Coping with stage fright

Coping with stage fright

By Sarah van Binsbergen 31/07/14

Actors aren’t the only ones to suffer from stage fright. Giving a presentation, asking someone out, making a speech or accepting a prize; we can all get sweaty at the thought of appearing in front of others at times. Here, Sarah van Binsbergen shares top advice, exercises and resources on coping with performance anxiety...

Breathe it out

If voice quivers, trembling hands, and weak knees tell you one thing it is this: stage fright is first and foremost a physical phenomenon. So let’s start there. Start with your breathing. If you want to sing, talk, act or dance, you need to breathe. And if you want to do these calmly, you need to breathe calmly and deeply.

Here’s the trick: sit down, make sure your feet are stable on the ground, and slowly breathe into your stomach. Try to focus on this for a while, but don’t try too hard - it has to be comfortable. You can find more tips on, watch a video tutorial, or download a free app.

Expose, but don’t overdose

The only way to overcome your fears is by exposing yourself to them. But this isn’t Fear Factor. I won’t ask you to dip your head into a bucket full of spiders or go “rat bobbing”, whatever that may be. While it seems brave to take a leap and confront your biggest fears once and for all, experts say it is actually better to take small doses and build up confidence slowly. Practice by yourself, build up to a small audience, then move on to bigger ones. One step at a time.

As for material, it is better to pick something you know really well. “Not mastering your material is an important trigger for stage fright,” says Glenn Wilson, professor of psychology and author of Psychology for Performing Artists. You may think you need to impress your audience by being original. However, knowing your lines and being able to deliver them confidently will no doubt impress them more.

Accept the fear

Suppressing physical and emotional reactions such as performance anxiety will get you nowhere. The harder you fight it, the harder it will eventually get you. Accepting, and even anticipating the fear will eventually make you the boss of your anxiety, instead of the other way around.

Focus on your passion, not on yourself

This may sound weird, but probably the best way to overcome stage fright is by being less selfish.

“People with this fear get self-absorbed,” says Janet Esposito, performance anxiety coach and author of Getting over Stage Fright. “Take the focus off of yourself and put it on your true purpose, which is to contribute something of value to your audience.” Try to connect with the music you’re playing, the monologue you deliver, or the idea you’re pitching. Why does it inspire you? What do you want the audience to take away from your performance? See, that’s the trick. Once you focus on this, you stop worrying about yourself and the mistakes you could make. In the end, it’s about the art, not about you.

Seek help

Tried all of the above, but still struggling? You might want to consider seeking professional help. You’d be in good company: some of the world’s most famous performers have spent hours on the sofa. Barbra Streisand claims she spent 2,700 hours in psychotherapy after drying up in the middle of a song in a big Central Park show. Stephen Fry even fled the country after a bad case of flop sweat, but counselling helped him to get back on stage.

There is a wide variety to choose from. Learn to tackle destructive thoughts with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or maybe hypnotherapy is more your thing? You could also start by developing a more confident voice with a vocal coach. These therapies usually come with quite a price tag, so with a smaller budget you could try telephone coaching offered by anxiety charity No Panic. Or if you are still studying, try the counsellor at your school, college or university.


Online resources

Self help guide Anxiety Coach offers breathing exercises and useful tips.

Improve your public speaking with free video tutorials on Mind bites.

Watch musician Joe Kowan’s TED talk on looking stage fright in the eye.

Susan Berkley: The Great Voice Company gives tips and tricks to impress with your voice.

Website The Bulletproof Musician teaches musicians to be confident on stage.

Actor Jonathan Pryce on stage fright as selfishness.


Getting over Stage Fright (2009) by Janet Esposito is a balanced, informative book with practical exercises and psychological advice for anyone who experiences stage fright.

Psychology for Performing Artists (2002) by Dr. Glenn Wilson is full of practical tips, as well as interesting references to scientific research on stage fright and other psychological aspects of performing arts.

The classic Coping with Stage Fright (1985) by Gerald Lee Ratliff is no longer in print, but cheap second hand copies can be found online or in second hand bookshops. 


Image by cabancreative via Flickr under a creative commons license.

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Performing Arts hub.

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