Stage fright is not just something that happens to amateurs. It’s an overwhelming nervousness that can, and does, afflict everyone: from professional singers to professional athletes, from movie stars to speakers and presenters to Broadway big names.
Fortunately, these people who perform for a living have given us mere mortals some insight into how they deal with stage fright. If it works for the pros, chances are it can work for you too.
Broadway veteran Eileen Atkins says that she refuses to hear who’s who in the audience. “People find it very pretentious of me, but I scream and put fingers in my ears if someone says who’s in,” she says.
Atkins recommends thinking of the audience not as a collection of individuals, but as “one lump of humanity.” Doing so gives you a bit of distance and keeps you from envisioning the personal reactions and opinions of each individual.
Bestselling author Janet Esposito leads workshops, does coaching, and knows how to deal with the nervousness that might afflict her. In fact, that’s what she writes about. Esposito says dealing with stage fright is about helping yourself in body, mind, and spirit. For example, she recommends that you take deep and relaxing breaths, and assume a confident posture, with a smile. Help your mind by rephrasing the negative thoughts into can-do, positive ones. And tune your spirit into the bigger picture by thinking of others instead of yourself, and looking at the life purpose that has brought you to where you are.
Stage fright is triggered by fear and nervousness and induces a physiological response that is pretty difficult to stop once it gets started. Our bodies kick into gear, trying to save our reputations and help us survive, and the only way to stop them is to fool them into thinking the threat is gone.
Educator Mikael Cho, in a lesson for TED-Ed, recommends stretching your arms above your head to “trigger a relaxation response in the hypothalamus.” Luxurious stretching is not something you do when you’re facing down a saber-toothed tiger, or any other kind of life-threatening danger, like an audience. So when you take a few minutes to relax and stretch your muscles, your brain gets a message: We’re okay here. You can relax.
Decades ago, Barbara Streisand forgot the lyrics to a song, mid-concert in Central Park. Now she uses a teleprompter not only for song lyrics, but for everything she says when onstage.
If you know that stage fright causes you to forget the words, have them written down somewhere. If you know that nervousness makes your knees knock and your legs shaky, ask for a stool. Carry a handkerchief if your palms get sweaty. Take a bottle of water if your throat gets dry. Having the tools on hand to help you combat the symptoms of stage fright can help you feel more in control, and overcome the fear.
Brian Wilson, lead singer of the Beach Boys, has been in this show business thing for a long time. But he still deals with stage fright, and one of the ways he handles it is with prayer.
Reaching for help from a Higher Power — either by meditating, praying, chanting, or some other method — can help you move the focus from yourself. And doing that can also remind you of your bigger purpose, the value of the audience, the blessings you have, the opportunities you are grateful to receive. Gratitude and fear don’t work well together, so pray to seek help and to cultivate thankfulness.
Singer Annie Lennox says that over the years, her stage fright has gone from something big to something that she doesn’t even think about anymore. “I used to get really badly nervous, but I’ve been through so many things now. There’s no point,” she says.
If doing something on stage is an important part of your life goals, take heart. Practice really does help. The more you face the fear and the audience, the more you learn how to put the fear aside and train your body to do what it needs to do anyway. And, eventually, the fear might just give up and go find someone else to bother.
Turn your solo act into a duo and you won’t be alone up there. Cher’s strategy for dealing with stage fright as a young performer was to face it with a friend: Sonny Bono. She shied away from being a solo act, which was Bono’s original plan, and instead got him to join her on stage. That way she could focus on him instead of the audience in order regain her confidence during each performance.
Singer and songwriter Joe Kowan wrote a song about his stage fright and started performing it first. By doing so, he says, he brought the whole thing out into the open so that he and the audience were both able to laugh and relax about his anxiety. His sense of humor and openness made it easier for him to relax and move on to the rest of his songs.
Stage fright’s symptoms might seem the same, no matter who you are, but the causes can be different. Some people fear attempting something they’re not skilled at doing. Others fear failing at their primary, long-cultivated skills. For others, it’s simply the fear of being watched or not being in control.
Whatever the core of your stage fright, experimenting with various methods at handling it is a good idea. What works for one person might not work for you. Overcoming stage fright can be done in a variety of ways, including medication, meditation, visualization, and hypnosis, according to speaker and presenter George Dvorsky.
English actor, director, and producer Laurence Olivier battled stage fright for years, but he kept performing: “You either battle or walk away,” he wrote. So he battled.
If you decide that you must do this thing that invokes stage fright in you, follow Olivier’s lead and approach it as a battle. The enemy isn’t your audience; it’s your stage fright. And you win the battle by taking a deep breath and walking out there anyway.
Featured photo credit: zdenadel via flickr.com
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