Stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially (for example, when performing before a camera). Performing in front of an unknown audience can cause significantly more anxiety than performing in front of familiar faces. In some cases, the person will suffer no such fright from this, while they might suffer from not knowing who they're performing to. In the context of public speaking, this may precede or accompany participation in any activity involving public self-presentation. In some cases stage fright may be a part of a larger pattern of social phobia (social anxiety disorder), but many people experience stage fright without any wider problems. Quite often, stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead. It has numerous manifestations: stuttering, tachycardia, tremor in the hands and legs, sweaty hands, facial nerve tics, dry mouth, and dizziness.
People and situations
Stage fright can occur in people of all experiences and backgrounds, from those who are completely new to being in front of an audience to those who have done so for years. It is commonly recognized in the population. Stage fright may, for example, have a negative impact on the individual's performance, such that it affects their confidence during job interviews. It also affects actors, comedians, musicians, and politicians. Many people with no other problems in communication can experience stage fright, but some people with chronic stage fright also have social anxiety or social phobia which are chronic feelings of high anxiety in any social situation. Stage fright can also be seen in school situations, like stand up projects and class speeches.
When someone starts to feel the sensation of being scared or nervous they start to experience anxiety. According to a Harvard Mental Health Letter, "Anxiety usually has physical symptoms that may include a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, lightheadedness, and nausea". It triggers the body to activate its sympathetic nervous system. This process takes place when the body releases adrenaline into the blood stream causing a chain of reactions to occur. This bodily response is known as the "fight or flight" syndrome, a naturally occurring process in the body done to protect itself from harm. "The neck muscles contract, bringing the head down and shoulders up, while the back muscles draw the spine into a concave curve. This, in turn, pushes the pelvis forward and pulls the genitals up, slumping the body into a classic fetal position".
In trying to resist this position, the body will begin to shake in places such as the legs and hands. Several other things happen besides this. Muscles in the body contract, causing them to be tense and ready to attack. Second, "blood vessels in the extremities constrict". This can leave a person with the feeling of cold fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Constricted blood vessels also gives the body extra blood flow to the vital organs.
In addition, those experiencing stage fright will have an increase in blood pressure, which supplies the body with more nutrients and oxygen in response to the "fight or flight" instincts. This, in return, causes the body to overheat and sweat. Breathing will increase so that the body can obtain the desired amount of oxygen for the muscles and organs. Pupils will dilate giving someone the inability to view any notes they have in close proximity; however, long range vision is improved making the speaker more aware of their audience's facial expressions and nonverbal cues in response to the speaker's performance. Lastly, the digestive system shuts down to prepare for producing energy for an immediate emergency response. This can leave the body with the effects of dry mouth, nausea, or butterflies.
Propranolol is occasionally used to treat performance anxiety.
Many well-known public performers have had stage fright and were able to overcome their problem, including Al Jolson, Brian Wilson, Virginia O'Brien, Michael Gambon, Lorde, Jason Alexander, Mose Allison, Maya Angelou, David Brenner, Peter Coyote, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Lewis, Barbra Streisand, Adele, David Warner, Niall Horan, Frankie Howerd, Mike Yarwood, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, John Lydon, and Amanda Seyfried.
Not every performer suffers from stage fright. Ethel Merman said:
What’s there to worry about? I know my lines. … Why should I be nervous on opening night? The people who paid for tickets for a new play, they’re the ones who should be nervous.
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- Talbott, Frederick (23 July 2014). Defeating Stage Fright: The Path to Speaking Freedom (Kindle eBook). p. 174.