What is performance anxiety?

From Maude Villeneuve

You are in the waiting room of a prestigious organization in your industry.

In a few moments, you will finally have the chance to interview for your dream job. You've been practicing your presentation all week, yet you don't feel good. Your heart is racing, and you can feel yourself sweating through your shirt. You start worrying about everything that could go wrong in the next hour and how you could make a fool of yourself in front of people you admire.

In other words, you have performance or, more simply, stage fright anxiety.

putting it into words: a simple definition of performance anxiety

Performance anxiety is a form of anxiety.

According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, distressing thoughts, and physical changes such as an increase in blood pressure. It is considered to be a long-term reaction to a future that is perceived as uncertain or uncontrollable and is largely focused on a diffuse threat, i.e., one that can affect many areas of your life.

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, refers to anxiety experienced before or at the time of performing in front of people, giving a performance, or taking a test, such as an exam or job interview. Athletes, musicians, actors, and speakers often experience performance anxiety.

If you experience stage fright, you are not alone: between 20% and 40% of people experience some form of performance anxiety. In fact, public speaking is the biggest fear reported by many adults, surpassing flying, financial ruin, illness and even death.

beyond words: performance anxiety in everyday life

The symptoms of performance anxiety are the same as those of anxiety.

They may include (but are not limited to):

  • A quickened pulse and faster breathing;
  • A dry mouth and a tightening of the throat;
  • Trembling hands, knees, lips and voice;
  • Clammy, cold hands;
  • Nausea or an uneasy feeling in the stomach;
  • Changes in vision, such as tunnel vision;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Irrational or catastrophic fears and anxieties;
  • A feeling that your mind is empty;
  • Uncontrollable and obsessive thoughts, which may be made worse by your physical symptoms.

Performance anxiety and being physically and emotionally unpleasant negatively influence performance on the task in question. It has a negative impact on your working memory, i.e., your ability to recall facts quickly, on your self-confidence, and on your performance itself.

Although uncomfortable, performance anxiety is not inevitable: you can overcome it by trying different cognitive, somatic, and linguistic tactics:

  • Cognitive tactics here refer to the different ways you can work on your thoughts to reduce their anxiety-provoking content, such as focusing on the success of your performance and the chances that everything will go according to plan;
  • Somatic tactics refer to how you can use your body to reduce your anxiety, for example, through deep breathing, yoga, and other sports activities;
  • Finally, the words you use impact your anxiety level: by replacing the words 'stress' and 'fear' with 'challenge' or 'enthusiasm', you give a much more positive label to your experience and thus decrease your perception of anxiety.

tools and strategies: how to live with performance anxiety?

Strategies exist to help you reduce your symptoms. Here are some of them we invite you to try and experience.

Mental strategies for managing stage fright: 

  • Visualize the best possible success of the event or performance that is causing you anxiety.
  • Visualize in detail the end of the performance, how you feel, and go back in time to visualize all the steps that led to your victory;
  • Rather than asking, "what could go wrong?", ask yourself, "what if everything really does go right?"
  • Write a list of past performances where things went well, with evidence to support it;
  • Write a list of positive affirmations that improve your self-confidence, and recite them when you have negative thoughts or self-doubt;
  • The anticipation of a performance is usually much more difficult than the performance itself: keep in mind that the most difficult part is starting the performance;
  • Abandon the idea of perfection and accept that it is okay to make mistakes: nothing is unrecoverable;
  • Reframe your anxiety into excitement or enthusiasm: as the physiological reactions between anxiety and excitement are similar, telling yourself that you are excited to perform can lead you to adopt an opportunity mindset (as opposed to a threat mindset) and improve your performance.

Physical strategies for managing stage fright: 

  • Practice controlled breathing (or cardiac coherence), meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and other strategies to help you relax and redirect your thoughts when they become negative. It's best to practice a relaxation technique every day, whether or not you have a performance to do so that you have the skills you need when you need them.
  • Go for a walk, jump up and down, shake your muscles, or do anything that feels good to ease your anxiety before your performance.
  • Adopt a confident posture;
  • Make eye contact and smile at your audience. 

It is not necessary to implement all the strategies we suggest at once! Try one or two strategies at a time, test their effectiveness for your symptoms, and then adjust your aim.

how to better communicate that you are living with performance anxiety?

When you experience performance anxiety, it is tempting to live with it in silence and see it as a shame that must be hidden at all costs.

Embarrassed about having stage fright, and despite your experience, perhaps, you try to keep your fear a secret, even from your partner or other close family members or friends.

However, talking about it openly is the most effective way to reduce your performance anxiety. Discussing such a sensitive subject may be difficult, but this risk will be outweighed by relieving your symptoms.

For example, many speakers and professors begin their courses or lectures by admitting to their audience that they are nervous about speaking to them. At the beginning of a job interview, many candidates confess to having stage fright before the selection committee.

More often than not, your symptoms will drop dramatically. Naming your stage fright shows your humility, no matter how experienced you are, and makes your audience empathize with you and become more interested and engaged in your speech.

Putting your performance anxiety into words, and making it a regular practice, empowers you.

keep moving forward with performance anxiety    

Living with performance anxiety means learning strategies to get through more difficult times and opening up to others about the difficulties you are experiencing.

Confronting your stage fright and learning to manage it better can be challenging. Not only will you feel good about yourself, but you may discover performance skills that your symptoms have hidden until now.

Performing will always require vulnerability and courage. Giving a talk, participating in a competition, or appearing in front of a selection committee are all events that can cause anxiety, but also opportunities for you to show your unique contribution to your expertise or to society in general.

With the help of the strategies offered in this article, we hope you can take the first step, overcome your stage fright, and be more confident in revealing your unique ideas and skills.

Do you want to discover more strategies? Learn more about our self-management workshop to help you take action and learn how to live with anxiety.

Discover the Living with anxiety workshop

Relief would like to thank Maude Villeneuve for her contribution to this article.


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