Stage Fright

“My heart is broken.”
“One look at the stage and I start to shake.”
“The stage is my enemy.”

Actors, dancers, musicians and vocal artists who uttered these troubling words were suffering from the psychologically, physically and professionally disabling phenomenon known as stage fright. They were artists from all ages and stages of fame and fortune.

While undergoing this horrendous experience, their body’s cortisol and adrenaline levels were flowing wildly. They felt terrified, devastated, exhausted and out of control. They were in fight or flight mode.

How very heartbreaking this is as performing is the fulcrum around which performers’ entire lives are organized.

When performers talk to me about performing, they describe how they engage. They tell me: “I sing with abandon.” “It’s as if I’ve shed my skin.” “I perform as if I’m ad-libbing.” They talk about going into a bubble, a zone, a flow. They are in the moment. They are just about “being.” 

This is what performing is all about – this is what makes a performing artist an artist.

Think about it… performing is very primitive.

In the service of performing, artists must reach levels of self-expression, self-exposure and vulnerability that leave them without the defense mechanisms necessary in their everyday lives.

When performing, in order to commit to, connect to, and become immersed in their art, performers naturally let go of their unconscious mental processes – the defense mechanisms used to ward off anxiety that provide protection from unconscious feelings and memories, trauma and conflicts – leaving them emotionally wide open and raw while in performance.

I refer to this artistic phenomenon as a regression in the service of performing.  

However, this regression can manifest itself in stage fright.


Performers who experience unresolved, unconscious psychological conflict become overwhelmed by their defenselessness when in regression in the service of their art. These psychologically challenged artists unconsciously transfer their painful memories and trauma –stimulated by the material in their music, dance or drama – onto the stage or into the pit. 

The performance aberrations, calamities and mishaps that occur are called stage fright.

As you can imagine, stage fright brings many of these performers into my office.

Over the years, I’ve identified 2 types of stage fright: chronic
and acute. Chronic stage fright is a constant fear of performing. Acute stage fright is an unexpected fear of performing while performing work that is usually familiar and comfortable. The fight or flight response is fully engaged in both acute and chronic stage fright.  

Once traumatic memories and conflicts, unearthed in performance, are identified and explored, performers stop thinking that performing is the cause of their anxieties and these personal issues can be resolved. 

When I hear performers in my office say:

“I can keep on performing”   “I have my love back”

“The stage is my friend” “The stage is my home again”

I know that these performers understand that stage fright is not a fear of the stage.