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BAPAM Performance Anxiety Clinical Guidance

Clinical approach guidance produced by BAPAM on performance anxiety, what it is, its causes and its symptoms, as well as strategies for managing it.

Last updated: 24 May 2024

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety or ‘stage fright’ is a feeling of fear accompanied by increased bodily arousal, and is experienced by most musicians at some point. The physical symptoms can be debilitating and, once experienced, the fear that it will happen again can create a pattern.

Performance anxiety is not an indicator of age, status, experience or reputation. It might only emerge around certain situations in specific locations and ‘important’ people, or be broader and occur during every performance, rehearsing with others, or in the build-up to a performance – on any occasion where your perception of the resources you have available to you do not seem to align with the demands of the situation.

Fortunately, there are tried and tested strategies for managing performance anxiety and, like all of your essential performance skills, they will improve with practice.

A certain level of arousal is needed for optimal performance. The Yerkes-Dodson law describes this relationship between arousal and performance. Essentially, if arousal is too low or too high, performance will suffer. In order to achieve optimal performance a moderate level of arousal is needed.

The Yerkes-Dodson law illustration: Bell curve


Causes of performance anxiety

You are more likely to experience performance anxiety if:

  • You are by nature a ‘worrier’ and tend to get anxious or upset in everyday situations
  • You have an unhappy memory of a previous performance
  • The performance is labelled as ‘high profile’ or ‘important’
  • There hasn’t been much time to prepare, practise and rehearse
  • You are working with new people, especially people you perceive as ‘difficult’ or people you feel in awe of
  • There are major current life stressors affecting you or someone close e.g. bereavement, illness, relationship breakdown or financial precarity
  • You have perfectionist traits and/or hold yourself to rigid and unrealistically high standards which you (or anyone else) would rarely be able to achieve.

Physiological and mental health symptoms of performance anxiety

One or several of the below symptoms may occur:

  • Sweating – especially hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart pounding
  • Breathing gets faster and shallower
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Dizziness
  • ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
  • A sick feeling (actual vomiting is less common)
  • The urge to keep rushing to the loo
  • Feelings of apprehension, fear, dread, or panic
  • Feelings of failure, inadequacy, lack of skill

Negative and self-critical thoughts may also occur, such as:

  • I am not good enough
  • The performance will go badly
  • I’ll mess up the tricky bit
  • People will think I’m terrible
  • Panic is going to get the better of me and I’m not going to be able to cope
  • I can do it on my own at home but will I be able to do it on the day?

Strategies for managing performance anxiety

Below are a variety of strategies for managing performance anxiety that span across the short term and long term.

For in-the-moment relief, this BAPAM performance anxiety poster is designed to help manage it in the moments before going on-stage, while some of the below strategies can provide longer-term background support. 

  • Refresh your music techniques: If your fears are based on shaky or inadequate music techniques, book yourself some time with a trusted teacher or expert in your field.
  • Performance coaching: Working with an experienced performance coach or attending online training sessions such as those run by the MU and BAPAM can help you learn new skills and embed them into your day to day creative practice.
  • Adopt a consistent attitude towards each performance: A philosophy of ‘important’ performances not only increases the pressure, it also has a flipside of perceived ‘unimportant’ performances where you may not fully engage. It’s better to cultivate a ‘next’ performance mentality focusing on a consistent attitude and-day-by-day preparation.
  • Distraction techniques: Distraction techniques can be helpful when waiting backstage. Bring a book or something that can take the mind away from the task ahead. Distraction might not work for everybody, so it is essential to experiment to find out what works best for you prior to performance.
  • Physical warm-ups: Warming up the body by marching on the spot, for example, can help increase arousal if you are feeling lethargic.
  • Breathing techniques: Breathing techniques, such as the "Box Breathing" exercise in this BAPAM performance anxiety poster, can help manage stress in the moment. 
  • While preparing material, or while waiting to go on stage, try visualising your successful performance – how will you be standing, sitting or moving? This can enable you to mentally practise positive experiences of performing.
  • Avoid self-medication: Avoid self-medicating, for example with excessive alcohol or street drugs, as this is likely to have undesirable side effects and may be addictive. This also goes for excessive exercise, comfort eating, restrictive diets or cutting out meals altogether.
  • Talk things through: Sometimes it can help to talk things through with a suitable psychotherapist, for instance if your performance fears relate to long-standing difficult psychological events, panic attacks, social anxiety or phobias, or you have a wide-ranging tendency to perfectionism. You might ‘explain away’ anxious feelings or tell yourself that your anxiety ‘isn’t that bad’ because acknowledging problems fully is difficult. Talking things through with a trained professional can help uncover more rooted issues and bring about awareness. Additional support may be available through schemes such as Music Minds Matter and from occupation-specialist practitioners like those listed in the BAPAM Directory.
  • Medication from a trained health professional: Medication such as beta-blockers and tranquillizers help some people manage anxiety, but it is important to see your GP to discuss if they are appropriate for you, how they work, and the pros and cons including possible side-effects.

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