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6 Sources of Stage Fright

Why do we experience performance anxiety?

Key points

  • Performance anxiety is a natural by-product of having to perform in the public eye.
  • Performance anxiety is tied to the fear of judgment and consequence, as we focus on what we believe others may think.

Performance anxiety threatens self-confidence at moments of great importance (e.g., job interviews, public speaking, or music performances). For instance, when under pressure, anxious thoughts (generally about the negative consequences of failing) disturb concentration and damage performance.

In general, optimal performance is associated with a moderate level of stress. That is, performance is likely to suffer when levels of stress are too low (boredom) or too high. A certain degree of anxiety can help people anticipate obstacles, remain cautious, and stay organized. But too much anxiety impairs performance, causing indecisiveness and insecurity.

The following are important factors contributing to performance anxiety. Knowing them is the first step to conquering fear.

1. Feeling inadequate. Performance anxiety is not just about performance. The anxiety begins long before a person walks into the public eye. If we feel inadequate in the public eye, then we have likely felt inferior in other aspects of our lives.

2. Fear of exposure. The mere presence of an audience can be enough to turn a performance into an anxiety-enhancing activity. An audience communicates expectations to a performer, and the pressure to fulfill these expectations could trigger anticipated or actual anxiety. The crowd size or the presence of highly respected peers contributes to the pressure.

3. Social anxiety. Performance anxiety can be considered a specific type of social anxiety. Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of negative evaluation, increased self-awareness, and avoidance of social situations. For a socially anxious person, any situation (public speaking, meeting new people, or answering a question in class) in which he or she is being judged can serve as a potential trigger.

4. Ego defense. Psychoanalysts call defensive responses to anxiety “ego defenses” because the ego (or the self) is protecting itself from the perception of a dreaded disaster. For example, some performers procrastinate preparing to perform—and then say there was not enough time to get ready. Others stop performing altogether. Avoidance is a temporarily effective way of escaping an unpleasant situation.

5. Fear of loss of love. The audience, with its ability to praise or reject the performance, can be perceived as parents or as significant others. For example, a person who has grown up in a dysfunctional family may fear audience disapproval while wishing for love and admiration. Thus, earlier traumatizing experiences are repeated in performance.

6. Task difficulty. The level of anxiety experienced is directly proportional to the difficulty and complexity of the task. Performance anxiety can increase when the level of requirement and technical demand exceeds the capacity of the performer. Feeling unprepared contributes to a lack of self-confidence. A big part of fear reduction is the proper preparation and development of skills. It is important that people are encouraged to pursue skills in their area of strength wherever possible.

Free to use under the Pixabay license No attribution required
Source: Free to use under the Pixabay license No attribution required

In sum, the anxiety to perform well causes individuals to shift their focus of attention from task-relevant information to distracting stimuli, such as worries about the consequences. Thus, optimal performance requires a shift in mindset – less focused on yourself and more focused on your true purpose (contributing something of value to your audience). It's a shift from a desire to prove yourself to a desire to share something special with people.

Regularly confronting fearsome situations seems to be one of the most powerful treatment options to reduce anxiety and fear. Exposure can be thought of as a form of desensitization to increase tolerance for anxiety. For example, progressive exposure to anxiety-producing situations has been shown to alleviate performance anxiety and may even reduce technical errors associated with music performance. However, nothing can replace proper preparation and development of skills.

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