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You’re about to perform for the first time. Your knees are trembling, you feel like you’re going to throw up, and your heart is pounding in your chest. These are symptoms of stage fright, known scientifically as topophobia or more generally known as performance anxiety. Stage fright is a real phenomenon, affecting both new and seasoned performers, not only on stage but in a variety of performance venues. Dancers, musicians, and actors may all fall victims to this fear that comes with performance, even in front of a camera or in a recording studio, instead of on stage.
For many people, performance is tinged with anxiety, since it means you are being judged by an audience. Even when the “others” are not present, such as the audience for a movie you’re filming, you’re still going to eventually be evaluated on your performance. This can create mild to severe anxiety, or what is called a “fight or flight” reaction. When we are in situations that create this reaction, the body chemically reacts by producing higher amounts of adrenaline. For some people this will even result in panic attacks, and others will at the least feel “butterflies” in the stomach.
People who can power through stage fright often find that the extra adrenaline surge enhances rather than detracts from performance. A violinist with shaking fingers may find their vibrato is just a little better than usual. An actor may inject more energy and passion into a performance when adrenaline is channeled into his or work. Others are so overcome by topophobia that they literally can’t make it to the stage, or if they do and make a mistake, they can’t go forward with their performance. People with extreme anxiety before performance may be helped by taking anti-anxiety medication, and by undergoing therapy to help them master this fright.
Most people are more afflicted by mild to moderate stage fright. There are certainly ways to help reduce the symptoms of mild performance anxiety. It’s first important to remember why you’re performing; usually because it’s something you enjoy doing. This can help reduce your fear. Ignoring the audience is another great tip; perform for yourself rather than for others. Being fully prepared for your performance helps too, so practice, practice, practice.
Stage fright may be exaggerated when we’re tired, or ill. It can also be worsened by abuse of medications or alcohol. Many people find their anxiety diminishes when they are well rested, in good physical condition, and when they avoid using alcohol the night before a performance. Exercising lightly an hour or two before a performance can help boost serotonin and dopamine levels, which help to combat excess adrenaline secretion.
If you feel mild to moderate stage fright, taking as many opportunities as you can to perform may help you. For people who have severe stage fright, this may not be as helpful. For those with less severe anxiety, greater number of performances boosts confidence. Many people fear making a mistake, but the nature of live performance is that it is occasionally imperfect. If you forget a line, hit the wrong note, or sing the wrong words, don’t betray your mistake. In most cases, audiences fail to notice a mistake unless you point it out.
Some people find great help in doing deep breathing, meditative exercises, or doing visualization prior to taking the stage. Experiment with a few different methods to see which one works for you. In all, remember that stage fright is common to most performers. When it is so severe that it interferes with performance, professional help in the form of therapists and coaches often allows people to take the stage with greater confidence and less topophobia symptoms.
I've heard that performers like Barbra Streisand have stage fright, even after being on stages all of their adult lives. My cousin went out for a part in a community theater production and got really bad stage fright on opening night. He had the first lines in the play, too. It was a monologue that set everything up in the plot. I felt so sorry for him, because he was really excited about getting a good part on a real stage, not just school plays.
He looked offstage for a minute, and one of the stagehands whispered his opening line. As soon as he heard it, he took off like a rocket and did everything else right. He was
fine on the second night. I think one way to overcome performance anxiety is to rehearse your material until you can do it in your sleep. Some people experience stage fright when they're not confident about their material. Once my cousin remembered his first line, he got his confidence back.
Back in my college theater days, I struggled with stage fright all the time. It didn't stop me from taking the stage and delivering my lines, but I sometimes froze up emotionally once I started feeling all of those eyes on me. When my stage fright was at its worst, I felt completely disconnected, like someone else was using my body to play the part.
My theater instructor suggested that I run around the building or do some calisthenics before shows to overcome my performance anxiety. It helped a lot. He also reminded me that I knew the lines, knew the character and the people in the audience needed to hear what my character had to say. In other
words, I needed to be in the moment, and realize that other actors were depending on me to do my job. I still experience some stage fright from time to time, but I have learned that it's part of being an entertainer.