Conquering Stage Fright

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Public speaking is said to be the biggest fear reported by many American adults, topping flying, financial ruin, sickness, and even death.

You may have heard the joke that some people would prefer to be in their own coffins than give a eulogy at a funeral. While this may be an exaggeration, many would agree.

Most of us feel a degree of nervous apprehension when preparing to speak up or perform in front of a group. But those who are filled with feelings of dread and panic in such a situation—or anywhere the person might be center of attention—may be suffering from a form of social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia).

The fear of public speaking or performance, often called stage fright, exacts a huge toll on self-confidence and self-esteem and causes some people to leave school or a job or pass up a promotion. Many, including seasoned professional performers, suffer in silent terror. And because they feel embarrassed, people try to keep their fear a secret, even from a spouse or other close family members or friends.

Taking Steps to Overcome Your Fear

Learning to improve your speaking or performance skills is good, but it’s generally not enough to substantially reduce your fear. You must address and revise any negative perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, images, and predictions related to public speaking or performing. And 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.

It is recommended that you learn skills to reduce and manage your fear and anxiety and not resort to using medication or natural products alone. It’s also critical to learn cognitive-behavioral methods to stop the cycle of avoiding fearful situations. Avoidance may give you immediate relief, but it reinforces your fear in the long run.

Some people also choose medication or natural remedies to help reduce their symptoms of performance anxiety. Talk with your physician to find the most appropriate treatment for you.

If you are willing stop avoiding your fears and learn new skills to reduce and manage them, you will develop an empowering belief and trust in yourself. In facing your fear, it becomes possible to overcome performance anxiety and find comfort and ease in expressing yourself in front of others.

Try these 10 tips to reduce your stage fright:

  1. Shift the focus from yourself and your fear to your true purpose—contributing something of value to your audience.
  2. Stop scaring yourself with thoughts about what might go wrong. Instead, focus your attention on thoughts and images that are calming and reassuring.
  3. Refuse to think thoughts that create self-doubt and low confidence.
  4. Practice ways to calm and relax your mind and body, such as deep breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation.
  5. Exercise, eat well, and practice other healthful lifestyle habits. Try to limit caffeine, sugar, and alcohol as much as possible.
  6. Visualize your success: Always focus on your strength and ability to handle challenging situations.
  7. Prepare your material in advance and read it aloud to hear your voice.
  8. Make connections with your audience: Smile and greet people, thinking of them as friends rather than enemies.
  9. Stand or sit in a self-assured, confident posture. Remain warm and open and make eye contact.
  10. Give up trying to be perfect and know that it is OK to make mistakes. Be natural, be yourself.

Janet Esposito, MSW, who overcame her own terror of public speaking, is the author of several books about resolving fears of public speaking and performing.

Scientific References
Stein, M.B., Walker, J.R., & Forde, D.R.  (1996). Public speaking fears in the community:  Prevalence, impact on functioning, and diagnostic classification. Archives of General Psychiatry, 53, 169-174. 
Stein, M.B., Walker, J.R., & Forde, D.R. (1994). Setting diagnostic thresholds for social phobia: Considerations from a community survey of social anxiety. American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 408-412.


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