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What is performance anxiety?

Ask any athlete, singer, dancer or public speaker.

Performance anxiety is very real.

Performance anxiety, put simply, is the fear to perform something specific – usually something that must be accomplished in front of an audience, even if only of one. Those who experience performance anxiety are typically worried about completing the task poorly or failing at it period, and have nightmares of such a bad outcome long before the event has even started. What’s the big fear? Humiliation, of course. Failure. Rejection.

Tim, a self-described actor-slash-barista, has been performing on stages since he was eight years old. Now 35, he says stage fright still cripples him.

“I used to throw up before performances,” he admits. “My mom was the stage manager for a lot of shows I did when I was a kid, and she would tell me that Barbra Streisand had the world’s worst stage fright. I don’t know to this day if that’s true or if it’s an urban legend designed to help people like me feel better, but I do know that did calm me a bit.

“Doesn’t mean I wasn’t still terrified out of my skull,” he continues. “It just helped. If I was 150% scared before my mom’s pep talks, I’d be like 120% scared after.”

Today, Tim says he no longer throws up before a show, but he still sweats profusely, and sometimes feels faint before the curtain rises. Still, the show goes on for him – and the stage fright eventually dissipates.

Not everyone experiences stage fright to that degree; some just feel a little tingle, some weakness in the knees. Some will claim that it’s simply just nerves, something all of us feel at some time or another.

And yet others, like Milo, a retired architect, have experienced such severe performance anxiety that it’s led them to therapy.

Before retiring, Milo was responsible for designing some of his small city’s most remarkable spaces. But each time he needed to present renderings to his team, he would experience a panic attack. Every time.

“I would sweat so much it looked like I’d been through a shower in my clothes,” says Milo. “My stomach would tie up. At one board meeting, it took me five minutes to remember what I was doing there.”

While performance anxiety isn’t technically a mental disorder, it’s still a scary thing people deal with every day, and need help in reducing or eliminating. At its core, it’s a reaction to a stressful, terrifying thing – speaking in front of the public – and some people’s anxiety over such an activity can hit pretty high levels.

Some symptoms of performance anxiety include shaking, sweating, nausea, stomach pain, headaches, feeling faint, elevated blood pressure, palpitations and chills.

It’s important to note that people who experience stage fright aren’t talentless or unskilled people who have decided to take to the stage or run across a field because they thought it would be a fun thing to do. Anyone, at any level of talent or fame, can experience performance anxiety – because we’re all human, we’re all vulnerable to, well, vulnerability. We all worry at one time or another of failure, that others will judge us. Even the most confident person in the world sometimes gets concerned that they’re going to do something wrong.

But the thing is, performance anxiety can be a bit of a mirror, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about this: you’re getting ready to get on a stage to deliver a TED Talk, and you’re repeating to yourself again and again that you’re going to forget your lines, that you can’t do this, that you’re going to pass out before you make it to the spotlight. What do you think is likely to happen? You’re going to forget a line. You won’t be able to execute it as well as you had hoped. You feel faint, so you don’t even bother walking toward the beaming spotlight in the middle of the stage.

Sometimes, when we push ourselves to perform – and find out that nothing bad actually happened, except maybe a hiccup or two – performance anxiety eventually wanes.

But in some cases, when performance anxiety becomes chronic, that’s when therapy can help. Even though performance anxiety isn’t in itself a disorder, there may be something else going on that’s exacerbating the issue.

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