Putting a Leash on Performance Anxiety

What is performance anxiety? The Oxford Languages dictionary defines it as “extreme nervousness experienced before or during participation in an activity taking place in front of an audience.”

Performance anxiety, most often experienced as a fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia in the United States. It’s more common than the fear of death. At 75 years old, Henry Fonda was still throwing up before every performance. Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Andrea Bocelli, Taylor Swift, Helen Mirrin, Stevie Nicks, and so many others have all experienced performance anxiety and yet you’d never know it by watching them perform, not because they no longer have it, but because they found a way to work through it.

I cannot offer you a cure. I’m not sure there is one to be had. What I can do is provide you with tools to help you fight your battle so that, over time, you can become a better fighter. For those of us who experience performance anxiety, it’s a battle that is fought anew every time. The better we can fight, the more likely we will be able to master the anxiety, at least long enough to get through the performance.

How does it work?

Performance anxiety turns your performance into a threat instead of a challenge. Threats trigger the fight or flight response of your lizard brain, whose entire job is keeping you alive. When you perform, you are sharing a piece of yourself. If self-doubt asks what if the audience doesn’t like it? The lizard brain responds that you might literally die. It ignores the nine out of ten good experiences and focuses on that one time that maybe you had a really bad one and it triggers the avoidance response to keep you safe.

Whatever the root cause of the fear, something in your brain thinks you’re going to get hurt and so it releases all these chemicals into your brain now you have to deal with it. First, you need to identify what are your symptoms? Maybe your hands shake, your breath quickens, and you start to sweat. What are your specific fears? You’re going to make mistakes, the audience won’t like the performance, and they will reject you, personally. Maybe someone will throw tomatoes, or worse.

How do I learn to control it?

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says, “Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

It is possible to keep stage fright from controlling you and it isn’t even all that complicated, which is not to say that it isn’t still hard work. Mastering your fears is difficult. It will take time. It may take years, but the only way out is through.

There are four pillars to getting a handle on stage fright:

1. Practice the things you can control.

2. Learn to accept yourself.

3. Let it go.

4. Time.

Practice the Things You Can Control

What are the things you can control about your body?

  • Know how your body reacts to sugar, caffeine, and alcohol and plan accordingly. If alcohol helps you relax, limit it to one standard size drink.
  • Time your meal so that you have a chance to digest it beforehand and are not hungry.
  • Take a drink of water.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Empty your bladder.
  • Control your body temperature with your clothing.
  • You are allowed to take up space and your posture should show it.
  • Breathe from your diaphragm. Posture matters. Stand or sit up straight and open your chest.
  • Practice three box breaths.
  • If you’re standing, put your weight on the balls of your feet and don’t lock your knees.
  • Unfocus your gaze instead of closing your eyes. In the beginning, as you are learning to gain confidence, you might be tempted to close your eyes to reduce sensory input. Avoid the temptation as it shuts out the audience and it’s a tough habit to break!
  • Practice down regulating your nervous system.
  • Establish a routine.
  • Identify and control your fidgets.
  • What else?

What are the things you can control about your physical space?

  • Do you want a chair? A foot stool of just the right height? A mug of water close to hand? Will you bring your own props/tools or use what’s there? Can you dim the lights?
  • If you’re using someone else’s anything, familiarize yourself with it beforehand.
  • Practice in the performance space or in a space of the same size and configuration.
  • Arrive a few minutes early so you don’t have to rush. Also, don’t arrive so early with nothing to do but wait that you think yourself into a panic.
  • Are you using an instrument with strings? Don’t change them right before a performance because they won’t stay in tune. Also, have an extra set on hand in case one breaks.
  • Will you be reading music? Bring clips and a good stand.
  • Bring your own light source.
  • If a specific color relaxes you, include it.
  • Use imaginary space to augment the ambience (think of a waterfall if you like the sound of falling water).
  • Imagine the stage as your home.
  • What else?

What are the things you can control about your performance?

  • Know your material. This is probably the biggest tool in the box. Knowing your material gives you the best chance for a successful performance.
  • Make connections with your audience. Shutting them out will only serve to make you feel more isolated and prevent you from feeling the encouragement and support that the audience WANTS TO GIVE YOU. Don’t listen to your brain. Feel the audience.
  • Commit. What you are doing is brave. Own that. Use it as fuel for your performance. The best performances aren’t technically perfect. They’re emotional. Take yourself a little less seriously and learn not to care about looking stupid.
  • Pretend you’re someone else. Wear that piece of clothing or jewelry that feels like an invisible suit of protective armor.
  • Practice focusing on the space in between.
  • Don’t apologize.
  • If you’re new, let the MC know so they can help the audience support you.
  • Build trust with your fellow performers.
  • Practice miked.
  • Practice when to take a breath.
  • Invite the audience to share in the weird “I just swallowed a bug!”
  • What else?

Learn to Accept Yourself

“…it’s often helpful to uncover the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing vulnerability, and being considered less than perfect. Learning to accept yourself and not feeling that you have to prove yourself to others is at the root of healing.” -Jane Esposito, MSW https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/treatment/conquering-stage-fright

  • Recognize that you are not a fraud. No one starts out as a fully formed professional performer. It takes practice. Know where you are on your journey and work from there.
  • Accept that the anxiety might be with you throughout the performance. Don’t fight it. Try to work with it if you can. Shift your focus to your true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.
  • Know that your audience supports you and WANTS you to succeed. A lot of the people in the audience also suffer from performance anxiety. They are rooting for you to do well because, if you can do it, maybe so can they. If leading by example helps you get through a tough spot, lean on that.
  • Think of the people who most represent unconditional love and support and play to them, even if they aren’t able to be physically there in the audience. For purposes of this tool, pets count as people.
  • Avoid self-deprecating humor. Words have power. Use them to support yourself.
  • Recognize that the audience is not filled with professionals. You are not being judged.
  • Give yourself the grace to grow.
  • Learn your strengths and weaknesses and play to your strengths.
  • What else?

Let It Go

  • Know that you are still going to make mistakes and that’s okay. Everybody does. Embrace them. Sometimes it’s the mistakes that elevate a performance from good to truly memorable. When Prince made a mistake on stage, he repeated it, thereby turning it into an improvisational variation instead and the audience was none the wiser. But he was only able to recover smoothly because he practiced his material until he knew it cold. He practiced, and he continued to make mistakes, and he got better at recovering from them. If you’re playing a piece and your brain shuts down, your muscle memory has a better chance of covering for you if you know the material cold. Brain lock on words is more difficult but, again, your best defense is practice and repetition.
  • Don’t apologize and don’t explain. It breaks the mood and feeds the brain worms.
  • Remind yourself that the audience isn’t necessarily here to see or hear you, specifically. Some of them will be, but others are just here to see somebody do the thing. Today that happens to be you. You are there to give. Focus on that.
  • Ignore the haters.
  • Cultivate hopes, not expectations.
  • Afterward, review one thing that went right, one thing that went wrong, and one thing you would have done differently. Take that knowledge into your next performance and let this one go. Only focus one one thing in each category. The point is not to try to fix everything all at once, which can lead to frustration and make the whole situation worse, but to put all your focus into making one thing better. Next time, you can concentrate on something else.
  • Recommended reading: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
  • What else?


  • Rehearse the performance. A lot. It’s never going to benefit you to get in front of an audience and wing it. Practice until you don’t get it wrong and then keep practicing until you can’t get it wrong. Know which performances are better served by memorizing the high points rather than word for word.
  • Perform every chance you get; in front of a mirror; in front of friends; in front of people you know you will never see again; in places with unexpected noises.
  • Know how long a performance takes and in what other ways it changes when you’re relaxed versus when you’re anxious. Do you speed up? Does your pitch change?
  • Take an improvisation class. It will help you learn how to deal with the unexpected.
  • Keep learning new things both in your field and outside of it. Be open to making connections between seemingly unrelated topics, like performance and diet. The more tools you have, the better.
  • Practice breath control, resonance, diction, and articulation. You want to be both heard and understood.
  • Give yourself the time to grow.
  • What else?

How to down regulate your nervous system via the diaphragm and the enteric system (the lining of the gut) so that you -can- breathe:

When the body is dealing with anxiety (asthma, too), the first response is that the diaphragm starts to contract and gets very tight and restricted, physically preventing you from taking a full breath. The enteric system then reacts (various gut issues) and sends signals to your brain, creating a feedback loop. One of the quickest ways to move through an emotional state is to move the body.

Use a soft, squishy ball, 75% full. One option is the Coregeous ball on www.tuneupfitness.com $13

Don’t do this on a full stomach. Ideal is to be empty. Spending a couple of minutes early in the morning is good so you can start your day from a down regulated place.

The diaphragm is right below the base of your sternum, right where it starts to get soft and squishy.

  1. Lay face down on the floor with the ball under your sternum. You may experience some nausea. Nausea doesn’t mean don’t do this. It’s giving you feedback on the amount of tension that is currently in that tissue and to take it slow. It’s very common for this to feel uncomfortable in the beginning because we’re not used to this area being touched.
  2. Raise up on your forearms and roll the ball slowly from side to side.
  3. Keep breathing.
  4. After a couple minutes, move the ball lower, over the belly button, to bring it more toward the gut and roll back and forth.
  5. Keep breathing.
  6. Next, move it lower to just above the pubic bone and roll again. This is the second area that is commonly uncomfortable at first.
  7. Keep breathing.
  8. Lastly, roll the ball around under your gut and diaphragm in free-form movements to explore all the nooks and crannies.
  9. Remove the ball, just rest for a bit, and check in with your body and your breathing.