You may have heard the joke that many people would prefer to be in their own coffins rather than giving a eulogy at someone else’s funeral. While this may be an exaggeration for most, there are many people who feel as though they would rather die than give a speech or presentation. These people often go to great lengths to avoid speaking in front of groups if there is any way to get out of it. Similarly, many performers experience feelings of terror when faced with giving performances in public.
While most people feel some degree of nervous apprehension when preparing to speak up or perform in front of a group, there are many people who are filled with feelings of dread and panic when facing such a situation. For many, these symptoms arise not only in situations of formal presentations or performances, but also in other situations where the person might be center of attention, such as with group introductions in a class or work setting, participation at meetings, interviews, auditions, doing a toast at a wedding, or a reading at church.
When a person experiences such a high level fear of speaking or performing in front of others, they are often suffering from a specific form of Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder). The individual’s primary worry becomes one of embarrassing him or herself in front of others. People with social anxiety related to speaking or performing fear that their anxiousness will show and that they will be judged harshly by others. The characteristics of someone with this type of Social Anxiety include:
· an immediate surge of intense anxiety when you learn you will need to speak or perform in front of others
· avoiding giving presentations or performances if you can get out of doing them
· a lot of anxious anticipation about your presentation or performance ahead of time (known as anticipatory anxiety)
· worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of others and looking like a fool if people see how anxious you are
· symptoms of panic before or during a presentation or performance, such as heart palpitations; rapid breathing or shortness of breath; shaking or trembling; sweating; feeling dizzy, unsteady or lightheaded; feelings of nausea or abdominal distress; feelings of detachment; and feeling a loss of control over oneself
· a lot of inner turmoil or missed opportunities
The fear of public speaking or performing strongly affects an individual’s professional life and possibilities for career advancement. Some people quit school, leave a job, or pass up a promotional opportunity if it calls for more public speaking or performing. Many others suffer a silent terror as they push themselves to speak or perform despite the intense fear and dread.
Those in higher level positions who have this fear often delegate speaking assignments to those they manage or supervise to avoid the possibility of exposing themselves to being “found out”.
Many who have this fear are accomplished and successful people and they are often confident and outgoing. These are the people who you would never imagine suffer from this fear. Others are more timid and shy, and may suffer from more general social anxiety as well. Many who suffer from performance anxiety consider themselves perfectionists and have exceedingly high expectations for themselves, and sometimes for others. They are often uncomfortable with the idea of exposing any flaws or vulnerability to others. They often feel they have to be strong and in control and become very anxious at the thought of showing any weakness.
This fear takes a big toll on the person’s self-confidence and self-esteem, as many people feel embarrassed and ashamed to have such a fear. Many people keep their fear a secret from others and some have not even shared this with their spouse, friends, or family. Many people are especially fearful that their symptoms of panic will be detected by others and they are fearful of what others will think. They often fear negative evaluation and judgment by others. They may look at those who seem comfortable speaking or performing in public and feel bad about the level of fear and discomfort they have, relative to what they perceive others experience. They know that their terror is “irrational” but they can’t seem to get control over their emotions when it comes to speaking or performing. This often leaves them feeling confused and frustrated and they are often very angry and disappointed with themselves over it.
Taking Steps to Overcome this Fear:
For those who suffer from performance anxiety, learning to improve your presentation or performance skills is generally not enough to substantially reduce the fear. While practice and preparation are helpful, they usually do not substantially reduce the high level of fear and dread for those who suffer this fear. For this group, the approach has to go much deeper to address and revise the negative perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, images, and predictions related to public speaking or performing. It is often helpful to uncover the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing others any vulnerability, and being seen as less than perfect. Coming to accept yourself and not feeling you have to prove yourself to others is at the root of healing from this fear.
Some people choose to use a medication to help reduce their symptoms of performance anxiety. While there is a range of possible medications that could help reduce the physiological symptoms, perhaps the most commonly used medication for this problem is a beta blocker called Inderal (also known as Propranolol), which is also used to treat people with heart problems. This medication can be used as needed for performance anxiety. It works specifically to reduce the arousal in the nervous system that is associated with the fight or flight response, which gets activated by feelings of threat associated with performance situations. Other people prefer not to take medication but instead may choose to use a natural remedy to help calm their nervous system. It is important to talk with your physician if you do choose to take a medication or natural product to be sure you are choosing something that is safe and effective for you. It is advisable that you also learn skills to reduce and manage your fear and anxiety and not resort to using medication or natural products alone.
Cognitive-behavioral methods to change your way of thinking and stop the cycle of avoidance behavior are critical to overcome this fear. While the avoidance provides immediate relief from the discomfort associated with facing your fear, the long-term consequence is that it deepens and reinforces the cycle of fear. It further erodes confidence and trust in yourself and continues to reinforce feelings of helplessness over this problem. Before any progress can take place, you must be willing to slowly let go of the avoidance behavior as you learn new skills to reduce and manage your fearful feelings. As you do this, a new-found belief and trust in yourself develops. It is an incredibly empowering feeling to face your fear and master it rather than to run from it! In facing your fear, it becomes possible to overcome performance anxiety and to find a whole new level of comfort and ease in expressing yourself in front of others!
Below are some general tips for reducing stage fright:
Take the focus off yourself and your fear and put it on your true purpose, which is to contribute something of value to your audience.
Stop scaring yourself with thoughts about what might go wrong. Instead, focus your attention on thoughts and images that are calming and reassuring.
Refuse to think thoughts that create self-doubt. Instead, practice self-talk that builds confidence and trust in yourself.
Practice methods to calm and relax your mind and body, such as deep breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation.
Practice healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercising and eating healthy.Stay away from caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
Visualize your success. Always focus on your strengths and your abilities to handle other challenging situations.
Prepare ahead of time. Practice aloud so you hear your own voice and are confident you know your material.
Make connections with your audience. Smile and greet people, treating the audience as friends rather than enemies.
Stand or sit in a self-assured, confident posture. Remain warm and open and give your audience eye contact.
Give up trying to be perfect and know it is okay to make mistakes. Be natural. Be yourself.
There is help and hope for this problem! Janet Esposito, M.S.W. is the author of In The SpotLight: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing and a CD entitled In The SpotLight: Guided Exercises to Create a Calm and Confident State of Mind, Body, and Spirit While Speaking or Performing. Janet has been running a workshop called No More Stage Fright and offering individual phone coaching sessions for the past ten years to help people overcome their fear of public speaking or performing. Janet’s expertise comes not only from her role as a therapist and coach who has specialized in this area, but she has also overcome her own terror of public speaking. For more information, please visit www.performanceanxiety.com or call 877-814-7705 (toll free).