Got Stage Fright?

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVII, No. 11November, 2007

Janet Becker, LCSW, Ph.D.

Most of us are familiar with it: butterflies in the stomach, sweating, dry mouth, accelerated heartbeat, shakiness, shortness of breath — all the physiological manifestations of extreme anxiety. These symptoms are most troublesome when we are about to perform before an audience and find that we are unable to proceed due to the jitters. Our minds may go blank — and we may freeze.

Some degree of performance anxiety is expectable. A moderate level might actually enhance one’s performance, adding spirit and excitement to the music. But in its extreme, anxiety can be debilitating.

For some people, performance anxiety is an extension of anxiety experienced in other areas of life.

Many of us harbor underlying fears of being exposed as inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable.

These fears often have roots in childhood, perhaps when parents or other authority figures demanded high achievement or were punitive when we did not meet their perfectionist standards.

For others, this extreme nervousness is specific to occasions in which they are presenting themselves before others for judgment.

Many people experience heightened anxiety prior to or during public speaking engagements, auditions and interviews, examinations and performances.

Sometimes, the fears of performance failure are exacerbated by the fear of the panic itself.

This may cause an unfortunate loop of negative reinforcement in one’s mind, escalating the anxiety: “fearing the fear” and then “fear of fearing the fear,” and so on.

Regardless of the causes or the patterns, the question becomes, “What can one DO to control these unwanted reactions?” Here are some suggestions.

It always helps to be 100 percent prepared. Tell yourself prior to your performance, “I have done the best that I can,” and “I couldn’t be more prepared than I am right now.”

Find a quiet place, take a moment of silence for yourself, and BREATHE. Sitting with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor, rest your hands on your lap or at your sides, and breathe in slowly through your nose. Notice your stomach getting bigger, like a balloon. Breathe out slowly through the nose, pulling your abdominal muscles in as the air leaves the lungs. Continue breathing in this way, until you establish a natural rhythm. Slow, deep, belly-expanding breaths reduce tension in the body and help to focus the mind. Do not underestimate the potential benefits of doing this. This kind of breathing relaxes the muscles, and brings more oxygen into the brain, allowing it to focus and concentrate more effectively. These physiological changes interrupt the cycle of stress responses, allowing you to gain control of your anxiety.

As part of a more far-reaching stress management effort, try to organize yourself. That is, identify what is important to you and set goals. Try to manage your time effectively, making lists, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, and checking off each accomplishment when you have completed it.

Furthermore, try building up your strength and resistance to stress by focusing on nutrition. Certain nutrients can be calming to the nerves, especially those containing protein and potassium. Dairy products, turkey, and bananas are suggested for pre-performance nutrition anxiety control.

Get some kind of regular exercise. Walking counts! Don’t set yourself up to fail by setting overwhelming goals.

Practice relaxation. This might include meditation, breathing (see above), stress-reduction tapes, yoga, or biofeedback techniques.

Cognitive therapy can be very helpful by helping to identify the kinds of negative thought patterns which inadvertently and unconsciously perpetuate one’s anxiety responses.

If these suggestions do not help you sufficiently, you might consider talking with your doctor about prescription beta-blocker medications. Some musicians have found them to be helpful.

These medications, which are non-addictive, block the physiological effects of anxiety (“fight or flight” response), thus interrupting the escalating cycle of emotional and bodily anxiety reactions.

They are available only by prescription and may have unwanted side effects, so it is imperative that you discuss this option with your physician.

If you are suffering with performance or other kinds of anxiety, and would like to talk to a professional about how you might improve your ability to cope with it, you are always welcome to call us at the MAP office. We will be glad to work with you to establish an individualized treatment plan.

Sometime in the next few months, MAP is planning to offer a group series that will focus on performance anxiety and ways to cope with it. If you might want to attend, please let us know. We will contact you when we are ready to interview members who have expressed their interest. Call us at (212) 397-4802.

This article is based on material from,, and Jackelyn S. Frost’s article “Performance Anxiety and Your Inner Fears” from the May 2000 Allegro.