to perform and may even end their performance career.

What are the symptoms of stage fright?

The symptoms of performance anxiety vary from person to person, both in severity and the actual symptoms.

Many performers describe the experience as a wave of overwhelming nervousness shortly before its time to walk out on stage.

Performance anxiety typically causes mental, emotional, as well as physical symptoms, all of which are interrelated.

It’s your underlying thoughts and beliefs about your ability to perform that create specific emotions within you. These emotions of fear and worry then result in the physical symptoms before a performance (more on this below).

Here are some of the usual symptoms of performance anxiety [2]:

  • Heart palpitations (racing heartbeat)
  • High blood pressure (may cause dizziness)
  • Too much sweating
  • Chills
  • Trembling of hands
  • Shaky voice
  • Nausea
  • Fainting (in rare and severe cases)

Some performers describe stage fright as a severe form of the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Others feel like an elephant is sitting on their chest.

It can get so bad that some performers have to back out of their performance because they feel like they’ve lost all control over their motor skills.

What causes stage fright?

Some people think that lack of preparation or experience can be at the root of stage fright. But it seems to affect performers regardless of experience or success.

Actor Hugh Grant, who reportedly considered quitting acting several times due to performance anxiety, regularly experienced panic attacks when the cameras started rolling.

He described it as freezing like a rabbit, sweating like a bull, unable to speak or think [3].

Barbara Streisand developed extreme stage fright at the height of her career. It got so bad that she refused to perform for large audiences for 27 years. She would only go in front of private audiences at clubs or charity events, where the pressure was presumably not as high.

Even Taylor Swift has discussed taking L-theanine to combat anxiety during an interview with Elle Magazine [4].

So what is it that causes performance anxiety among both amateurs and world-class performers alike?

Stress-response and stage fright

All said and done, it comes down to your underlying beliefs and emotions about your ability to perform. And what you unconsciously (or consciously) believe would be the outcomes of your performance.

If you experience severe stage fright symptoms, then for one reason or another, performing is a stressful experience for you.

It could be because you had a traumatic performance experience in the past, maybe even as a child. Or that your parents didn’t approve of you when you were a kid. Or it might be that you were bullied as a child.

And now you might fear that a “failed” performance would result in similar pain, rejection, and humiliation.

All of this underlying fear and worry activates your body’s stress response when it’s time to perform. Because of your fear, your nervous system thinks you’re in real danger and triggers a fight-or-flight response.

This is also known as a stress-response [5].

What happens during a stress-response?

When your fight-or-flight response gets activated due to your fear of humiliation, rejection, etc, your nervous system essentially sets you up in survival mode.

We have this response programmed into us through evolution because this is how our ancestors survived when they were in actual danger in the jungles.

But although we’re typically not running from wolves anymore in our day-to-day lives, we’re still wired to respond similarly when we sense danger. For example, the loss of our reputation or future opportunities.

What happens is that your body releases various stress hormones like adrenaline that dramatically increase your physical capacity to fight or run away (flight) [6].

Your heart pumps blood with more force, your blood pressure rises, and you experience all the other physical symptoms of stage fright.

It would be beneficial to you if you actually had to run for your life. But instead, you’re left standing backstage, sweating and trembling, unable to think or speak, and considering whether to back out of your performance or speech.

How can I overcome stage fright?

There’s some advice out there that suggests that if you just practice more, prepare more, then you’ll be more confident in your performance abilities, and it would reduce your anxiety.

And yes, you should obviously practice and prepare to the best of your ability.

But that doesn’t explain why world-class artists like Hugh Grant or Barbara Streisand would experience debilitating stage fright. Surely, Hugh Grant wasn’t experiencing panic attacks because he didn’t practice his lines!

The explanation could be that you would have to dig a bit deeper to overcome stage fright.

Your stage fright symptoms are caused by your fear around performing, and because your body gets overwhelmed with the stress-response.

So, let’s explore overcoming stage fright from two separate angles.

One is to reduce your fear of performing so it isn’t as stressful for you, reducing your stress-response.

The second would be to improve how your mind and body handle stress, so you’re better equipped to calmly handle future stressful situations.

How to reduce stress before a performance

If your stage fright is severe enough to the point that it could potentially ruin your career as a performer, then it might make sense for you to speak to a therapist to identify root causes and create a plan of treatment.

Also, here are a couple of approaches that might work for you.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for performance anxiety

CBT is one of the most common types of therapy to overcome stage fright. Your therapist will help you break down a big idea, like performing for audiences, into smaller parts.

Then you’ll identify your underlying thoughts, emotions, fears, etc. around each of those smaller parts.

Finally, you’ll be assigned tasks, mental exercises, and even homework, to replace any negative thought patterns with positive ones.

CBT, if done properly, has been shown to be effective in the long run against various types of anxiety [7].

Fear-setting for performance anxiety

Fear setting is an exercise based on the stoic philosophy. Tim Ferris, the best-selling author/entrepreneur, calls stoicism “an operation thriving in high-stress environments”.

Fear-setting is the opposite of positive visualizations. You thoroughly imagine your worst fears coming true. And then you create plans to avoid them from happening, but also contingency plans if your worst fears do come true.

The idea is that by imagining your fears coming through and planning for the worst, you’ll be more willing to accept those outcomes. And in a way, it would set you free.

And once you’re free, you won’t feel the anxiety, and your performance will flow out of you freely.

To learn more about how it works, and how to do fear-setting, check out the Tim Ferriss TED talk on fear-setting.

How to stay calm under pressure

The other part of the equation is how your mind and body handle stress. If you can train yourself to stay calm under pressure, then it makes sense that you would have an easier time dealing with stage fright symptoms.

And it basically comes down to adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Diet that boosts your mood and focus

What you eat can have a significant impact on your overall health and mood.

A diet rich in a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and high quality proteins can improve your cognitive function. That means better balance in hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which can affect your feelings of happiness and wellness.

More specifically, ingredients like L-theanine [9], magnesium, GABA [8], and others have been proven to promote calmness and focus under pressure, which could help you before a performance. Supplements designed to help overcome performance anxiety contain all of these ingredients.

Exercise to improve heart-rate-variability (HRV)

Just like your diet, exercise can have a big impact on your mood and your ability to handle stress.

Both high-intensity exercise and yoga have been proven to improve heart-rate-variability (HRV).

HRV is the measure of the change in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats. Improved HRV is linked to a better ability to handle stress [10].

Mindfulness to increase mental resilience

Mindfulness practices like meditation can do wonders for your overall stress levels.

A regular meditation practice is like the ultimate chill-pill. You’ll be able to keep stress at bay and go through your day in a blissfully confident manner.

And when it comes time to perform, a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the severity of your stage fright symptoms.

If meditation is so great, why doesn’t everyone do it? Because it takes a good amount of effort and discipline, in the beginning, to get going till you actually experience results.

Headspace is a great beginner-friendly app to help you build the habit.

Quick stage fright hacks

The suggestions above can be game-changers for your performance career. But they all take some time to implement.

Whether it’s completing CBT, or revamping your diet and exercise routine, you’re not going to get it done within the next week.

But maybe your next big performance is only a few days away, and you need a quick fix, while you continue working on the longer-term solutions.

Here are a couple of hacks you can try to beat stage fright.

Tactical breathing, brought to you by the Navy Seals

Tactical breathing” is a trick used by the Navy Seals to stay calm under pressure. And if there’s anyone who knows about performing under pressure, it’s Navy Seals.

Done right, “tactical breathing” can deactivate your stress response and switch your nervous system back to a relaxed mode. You will feel your heart calm down, and the nervousness melts away [11].

  • Step 1: Take a deep breath into your stomach to a count of four.
  • Step 2: Hold your breath and count to four.
  • Step 3: Exhale slowly to a count of four.
  • Step 4: Repeat the process till you feel calmer and in control.

Into your body, out of your mind

The point of this hack is to reach a physical and mental state of calm confidence where your best performance flows out of you effortlessly.

For best results, do this 1-2 hours before your performance. The closer to the performance, the better.

Physical & Mental Activity Instructions

Here is a couple of simple exercises that I teach my clients to use when they’re prepping for a critical performance:

  1. First, pick one or two physical activities to get the blood pumping
  2. Once you’re physically warmed up, pick a mental exercise to reach a calm and focused state of mind

Examples of physical exercises to prime your body include:

  • Jumping jacks
  • Air squats
  • Pushups
  • Dancing
  • Jog around the block
  • Yoga

Examples of mental exercises to focus your mind include:

  • Take deep breaths in and out while visualizing positive outcomes of the performance.
  • Simply meditate. Close your eyes, breathe normally, and focus on your breath going in and out.
  • Take your mind off the performance by watching comedy, listening to music, or anything else relaxing.

What about sexual performance anxiety?

Although completely different from stage fright, similar underlying principles and mechanisms could be at play for sexual performance anxiety.

You’re most likely not going to have a fight-or-flight response when getting intimate with your partner.

But if you have specific underlying thoughts and beliefs about yourself or your relationship, then it could result in sexual performance anxiety.

The topic is beyond the scope of this article, but here are a couple of great guides on sexual performance anxiety from ForHims, and Lloyds Pharmacy.

Performance Anxiety Conclusion

Suffering from stage fright doesn’t need to be the end of your performing career.

If performing in front of others is what drives and motivates you to create, speak, or perform, then that is the life you’ve been called for. And you owe it to yourself (as well as your audience) to become the best performer that you can be.

That means instead of viewing stage fright as something that derails your career, you should see it as another challenge to overcome. And when you do overcome it, not only will you become a better performer, but also a more resilient person for having done so.

If you can, schedule a consultation with a licensed therapist to identify the root cause of your stage fright. And in the meantime, try some of the quick stage fright hacks mentioned in this article to give you a mental boost before your next performance.

Take a look at our other guides

How to overcome stage fright - a complete guide
The Science of Stage Fright - how to understand & conquer stage fright
Glossophobia or the Fear of Public Speaking
How the singer Adele manages her stage fright
How to Overcome Audition Anxiety

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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.