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How to Get Over Performance Anxiety

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Performance anxiety is the fear of one’s ability to perform. People with performance anxiety often worry about failing a task or making a mistake, even before the task has started, believing that failure will lead to rejection or humiliation.

Performance anxiety can vary widely between individuals. While some people feel mild apprehension before speaking in public or before a recital, others may experience panic attacks at the thought of performing. For some people, stage fright can hurt their self-confidence, self-esteem, and enjoyment of performing. Although it may feel impossible to overcome your anxiety, there are many things you can do to feel more comfortable in front of an audience.

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Symptoms of Performance Anxiety

Performing in front of an audience can be nerve wracking. With performance anxiety, your body reacts to the situation as if you were in real danger, triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response.

The symptoms of performance anxiety include:

  • Quickened pulse
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Digestive issues, such as nausea
  • Dry mouth 
  • Sweaty and cold palms
  • Trembling voice, hands, or knees

Performance anxiety is also connected to psychological symptoms, including low self-esteem and negative thoughts. In more severe cases, stage fright can lead to panic attacks. People with stage fright may experience anticipatory anxiety in the days or weeks leading up to their performance or recital. They may feel a significant difference in symptoms after the performance begins.

For individuals with sexual performance anxiety, performance anxiety symptoms may accompany sexual problems, including premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, difficulty achieving orgasm, and difficulty keeping an erection during intercourse. If you’re experiencing anxiety related to sexual performance, sex therapy can provide support and help you overcome your anxiety.

What causes performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is often used interchangeably with terms like stage fright, music performance anxiety, sexual performance anxiety, nerves, etc. Individuals with stage fright experience a negative emotional state characterized by worry, nervousness, and apprehension about performing in front of an audience.

Stage fright can affect everyone, from public speakers and professional musicians to golfers. Performing in front of an audience can make people feel vulnerable, and performers may fear that a mistake will lead to humiliation or rejection. People who already have social phobia or another type of anxiety disorder may experience more severe symptoms.

In many cases, performance anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The body’s fight-or-flight response is activated due to extreme anxiety, which can create a distraction that affects an individual’s performance. A golfer’s hands may shake, or a singer may forget their lines.

How can you overcome performance anxiety?

Stage fright can take a significant toll on your mental health. For some people, stage fright can lower their self-esteem. When a career requires performing or public speaking, performance anxiety can hurt a person’s reputation.

Therapy can help you confront your fears, change your cognitive processes, and learn how to cope in stressful situations. During therapy, you’ll be able to take the first steps toward overcoming performance anxiety by identifying the root cause of your stress and anxiety, expressing your vulnerabilities, and accepting yourself for who you are. Above all else, it’s important to remember that nobody is perfect, and it’s normal to make mistakes from time to time, according to public speaker Sian Beilock.

The next step in overcoming performance anxiety is learning how to redirect negative thoughts, imagery, and beliefs about performing. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves a combination of cognitive therapy and behavior therapy, can help you adopt a more realistic and less anxiety-provoking perspective toward performing. With CBT, you’ll learn how to change your state of mind when performing, overcome perfectionism, learn healthy coping techniques for stressful situations.

Whether you’re struggling with sexual difficulties, perfectionism, or social anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional listed on the WithTherapy directory to explore your treatment options and learn more about therapeutic interventions for anxiety. Not only will therapy boost your self-esteem, but it can also help you feel more confident the next time you perform.

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