Tackling Performance Anxiety

From the Actors Fund

Volume 119, No. 1January, 2019

Dwayne Brown, LMSW

The Actors Fund is your one-stop shop for almost any kind of service you can imagine. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, housing, substance abuse, financial counseling, food assistance programs (SNAP) and more. The Actors Fund is open to musicians, actors and all entertainment professionals. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at (212) 221-7300, ext. 119 or or see

Do you ever suffer from stage fright? Welcome to the club! Guess what: you’re not alone. Many performers experience anxiety if they even think about performing. A 2012 study reports that stage fright was a universal experience and cuts across all types of professional and amateur performers. There is a misconception that less experienced performers suffer more, when actually the higher the stakes, the higher the anxiety level. Eddie Van Halen, Luciano Pavarotti and Vladimir Horowitz are a few established performers that openly discuss their challenges with performance anxiety. It is also said that performers experience more anxiety than other types of public presenters due to the pressure of trying to elicit an emotion in the audience. Performance is nerve-wracking!


It’s important to understand the difference between fear vs. anxiety. Fear occurs when we run into a dangerous situation for which we are unprepared. Imagine taking a tour of a Florida swamp and suddenly seeing a 10-foot alligator moving towards you. In that moment, we are faced with real and present danger. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the expectation or preparation for danger, whether unknown or not. Going back to our previous example, anxiety would be taking a Florida swamp tour and constantly expecting or anticipating an alligator to lunge at you.

In a fearful state, we have the ability to react to the situation and move on. When we are in an anxious state, there is nothing to react to, so we are holding on to this ball of nerves with nowhere to put it.


Performance anxiety can vary among performers. There are both physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical symptoms could include shortness of breath or dry mouth. You may feel sweaty or feel your heart beating faster. You may find yourself getting fidgety or tapping your foot. Psychological symptoms could be negative self-talk and unhelpful thinking, which are both referred to as cognitive distortions. You might say to yourself, “I can’t handle this! This is too much!” or, “I’m going to make a mistake!”

In a fearful situation, people tend to react automatically, such as “fight, flight or freeze.” If we take this same concept and apply it to musicians, “fight” could look like speeding up the tempo of a piece to get through it faster or thinking faster than we can react and flubbing our notes. “Flight” could be canceling the gig, or refusing to rehearse, or simply procrastinating. Finally, “freeze” could be experiencing a memory slip while playing, forgetting the notes, or even pretending that the performance isn’t happening – even while it is happening. (This is also called disassociation.)


Developing and making regular use of coping skills will not only reduce an anxious state but can also prevent an anxious state from occurring. Below is a list of coping skills that can be easily incorporated into your daily life to help you manage feelings of anxiety:


Staying well-nourished plays an important part in managing and reducing symptoms of performance anxiety. Having an understanding of which foods and beverages cause physical or emotional reactions – such as sugar and caffeine – is key. So is eating the necessary amount of food required for our body types. Sleep is one of the more overlooked coping skills and is also one of the most important actions of our lives. Sleep is essential to our mental and physical well-being. It allows your body and brain to not only rest but recharge. Are you getting at least seven hours of sleep per night?


Breathing is a natural tranquilizer. It can be a reset button, as it provides additional oxygen to the brain. There are many breathing techniques to consider. It’s important that we find one that works, so feel free to experiment with different techniques. They can be used anytime and anywhere! For more information on breathing techniques, see


Exercise is a proven mood enhancer, providing endorphins to the brain which can make us feel better. Even if you just do some stretching, it can reduce anxiety and stress. “Power stances” adopted from yoga can provide us a feeling of confidence before or after an audition or performance. These body movements require a level of concentration that can bring us to the present moment and out of our heads. For more information on the best body movements to reduce anxiety, see


Visualization can provide a feeling of comfort and sense of familiarity and can reduce stage fright. Mantras and purpose statements can remind us who we are, what brought us to this moment and why we are musicians. For more information on visualization, see


It’s easy to get stuck in unhelpful thoughts or worries that are not based in reality. The first way to tackle these thoughts is to notice them. Then we can replace them with more truthful and loving thoughts. This takes time and practice, but when we regularly do it, we internalize the process and can use it to counterbalance unhelpful thinking patterns.


Creating little personal, fun rituals can combat stage fright, soothe and calm our anxiety, and help us connect to the present moment. Rituals can take many forms. Carrying a lucky charm is one simple example. Another is taking time prior to a show for breathing or stretching exercises to help you refocus.


We hope these coping skills are beneficial and provide you additional support or enhance your current skill set around performance anxiety. What’s most important is finding and practicing coping skills that work for you. It’s also important to be kind and patient with yourself in the process. Should you find that you struggle at a higher rate than these tools are able to support, you may consider seeking additional outside help through a therapist or coach.

The Actors Fund offers a regular eight-week workshop entitled Managing Anxiety and Depression. It’s for actors, musicians and all entertainers, and it’s free. It focuses on basic tools for creating a better mood, like the tools discussed in this article. For more information on this workshop, call (917) 281-5919.

The Actors Fund also offers one-on-one counseling, group counseling, classes in mental health, workshops in skill development and more. Services are free for professional entertainers, including members of Local 802. Contact us at (212) 221-7300, ext. 119 or or see