Performance Anxiety

“Even though I eat nothing on a performance day, I still throw up.”
“This performance is not worth the anxiety.”
“I’ll take this charm with me every time I perform.”

 

These are statements from performing artists who struggled with performance anxiety.

Many actors, dancers, musicians, vocal artists, as well as clinicians, consider performance anxiety and stage fright to be the same inhibiting, horrific, panic-filled phenomena.

  • Both experiences manifest the same debilitating psychological and physical responses to a perceived emergency.
  • Both trigger the brain to produce the same fight or flight hormones.
  • Both leave you in the throes of feeling shattered, utterly fatigued, helpless, mystified and alone.

However, in my psychotherapeutic and coaching practices, I differentiate between these two experiences. Not only is it easier for artists with whom I work to talk about stage fright and performance anxiety as two separate conditions, and describe their understanding of each, but working with performers for over three decades has also unmasked two different kinds of panic experiences.

Performance anxiety is an intermittent, sporadic experience. Performers are tormented by it and anticipate that the crippling anxiety it produces will always be a recurrent, interruptive, and intense part of their performance life. Because of its erratic nature, many performers believe that ritual, ceremony, and magical thinking can stop performance anxiety from occurring.

Unfortunately, their efforts to overcome it are mostly unsuccessful because the cause goes overlooked. Why? Those who suffer performance anxiety believe that performing is the source of their anxiety; however, focusing on performing actually hides the true cause of this experience.

Performance anxiety is not a fear of performing.

Just like stage fright, unconsciously slipping into one’s past, for the performing artist, in the execution of his art, is central. Yet, the traumatic memories that are stimulated, due to the regression, lifts the performer’s vital psychological defenses and leaves him/her emotionally naked and raw. Performance anxiety is the outbreak, reappearance, and restoration of this material. And again, stage work has become the “trigger” for acute performance anxiety rather than the agent.

Once the problematic material, unearthed in performance, is recognized, explored, and worked through, performing ceases to be considered as the source of the performer’s anxieties.  As these insidious, haunting issues are resolved, performers are heard saying:

 

“I can keep on performing.”
I have my love back.”
“Whether or not I have a good performance is not a matter of luck.”