“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Jerry Seinfeld

As a former theatre actress turned psychotherapist, I understand the exhilarating thrill of performing and the crippling fear that can accompany it. Stage fright, or performance anxiety, is a common challenge for actors, singers, dancers and public speakers. It’s the jittery feeling before stepping on stage, the heart-pounding moments before delivering a line, and the self-doubt that can cloud your mind. But fear not, because with the right strategies, you can manage and even overcome stage fright, transforming it into a powerful force that enhances your performance.

My Stage Fright Story

I still vividly remember my first leading role at the Shaw Festival. Fresh out of college, I had never acted on such a prominent stage. I was cast as the ingénue in a well-known musical alongside actors I had admired on major Canadian stages throughout my childhood. The thrill of launching my professional career and landing such a coveted role quickly gave way to paralyzing fear. As opening night approached, my dread intensified. I could barely eat or think straight. What if I forgot my lines? It was Sondheim, after all, and the lyrics were often a mouthful to sing. What if I was the weak link? Would I be shamed in the national newspapers?

On the night of the performance, I stood backstage, heart pounding, palms sweating, feeling like I might faint at any moment. As the curtain rose, I took a deep breath and stepped into the spotlight. The first few moments were a blur of panic—numb mind, quiet voice, some hopefully inaudible stuttering. Then something incredible happened. I took another deep breath, refocused on the eyes and intentions of my generous acting partners, and remembered my training and weeks of rehearsals. Gradually, the fear transformed into energy and clarity, and I delivered a performance that was—passable but certainly not the disaster I had feared! And I survived to perform in nine more plays at the Shaw Festival.

My experiences with opening nights and onstage gaffes have taught me invaluable lessons about managing stage fright—lessons I now share with my clients as a psychotherapist. Whether you’re a seasoned performer or just starting out, understanding and managing stage fright can make all the difference.

Understanding Stage Fright

Stage fright is a type of performance anxiety that affects individuals in the performing arts and other public facing roles. It stems from the body's natural "fight or flight" response, which releases adrenaline and cortisol to prepare for perceived danger. This response can lead to physical symptoms like sweating, trembling, dry mouth, and a racing heart, as well as psychological symptoms such as intense fear, worry, and self-doubt.

Being the center of attention and having all eyes on you can be stressful. Your body reacts to this situation in much the same way as it would if you were being attacked. Caught up in a wave of stage fright, you might notice:

  • Racing pulse and rapid breathing
  • Dry mouth and tight throat
  • Trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice
  • Sweaty and cold hands
  • Nausea and an uneasy feeling in your stomach
  • diarrhea
  • Vision changes
  • Tingling and numbness

It’s important to remember that stage fright is a natural physiological response to a percieved threat, not a true reflection of your talent or preparedness!

The Science Behind Stage Fright

When we are gripped by intense stage jitters, we can look to the amygdala, the brain's fear center, for answers. The amygdala perceives an immediate threat and triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, preparing your body to respond to danger (e.g., run from a fire, fight off a bear, or freeze and play dead). However, in the context of an acting performance, these hormones can become overwhelming and hinder performance. Our evolutionary biology designed the "fight or flight" response for survival, but it's not so useful when you're about to step onto the stage for opening night.

In an intense fear response, our brain tends to revert to more primitive functions. When calm and centered, we have excellent access to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex cognitive behavior and decision-making. However, as anxiety levels rise, the activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases. This impairs our ability to think clearly, access memory (hence, forgetting our lines), solve problems, connect with others (apologies to our acting partners), and perform tasks that require fine motor skills (dropping cue cards or fumbling music) and precise timing (a disaster for comedy).

Not all anxiety is bad, though. Interestingly, a certain level of anxiety can actually enhance performance by increasing alertness and energy. The key is finding a balance where anxiety becomes a motivating force rather than a hindrance. Studies have shown that a moderate amount of stress can improve performance, a phenomenon known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Understanding this balance and how our brains react under stress can help us develop strategies to manage stage fright effectively. By recognizing the role of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, we can better prepare ourselves to perform under pressure and turn our stage fright into a source of energy and focus.

The Psychological Perspective on Stage Fright

Performance anxiety is closely linked to general anxiety and negative self-regard. Some people are more predisposed to experience stage fright due to factors like genetics, personality, and past experiences. Individuals with lower self-esteem are particularly vulnerable to performance anxiety. They might feel an intense fear of failure or judgment, which can paralyze them on stage.

Building Confidence and Self-Kindness:

Self-Compassion: Practice self-kindness and recognize that everyone makes mistakes. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a friend. Remember that you are not alone in this feeling. Many seasoned performers have struggled the same way. This will pass, and you can get through it. Recognizing that stage fright is a common experience can help mitigate its intensity.

Reframing: Change your perspective on performances. Remind yourself that this performance isn't the end of the world. Each opportunity is a chance to learn and grow, not a final judgment of your worth. Accepting that mistakes are part of the learning process can reduce the pressure you place on yourself. Remember, even if you make mistakes, life and likely your career, will go on. I have bungled many lines, sang off notes, jumbled lyrics and even fallen off the stage of a major theatre. Contrary to what fear would have me believe, I continued to get hired.

Positive Affirmations: Regularly affirm your abilities and worth. Statements like "I am capable and prepared" can rewire your thought patterns over time. Using positive affirmations before and during performances can help shift your mindset from fear to confidence.

Visualization: Imagine yourself succeeding and handling challenges with grace. Visualization can build mental resilience and reduce anxiety. Spend a few moments before stepping onto the stage visualizing a successful performance. Focus on the positive reactions from the audience and the sense of accomplishment you will feel afterward. This mental rehearsal creates a sense of familiarity and confidence.

Practical Strategies to Manage Stage Fright

Understanding how to manage it is crucial for delivering your best performance. Overcoming stage fright involves a combination of preparation, mental strategies, and physical techniques. By incorporating these practical strategies into your routine, you can transform anxiety into a source of energy and confidence.

Here are several effective methods to help you transcend or work with stage fright:

1. Preparation is Key: Thorough preparation can significantly reduce anxiety. Rehearse your lines, movements, and songs until they become second nature. Familiarity with the material builds confidence and reduces the fear of forgetting or making mistakes. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel on stage, which helps to alleviate performance anxiety.

2. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help calm your mind and body. Try this simple breathing exercise before going on stage: inhale deeply for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for a count of six. Repeat several times to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation. Regular mindfulness practice can also help you stay present and focused during your performance.

3. Visualization: Visualization is a powerful tool used by many successful performers. Imagine yourself on stage, delivering a flawless performance, and receiving positive feedback. Visualizing success can create a sense of familiarity and confidence, reducing anxiety. This mental rehearsal helps to program your mind for success and can be especially effective when combined with other relaxation techniques.

4. Cognitive Behavioral Techniques: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in managing performance anxiety. Identify negative thoughts that trigger anxiety, such as "I'm going to forget my lines" or "Everyone will laugh at me," and replace them with positive affirmations like "I am well-prepared" and "The audience is here to enjoy my performance." Challenging and reframing negative thoughts can help reduce their power over you.

5. Desensitization and Exposure: Gradual exposure to performing can help desensitize your fear. Start by performing in low-stakes environments, such as small groups of friends or family, and gradually increase the audience size. This gradual exposure can build confidence and reduce anxiety over time. By facing your fears in controlled stages, you can develop a sense of mastery and reduce the overall impact of stage fright.

6. Focus on Actions and the Present Moment: Try refocussing on your character's objectives and your acting partner instead of your anxiety and self-doubt. By concentrating on what your character wants and how they interact with others, you stay grounded in the present moment. This shift in focus helps divert attention from self-judgment and performance anxiety, allowing you to engage fully with the task at hand. Additionally, this approach fosters a deeper connection with your acting partner, helping you feel less alone and resourced in support while making the experience more immersive, connected and authentic.

6. Physical Exercise: Regular physical exercise can help manage anxiety by releasing endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. Exercise also promotes overall health, which can enhance your resilience to stress. Incorporating a regular fitness routine can help you maintain a balanced state of mind and body, making it easier to handle the pressures of performing.

7. Seeking Professional Support: Seeking support from a psychotherapist or performance coach can provide personalized strategies to manage stage fright. As someone who has been on both sides of the stage, I can offer a unique perspective and tailored techniques to help you thrive in your performances. Professional guidance can help you develop a comprehensive plan to address your specific challenges and build lasting confidence.

By integrating these strategies into your preparation and performance routines, you can effectively manage stage fright and turn it into a source of strength. Remember, understanding and managing stage fright is a journey, and with the right tools and support, you can achieve remarkable growth and success as a performer.

Celebrities Who Share Your Fears

Stage fright is a common experience shared by many performers, regardless of their level of fame or success. Understanding that even the most accomplished individuals face similar fears can help normalize these feelings and make them more manageable.

Helen Mirren: "I still suffer terribly from stage fright. I get sick with fear. Not every night, but at the beginning and on occasion - not necessarily when I'm expecting it. You just have to cope with it - take it on the chin and work through it, trying to use the adrenaline to perform."

Barbra Streisand: After forgetting the lyrics during a performance in 1967, Streisand avoided live performances for decades due to her anxiety. She said, "I couldn't come out of it ... I was like, 'God, I don’t know. What if I forget the words again?' It was terrible. I was so scared."

Hugh Grant: "Out of the blue, when I’m doing a scene that’s not very challenging, I’ll be overcome with shocking nerves. I start sweating from my armpits, and the makeup people can’t bring sponges fast enough to get rid of the sweat from my face. I can’t breathe, I can’t remember my lines, and it’s extremely embarrassing."

Adele: "I’m scared of audiences. One show in Amsterdam I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile vomited on someone."

Rihanna: Despite her confident stage presence, Rihanna has shared, "I have to have [a drink] before I go on. I take [performing] very seriously, so there is a level of anxiety, always."

These experiences show that stage fright is not a sign of inadequacy but a common challenge that even the most successful performers face. Their ability to continue performing despite these fears can inspire others to manage and overcome their own stage fright.

The Fear of Judgment and Negative Reviews

One of the most paralyzing aspects of stage fright is the fear of judgment and negative reviews. This fear can stem from a deep-seated concern about how others perceive us, which can significantly impact our self-esteem and confidence.

The arts are uniquely susceptible to judgment and criticism because they involve personal expression and subjective interpretation. Reviews and critiques can often feel like personal evaluations rather than assessments of the performance or work itself. This can make the fear of negative reviews particularly debilitating.

Seth Rogen: "It's devastating. I know people who have never recovered from it honestly — a year, decades of being hurt by [reviews]." Rogen shared that negative reviews can be deeply personal and hurtful, often affecting people for a long time.

Jim Carrey: "It was horrific... The audience chanted 'Crucify him!' and the host repeated into his microphone, 'Totally boring.'" Carrey recounts a particularly harsh experience that affected him deeply, illustrating how negative feedback can have a profound impact.

Robert Downey Jr.: During an award acceptance speech, Downey Jr. highlighted some of the worst reviews he had received, demonstrating his resilience. He quoted several unflattering critiques, including one review that described his performance as "sloppy, messy, and lazy," another comparing him to "Pee Wee Herman emerging from a coma," and a British critic who called him "a puzzling waste of talent." The final review that lingered with him was a critic's remark that he was as "amusing as a bedlocked fart."

Strategies to Manage Fear of Judgment

Shift Focus: Concentrate on your character’s goals and actions rather than on yourself. This helps divert attention from self-doubt to the task at hand.

Positive Affirmations: Replace negative thoughts with positive ones, such as "I am prepared and capable." Regularly affirming your abilities can build confidence over time.

Desensitization: Gradual exposure to performing in front of increasingly larger audiences can help reduce anxiety over time. Start with small, supportive groups and gradually work up to larger audiences.

Reframe the Fear: Understand that reviews are just one person's opinion and not a definitive judgment of your abilities. Use constructive criticism to improve, but don't let it define you. Remember that every actor has been reviewed badly at some point, even the very best and most celebrated. It's part of working as an artist and can be seen as a rite of passage.

Trust Your Inner Compass: Derive your confidence from your inner compass. Are you committed to telling the story and serving the play? Do you love and value your work? Focus on what you are there to do and serve this. You are doing something generous and courageous. Refocus on why you a truly on the stage.

Additional Tips for Handling Negative Reviews

1. Don't Read Reviews: Consider not reading reviews at all. Focus on your craft and trust the feedback from your trusted colleagues and mentors. This keeps you grounded in your own experience and vision rather than being swayed by external opinions.

2. Focus on the Craft: Stay dedicated to the authenticity of your performance. Concentrate on the process of becoming and embodying your character. This dedication reinforces your commitment to the integrity of your work.

3. Build a Support Network: Surround yourself with supportive friends and colleagues who understand the challenges of performing, who have survived poor reviews and can offer reassurance. A strong support system helps mitigate the impact of negative feedback.

4. Reflect on Successes: Keep a journal of your achievements and moments when you felt connected to your character and performance. Reflecting on positive experiences can build resilience against negative reviews and remind you of your capabilities.

5. Measure Success by Personal Growth: Assess your success by your growth with each performance and how deeply you connect with your character and the audience. Personal growth and authenticity are far more valuable indicators of success than external reviews.

By recognizing that even the most famous performers experience stage fright and fear of judgment, you can begin to see these feelings as a normal part of the performing process. With the right strategies and support, you can manage these fears and continue to deliver powerful performances. Remember, the true measure of your success lies in your dedication to your craft and your personal growth as an artist.

Embracing the Spotlight

Stage fright is a common experience, one that many performers, including myself, have faced. Managing anxiety and transforming it into a source of strength and focus is possible and profoundly rewarding. Through my own journey from a nervous newcomer at the Shaw Festival to a seasoned performer, I’ve learned that overcoming stage fright is achievable.

Imagine stepping onto the stage with a sense of calm and assurance, knowing that your nervous energy can be channeled into a powerful performance. Learning to work with fear can turn it into a motivating force. With the right support and strategies, you can find confidence in your performances.

As someone who has been in your shoes, I understand the terrors and triumphs that come with performing. As a psychotherapist, I’m here to help you navigate these feelings and develop personalized techniques that work for you.

If you’re ready to start this journey and find confidence in your performances, I encourage you to book a session. Let’s work together to turn your fear into a tool for success. Your path to overcoming stage fright begins with one step, and I’m here to walk it with you.