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Is There a “Cure” for Stage Fright? Part I

Harold was the Executive Director of a philanthropic organization. Anita was a professor. Carol was a writer. Oliver was a musical performer. Bill was an elite athlete. Although they had never heard of nor met one another, they shared something in common. Each person suffered from haunting, debilitating stage fright.

Harold presented his weekly and annual reports at Board meetings and conferences under great psychological duress. He tended to stutter, shake, and feared his Board members would notice his quivering voice which would leave him feeling ashamed. Anita could not stand in front of the class without her knees shaking. She worried she would not know answers to questions that her students posed to her. Sometimes she feared she would pass out in front of a group because she hyperventilated. She put off her tenure review. Carol was a talented author but could not write a word –no ideas flowed as her deadline neared. Her head was as empty as the blank computer screen in front of her. Oliver literally threw up backstage before walking on. His pre-performance nausea was exacerbated by his conviction that he would be exposed as a fake in front of his audience – despite hours of preparation and ample talent. He felt he could never play like other performers with whom he compared himself – always falling short. Bill  froze at the moment of the final sprint in speed skating. He never accomplished his goal to make the Olympic Team. His personal life was in shambles.

 

Fear. Worry. Physical symptoms. Avoidance. Shame. Embarrassment. Comparisons with others. Falling short of expectations. Goals not realized. Ruined relationships.

All of these people suffered from low self-esteem, self-doubt, and high anxiety. They all shared psychological and/or physical symptoms that prevented them from feeling and performing their best when the chips were down, the spotlight was shined on them, and the deadline loomed. Several had tried various sorts of self-help including exercise (always a good idea) and diet changes (no, eating bananas didn’t help anxiety although they are a healthy food). A couple had engaged in cognitive therapies, and several people had used beta blocking drugs to calm the physical symptoms of stage fright. While shaking, sweating, nausea, muscle tension, and irritability temporarily subsided, performance anxiety remained a persistent and unyielding psychological impediment. It was not cured by affirmations, relabeling negative self-statements into positive self-praise and reassurance, trying to eliminate irrational feelings (is any feeling “irrational”?), or using medications.

Stage fright is often defined by its symptoms. Its “cure” typically is measured by the elimination of them.   But this is paradoxical. Why, if smart, talented, and well-prepared people follow verbal prescriptions (sometimes medication prescriptions) for relief, does so much anxiety continue to haunt both the famous professional and talented amateur? Why are careers disrupted, dreams dispelled, and often personal relationships dissolved or avoided?

In our Age of the Quick Cure fueled by the Pharmaceutical and Insurance Industries, why is performance anxiety not more amenable to amelioration? Because there is no cure? Or should we consider other ways that might be more helpful to conceptualize this psychological monster? Need I tell you that I believe the latter. You need to scratch more than the surface.

In the last issue of The New Yorker, (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/03/i-cant-go-on) Joan Acocella cited the recent book, “Playing Scared” by Sara Solovich (http://sarasolo.com) to illustrate how the tentacles of stage fright have affected all kinds of performers for ages. Ms. Acocella also noted some of the psychological resources that I cited above as not having a curative effect to tame the foe of low self esteem in performance. She concluded that the topic is not worthy of writing a book on the topic and claimed there is no cure for stage fright. That conclusion by a respected author such as Ms. Acocella is frightening in itself. No hope, no cure.

Ms. Acocella failed to recognize the excitement and spontaneity inherent in a live performance or that having a creative idea or speaking effectively in front of others is exhilarating enough that people persist despite their fears. Ms. Acocella seemed not to appreciate that stage fright is not an incurable disease but rather an ongoing struggle within a performer who uses that struggle toward self-expression. And she overlooked the enormous psychological resources within all of us that begin in infancy and can be brought to the struggle that leads to greater and deeper self-understanding and a sense of fulfillment. Ms. Acocella concluded there is no cure. A terminal diagnosis.

As a Juilliard trained concert pianist who suffered from performance anxiety and who long ago modulated to my current career as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst who treats individuals with paralyzing stage fright from various disciplines, I agree and disagree with her prognosis.  There is no cure.

It is not difficult to recite the long list of ominous and fearsome symptoms that define stage fright. Yet people are not defined by symptoms nor cured by removal of them.   Symptoms of all kinds need to be understood in the broader and deeper context of the whole person who brings a life history to performance (music, business, writing, teaching, athletics and other professional and personal situations).

Appearing before an audience, who represents in displacement, performers’ earliest relationships who can love or leave them, holds deep and life long meaning.   The performer’s life history will not disappear with deep breathing, cognitive restructuring, stoic attitudes, drugs such as beta blockers and so on.  This is impossible.   But an anxious performer can learn about unique multiple contrapuntal issues that both fuel and perpetuate the psychic monster that undermines talent, ambition, as well as personal and professional aspirations.  Some people do this in therapy, others through various life experiences.

In the process of getting to know oneself on a deeper level than symptoms, people can come to better  terms with what they can and cannot be – on and off stage. For those who perform, this can include replacing an unquenchable quest for perfection and omnipotence with pride in competence and self-acceptance.   This realization has powerful tentacles that stretch out to the performer’s psyche, but is not a cure in the traditional meaning of getting rid of symptoms.   Self-knowledge and self-appreciation is a more comfortable way to accept and know oneself on an everyday basis, to feel calmer in asserting oneself, and to allow ambition to flow without debilitating interference. This attitude, not some mental technique, transfers to appearing in public.    Consider that this non-cure is worth the effort.

This blog is Part I in a multi-blog series about “curing” stage fright. Stay tuned for “Cure – Part II” which will introduce you in greater detail to several performance anxious individuals who wrestled with emotional and physical pain that led them to search for a “cure”.

Please write to me with your thoughts and questions.

These links may be of interest to you:

http://julienagel.net/what-a-black-cat-taught-me-about-writers-block/

http://julienagel.net/performance-anxiety-and-therapy-in-a-jar/

http://www.worldcat.org/title/stage-fright-in-musicians-a-psychodynamic-perspective/oclc/116698240&referer=brief_results

 

Photo by Will Marlow

8 COMMENTS
  1. Dorian Rudnytsky 2 years ago

    A “two-cents worth” story for those interested. My stage fright was connected from the earliest days with an older brother who was a unique musician of the type we call a “genius” nowadays…. Soloist with orchestras before he was 10, applause everywhere and at all times…a god-given gift of twitch-muscle speed and coordination coupled with a remarkable memory and this older brother became the level to which I as the younger was supposed to attain as well. Did not happen. Was not given those gifts, neither of speed nor of the memory (which proved the more significant).

    And so as a young musician going through the necessary steps to achieve what America views as “success” I learned about the debilitating effects of stage-fright as well, and like in the examples above, also refused to take part in competitions nor in performing tryouts of any kind. However — I found my happiness in the music world anyhow … just not in the realm in which I had been trained and had to compete with my brother (the classical world) and instead discovered joy for myself with a different instrument and an entirely different style of music — as an electric bass player in rock bands.

    Eventually life took over and the band life stopped and the aging process continued as it does, bringing with it the changes life demands and I ended up again far more within a classical world environment — understandable, since among educated people as one gets older one tends to move away from the raw energy of rock and either return to, or become more involved with, jazz or classical music. Meaning — the pressure again grew regarding that classical music world I had been trained in, in the first place. One simply can’t avoid “And what do YOU do for a living?” And with this, came more and more often the nightmare request … “Play something for us.” Which brought back every stage-fright terror immediately and directly, as if it had been only yesterday, and out came again that repertoire of avoidance so that I didn’t have to actually play….

    But then … a change came, and this is the reason for this posting. It came from being asked to compose music for theater, and much of it was for children’s theater. It started out with composition… and although I had never composed anything other than rock songs, I agree since there was no demand to perform on stage. And with the surprising success I found for myself in doing this, eventually came also the request that I take part on stage as a “live musician.” This was not easy …. it demanded of me to sit there out in the open multiple times per week in front of approximately 600 people per performance and “play wonderfully.” Of course. What else? It’s what’s expected of musicians….

    This was all happening in Germany….where I never really felt at home to begin with and perhaps I took that feeling and turned it into a “security blanket” and thus agreed, despite the knowledge that the stage-fright would come. I took it as a bit of a challenge also, on purpose, knowing that if it didn’t work, well… I could simply stop.

    BUT — playing a total of 40-60 performances, often twice per day and sometimes even 3 times, playing a variety of instruments some of which I had never played before but had to learn “on the spot” (and did, and it was fun)…and also sitting there ALWAYS in costume (!) made me realize that the person I was seeing as the “myself” on that stage was in fact something totally different in the eyes of the audiences I was so afraid of. And with this slow realization came also a new confidence in just what I was doing, to the extent that I was able to for the first time simply enjoy the playing I was doing — including on the classical instruments and using classical themes when necessary and not only on the other instruments that were either just a simple pleasure to play or were challenges fun to conquer, being new to me. And after a number of years doing this, realized one day that a great part of that stage-fright had subsided to a totally controllable level and no longer bothers me like it used to.

    But what actual lessons can this minor story bring that might be helpful to someone else? Here’s the list that helped me. 1. Wearing a costume that disguised who I actually was, including makeup. 2. Minimizing the particular problem instrument and style that was causing me the terror (in this case, the cello and classical music) and instead concentrating using the ones I felt good about (guitars, bass guitar) 3. Playing instruments that all involved who were important new I had just learned … so could be easily forgiven making mistakes if they happened (in my case, accordion, harmonica, trumpet … which I had never played before and learned specifically for the pieces at hand). 4. Making certain that the pieces I either chose, was given, or composed to play were ALL EASY for ME! And if not, then re-arranged by myself in such a way that could show off what to my mind was necessary for any given scene but was playable by me without major problems technically, and 5. The conscious reminder to myself sitting on stage during the times I was NOT playing that the people out there were not there for ME, but for the piece, and that I was only one part of it, realizing the importance of myself as part of a whole, and not “the whole itself.” And also — the growing realization that more people were impressed with the number of instruments being played live on stage than in the “quality of the playing” itself. After all — these were theater pieces and not solo concerts, and this was especially true for children’s theater where the majority of the audiences that I had been so afraid of were in fact under 10 years old. In hindsight… it’s funny that with the stage-fright being so invasive, I had not noticed this nor realized its’ implication!

    Meaning … NO, not true that stage-fright cannot be “cured.” Yes, it can. And this is one example. Completely cured? No. But truly “good enough.” I still refuse to play when someone says, “Play something” because I know I can’t do that, but am no longer especially embarrassed and tell whoever asks outright that I “don’t play without proper warm up and going over what I’m going to play” and that I’m not one of those musicians with an entire repertoire ready at my fingers to play at any time, in any place. That’s just not me. And I guess that’s a major part of getting over the stage-fright — the realization that “being me” is also okay.

    I’m still on stage, after all, and at this very moment as I write am preparing to learn a new instrument I never played — the banjo — for the next children’s theater piece, rehearsals beginning in 3 weeks….

    Reply
    • Julie Nagel 2 years ago

      You are the sparkling example of coming to terms with what you CAN be vs what you CAN’T – if we use the word “cure” then you are an example of that. Thank you for sharing MORE than 2 cents – you also illustrate the life long journey and self-reflection that is involved in finding yourself both on and off stage. Yours is a success story –

      Reply
  2. Louis Nagel 2 years ago

    There is a treasure trove of wisdom in what you have written, Julie and I hope this and Blog part 2 are widely read.

    Reply
  3. Julie Nagel 2 years ago

    I appreciate your comments and thoughts about others reading my blog. i hope readers will also send a reply – without having stage fright about writing..

    Reply
  4. let me know when the next edition is available. Your beautifully written comments fit only too well my personal and clinical experience.

    Reply
    • Julie Nagel 2 years ago

      Thank you!! Your comments mean a great deal to me – as have our collaborations which have importantly influenced on my own work.

      Reply
  5. Kathy Moore 2 years ago

    Thank you, Julie Nagel, for this beautifully written and explained essay on stage fright. It is an eye-opener for me. As a non-performer, I have never had to deal with the problem, but I know it would be there — the thought of being on a stage, all eyes upon me, is terrifying. So I admire those who can overcome the fright, and share their gifts, give their audience a chance to feel differently about them than did the parents of their long-ago imagination..

    Reply
    • Julie Nagel 2 years ago

      Kathy – I appreciate your comments. The idea of sharing vs “proving” goes a long way to lowering anxiety. Thank you for writing.

      Reply

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