Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.

You’re about to take the stage for an important audition. You’ve read the play, memorized the scene, and done your emotional preparation. You’re fired up and ready to go. All of the sudden your legs feel like rubber, your mouth has gone completely dry, your heart is about to beat out of your chest. You can barely breathe. You feel like you might faint if you take another step and your mind has gone completely blank.

Perhaps this has happened before; maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever had this awful experience. Whichever it is, you’re in good company. Laurence Olivier, Carly Simon, Helen Mirren, Adele, Pablo Casals, Vladimir Horowitz, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Grant, Renee Fleming and Jason Alexander are just a few of the many performers who have suffered from stage fright. In its most extreme manifestations, stage fright (also called performance anxiety) is considered a type of Social Anxiety Disorder.

Anxiety is a term that gets bandied about quite a bit. It’s often confused with fear, and there is considerable overlap in the subjective experience of each feeling. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), fear is “the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat,” while anxiety is “anticipation of future threat.” There are a variety of anxiety disorders, but Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by a significant emotional and physiological response to situations in which a person is exposed to potential scrutiny and evaluation by others. The individual fears that she will be negatively judged, resulting in humiliation, embarrassment or rejection.

Some folks combat their social anxiety by avoiding the kinds of situations that provoke these responses. But if you’re a performer, avoiding is not an option; you’ve chosen an endeavor that requires you to put yourself in emotional harm’s way every time you take the stage. Auditions are especially challenging, because they create a perfect storm of conditions guaranteed to induce anxiety. At an audition you are, in fact, being closely observed and judged. Every time you do it, you are exposing yourself to every kind of criticism you can imagine.

For an actor, dancer or singer, performance anxiety is the overwhelming fear of being seen. Everyone feels some anxiety about standing up in front of strangers and performing or giving a presentation. To do so without any trepidation would be abnormal. In fact, most performers say that some degree of nervousness fuels their performance; the rush of adrenaline just before the curtain goes up can be energizing. In a previous post, I discussed embracing your vulnerability if you want your work to be authentic (and if you want to land that great part). But what if you can’t? What if your anxiety is preventing you from feeling safe or calm enough to be vulnerable onstage? If your level of anxiety engulfs you so much that you become closed off and self-protective, that’s when you know there’s a problem.

Overcoming stage fright can be challenging and confusing. There are so many “cures” out there—just ask any of your peers and you’ll get an earful. I believe that there are essentially three components to the solution: acceptance, preparation and confidence. Each element is multi-faceted, comprised of cognitive, behavioral and emotional aspects. Your treatment, if you need one, will be unique to you, because each of us has distinct strengths and opportunities for growth in our habits and psychological makeup.

A good example of someone who overcame her anxiety is Tony Award-winning actress Renée Elise Goldsberry (currently starring in Hamilton). She knew she had a problem with performance anxiety when she played Nala in The Lion King on Broadway. Check out this video:

Ms. Goldsberry says that she could sing her big number backstage but would be unable to “pull it off” when she was “on the stage in front of the thousands of people.” She had the skills and was well prepared, but as soon as the stage fright kicked in she would freeze and (in her words) “fail.” How did she overcome her anxiety? She stopped trying to fight it and began to accept it. “I started to relinquish my own control over this moment. I actually found the strength and the note…surprisingly.” The video ends with her making this singular statement of self-confidence: “I love that I know that I can be brilliant and that I can also bomb…It’s very much who Renée Elise Goldberry is – human and vulnerable. And that makes me more valuable.

This performer was already prepared. But she had to learn how to accept the moment for what it is (and accept that she was going to be anxious). Mastering both of those components allowed her to truly feel confident (“valuable”) of her humanity and her all important vulnerability.

If Renée Elise Goldsberry can overcome her performance anxiety, so can you.

About author

Bill Harrison MA, LCPC

Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com