Performance anxiety is often referred to as stage fright. Many people experience it, including professional athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians. It causes diverse symptoms and affects people in a vast range of circumstances, from difficulty speaking in front of crowds to problems during intimacy. There are many ways to deal with performance anxiety, depending on when and how it appears.
Some psychologists feel that the root of performance anxiety is in the body’s natural fight or flight response. People get nervous or scared about performing, which leads to one of two reactions. One is fight: they essentially attack themselves. Sometimes, this attack comes in the form of self-defeating thoughts, or their mind going blank before they need to recall a speech. The other response is flight: they avoid performing altogether.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Performance anxiety is a form of social anxiety disorder that only appears when performing. However, the definition of “performing” varies from person to person. Someone with performance anxiety around public speaking might be fine talking to a few people in a group but would have a very different reaction if asked to make a speech on a stage in front of an auditorium full of people. Some nervousness about performances is normal, but people with performance anxiety experience very intense symptoms that hinder their performance.
Performance anxiety has many mental symptoms, including fear of judgment, worrying about embarrassing oneself, focusing on and overanalyzing flaws, expecting negative outcomes, and avoidance. These feelings can begin in the days leading up to the event and often intensify as the feared performance draws nearer.
There are many physical symptoms of performance anxiety, too. These include rapid heartbeat, shaking, sweating, blushing, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and muscle tension. Physical symptoms can also make mental symptoms worse. Some people worry about whether the audience notices that they are shaking, blushing, or sweating, intensifying their fears about the performance.
Public speaking is one of the most common fears. Most people are naturally nervous when asked to speak in front of a group. In part, this is because it changes the dynamic of what is expected of the speaker. When talking casually to a group, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and the expectations are lower. But when giving a speech in front of a large group of co-workers, wedding guests, or students, the speaker is the center of attention and expected to perform at a certain level. It’s not hard for most people to understand why this can lead to performance anxiety.
Music Performance Anxiety
Another form of performance anxiety is specific to music performance. Sometimes, nerves can improve the quality of a performance, but this is not always the case. One study showed that self-efficacy, or how well a person feels they can cope given their skills, plays a big role. Musicians who start a performance believing in their skills have fewer symptoms of performance anxiety and can often channel it into a positive experience. Others start with many symptoms, but as they perform, they get more comfortable. Symptoms lessen throughout the performance. But, someone who begins with moderate symptoms and cannot cope will have more symptoms as the performance goes on.
Sports Performance Anxiety
Sports performance anxiety can affect amateur and professional athletes and can appear in many ways. These include self-defeating behaviors like failing to warm up or stretch properly, being inattentive to form, or struggling to focus on the game. The result can be careless errors or injuries due to a failure to properly focus on the sport. All of these behaviors are rooted in fears of rejection and judgment.
Sexual Performance Anxiety
Sexual performance anxiety is a little different as the audience is smaller, but it has many of the same root causes as other types of performance anxiety. This type of performance anxiety affects both men and women, though there are slight differences. Statistically, men more often want to prove their masculinity and abilities, while women are more concerned with properly displaying their enjoyment as a reflection of their partners’ skills.
Beta-blockers have been proposed as a treatment for performance anxiety. Interestingly, studies show that some beta-blockers are more effective at treating performance anxiety than they are at managing chronic or long-term anxiety disorders. Studies suggest beta-blockers can effectively treat stage fright, test anxiety, and performance anxiety in musicians and surgeons.
There are many non-pharmaceutical ways to manage performance anxiety. The anticipation in the days leading up to the event can worsen performance anxiety, so finding a distraction can help. Prepare as effectively and thoroughly as possible to improve self-confidence, and remember that everyone gets some amount of stage fright. In most cases, once you get started, the nerves go away.