Stage fright is a common type of anxiety that refers to feeling anxious when presenting before an audience. These anxiety symptoms may be either physical or emotional. In severe situations, they can feel incredibly debilitating. Stage fright can affect anyone—it may even impact people who seemingly appear comfortable in front of a crowd.
What Is Stage Fright?
Stage fright is a type of anxiety that describes feeling anxious when speaking or performing in front of a group of people. It isn’t just limited to literal stages. In general, stage fright is a colloquial term used to describe performance anxiety, presentation anxiety, or the fear of public speaking.
How Common Is Stage Fright?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this fear impacts approximately 73% of the population, making it the most commonly cited fear.1 Performance anxiety can happen to anyone, even in people who regularly speak or perform in front of crowds. Many professional athletes, actors, and musicians report instances of feeling insecure or anxious before important events. While some people can avoid public speaking or performances, (and, subsequently, avoid dealing with this fear), others face it on a routine basis.
Is Stage Fright a Form of Anxiety?
Yes, even the Anxiety & Depression Association of America classifies stage fright as the fear of public speaking or performance anxiety.5 Stage fright shares many similar symptoms with other phobias and anxiety disorders.
What Can Trigger Stage Fright?
Stage fright can happen in any setting where you feel worried about being judged for your performance. This fear can happen even if you identify as being gifted with public speaking or whatever you may be performing. It may emerge in front of large audiences and in front of smaller, intimate groups or one-on-one settings.
A person may experience stage fright during the following events:
- Job interviews
- Class presentations
- Exercise classes
- Work meetings
- Speaking to customer service representatives
- Making small talk with strangers
- Making speeches or toasts
Stage Fright Symptoms
Stage fright symptoms may emerge long before your presentation or performance. You might start feeling nervous in the days or hours leading up to the event. As the actual time gets closer, the symptoms tend to become more pervasive and noticeable.
While everyone experiences the anxiety differently, common stage fright symptoms include:
- Excessive dread or worry about the event
- Feeling distant or withdrawn from others
- Experiencing a sense of numbness
- Dry mouth
- Throat tightness (which can make talking painful)
- Racing heartbeat
- Nausea or vomiting
- Stomach pains
- Excessive blushing
- Desire to escape and leave the scene
- Intense paranoia about rejection or judgment
Causes of Stage Fright
Stage fright is extremely common, and some experts believe that it is a subset of social anxiety disorder, a condition rooted in fear of judgment and rejection.2 Someone may also have a severe fear of failure or embarrassment.
Neuroscientists suggest that stage fright might simply represent the fight-or-flight response: the phenomenon where our body reacts to how it perceives certain dangers.3 During the fight-or-flight response, the amygdala sends the stress response throughout the body, which stimulates epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline). This adrenaline accounts for the physiological symptoms experienced during stage fright. The patterns happen so quickly that we don’t recognize when it’s happening until we’re in the middle of it.
Is Stage Fright Genetic?
Research shows that genetic factors can play a prominent role in anxiety disorders. While there aren’t many studies examining the origin of stage fright, up to 30% of generalized anxiety disorder cases appear to be genetic, meaning anxiety runs in families.4
Can Stage Fright Be Prevented?
Due to the nature of stage fright, preventing it can be challenging. Still, knowing the material, lowering the fear of judgment, and building confidence can all help prevent the condition from growing. People may do well to also decrease their preexisting anxiety. Someone with high stress, worry, and tension would be more likely to develop a case of stage fright.
13 Tips for How to Overcome Stage Fright
Overcoming stage fright requires effort, intention, and continuous practice. Relief doesn’t happen overnight. And while you may never truly love to speak in public, you can become more comfortable and confident. Most people integrate several different coping skills to improve their stress response.
Consider these 13 tips for tackling stage fright:
1. See a Therapist
A therapist can help you explore the root of your stage fright and address other underlying concerns. For instance, sometimes, stage fright emerges in response to a traumatic experience. Or the stage fright may be so debilitating that it’s affecting your overall quality of life.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tends to be the gold standard of treatment for anxiety disorders.6 This therapy will help you target your automatic thinking and shift your negative associations about stage fright into more neutral or positive ones. In more severe cases, anxiety medication may be recommended. Your therapist can help facilitate an appropriate psychiatrist referral.
2. Form a Clear Intention for Your Performance
Nervousness and anxiety can derail you from what you are trying to accomplish or convey. So, shift the focus from your fear and connect with your true intention or core message that you would like to bring to the table—talking to an audience about a topic you’re passionate about, requesting a refund for a return at a store, asking your boss for a raise, etc. Envisioning in your mind a concrete goal or objective as you prepare for the awaited moment can help you stay on point and present yourself clearly and confidently.
3. Practice Beforehand
Spend some time familiarizing yourself with your material. Practice as much as you reasonably can until things feel more natural. If possible, practice in front of trusted loved ones and ask for feedback. Ask them what you’re doing well and what they think you need to improve.
4. Tell Yourself a Positive Mantra
Before you enter a challenging situation, it’s a good idea to give yourself a small pep talk. To keep things simple, consider developing a mantra that helps ground you.
Some examples of positive mantras include:
- Even if I feel nervous, I come across as confident.
- People want to hear from me.
- I am going to do a great job!
- This situation is so temporary.
5. Practice Positive Visualization
Positive visualization can help people perform better and feel more confident during those performances. For example, one study found that student-athletes who visualized themselves performing the movement to the best of their ability or beyond demonstrated a 10-15-pound increase in weight lifted.1
Spend some time imagining yourself succeeding at the scary, daunting task. What do you envision? Close your eyes and meditate on this scene for a while. Think about how it feels to completely succeed and be at ease with your audience. Imagine the lightness in your body.
6. Engage in Deep Breathing
When you breathe deeply, you send signals to the body to relax and calm down. These signals can help counteract the adrenaline your brain sends when it senses danger. In response, slow breathing can decrease your heart rate and blood pressure.8
To practice breathing deeply, inhale your breath through your nose and hold for five counts. Use your mouth to exhale fully and hold for five more counts. Repeat several times. You should feel your belly expand and contract during this exercise.
7. Do a Grounding Exercise
When you’re feeling like your nerves are getting the best of you, try doing a grounding exercise. This simple strategy acts as a diversion enabling you to detach from your stage fright and bring you to a calmer mental state. A quick and easy one to remember is the five senses exercise: What are five things you see, four things you hear, three things feel, two things you smell and one thing you can taste? You’ll notice that just the act of trying to figure out all the senses in itself will start shifting you away from your anxiousness.
8. Avoid or Limit Caffeine & Other Mood-Altering Substances
You may assume that a cup of coffee will perk you up. Or, an alcoholic drink may tempt you to help take the edge off. Be careful with these habits—any mood-altering substance can aggravate your nerves and actually worsen your anxiety. If you feel nervous, it’s best to avoid anything that could disrupt your headspace. That said, in most cases, it’s important to try to eat something (even if you feel a bit nauseous). A healthy snack or meal will provide you with the energy you need to perform.
9. Focus on Your Material
Most of the time, if an audience is watching you, they want to learn or feel entertained. They aren’t necessarily there for you—they’re there for what you can offer them. Remember this the next time you’re worried about your nervousness showing through. Hone in on your material. Hone in on how you provide them with what they need at the moment. Even if they notice some anxiety, they’ll be more focused on what they’re learning/receiving than your performance. Subsequently, they will probably also root for your success!
10. Choose a Focal Point to Direct Your Energy
One of the most common techniques used for managing stage fright is picking a spot to focus on in the place where you’ll be speaking—a clock or picture on the wall, a lamp, plant, or anything else that can keep you centered. If possible, try to get acquainted with the venue you’ll be presenting and look around for a few possible spots. This way you can periodically alternate your gaze, preventing you from indefinitely staring at a wall or someone in the audience which could get you off track.
11. Stick With What Works (And What You Know)
If you don’t normally wear high heels, don’t choose your presentation as the day you wear them. If you don’t like making wisecracks, don’t force yourself to “be funny” to fit in. Instead, try to stick with what you already know works. It’s okay to venture outside of your comfort zone, especially if you need to take appropriate risks. But try to avoid making too many drastic changes at one time—doing so will likely make you feel more nervous and uncomfortable.
12. Expose Yourself to Speaking Situations Often
To get better at mastering stage fright, you must place yourself in situations where you need to practice this skill. Commit to speaking more in group meetings. Offer to attend business lunches or lead the presentations. Sit in the front of the room when taking a spin class.
By exposing yourself regularly, you desensitize yourself to all the excess nerves and uncertainty. You become better acquainted with your emotions, and they won’t feel as debilitating.
13. Reassess After Your Presentation
After your presentation, take some time to reflect on what went well. Try and identify at least two or three accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. It’s reasonable to reflect on how you want to improve. In doing this, aim to be nonjudgmental with yourself. You are growing and learning, and beating on yourself will only exacerbate shame.
Stage Fright Treatment
Therapy is the primary way mental health professionals would address presentation anxiety, stage fright, or performance anxiety. By working to identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors connected to the stress, a therapist can offer helpful interventions for anxiety.
As with other anxiety conditions, exposure therapy would be one of the key treatment options. This treatment involves a person performing or presenting in various settings to fight back against the anxiety while fostering a sense of power and control.
Is There Medication for Stage Fright?
Medications may not be used to treat stage fright directly, but professionals could offer medicines to treat co-occurring mental health disorders. By targeting depression and anxiety with medication, a person could feel more comfortable with presentations.
Can Stage Fright Be Cured?
There isn’t a permanent, one-size-fits-all cure for stage fright. However, it’s absolutely possible to overcome most of the fear and learn to perform without excess anxiety. With the right mindset and skills, people can learn how to feel more comfortable in social situations and be confident during presentations.
Final Thoughts on Performance Anxiety
Most people experience performance anxiety and stage fright, and it can feel uncomfortable and frustrating. However, therapy, reaching out to a support network, and practicing positive coping skills can provide you with relief. It’s possible to overcome your anxiety and feel more confident when you perform!
For Further Reading
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health
- Learn more about the best online therapy options out there today
- Get into mindfulness using Headspace or Calm on your phone just a few minutes per day