Stage fright: A Helpful Illustrated Guide

The stage fright is one of the most common fears in people, so let us today have a closer what is it. In this article, I will explain in detail what the phenomenon of performance anxiety is about.

So, what is stage fright? It is specific communication-based anxiety resulting in a person experiencing physiological excitement, negative feelings, or certain behavioral responses to the actual or expected act of public speaking

Keep in mind that several terms are used to describe stage fright. The most commonly used ones are “glossophobia”, “fear of public speaking” and “public speaking anxiety”.

What is stage fright?

Katrin Aedma (2012) writes that excessive fear is called a phobia, an anxiety that occurs when facing a particular phenomenon or living entity perceived as somewhat dangerous. A person who suffers from a phobia tries to avoid such objects or perceives them with great discomfort. One of the more common forms of phobia is agoraphobia, i.e., fear of crowded places and places difficult to escape from (e.g., planes, queues, etc.)

If we look into it a bit closer (including speaking in front of a group of people): this is a specific communication-based anxiety resulting in a person experiencing physiological excitement, negative feelings, or certain behavioral responses to the actual or expected act of public speaking (Daly, McCroskey, Ayres, Hopf, Sonandre & Wongprasert, 2009).

Dr. Robin Hart (2007) adds that the fear of public speaking is excessive and exhausting anxiety occurring in many different situations.

Glossophobia = stress

Practitioner of the Alexander Technique, Georgia Dias describes (2007) it as a certain kind of stress from the unleashed energy accumulated in the body, which becomes difficult to tolerate when entering the stage, or “danger zone”. The human body perceives the excess of unreleased energy as fear and panic.

According to Paul Witt and Ralph Behnke (2006), the fear of public speaking is primarily a fear of speaking in front of an audience. Just as the fear of public speaking is divided into subtypes, the fear of speaking can also be classified according to certain contexts.

Warren Brodsky (1996) describes the fear of public speaking as a fear before or during a presentation of that the subject will not be able to cope with the increasing stress during the presentation. At the same time, according to David Barlow (2000), the fear of public speaking is lack of control over a major event in the future. The mere idea of failure is damaging to one’s self-esteem.

The fight-or-flight response

Stage fright and the fight-or-flight response
Illustration by Joshua Seong. ©

Diana Kenny (2006) adds that those who perceive presentation as a high risk are also those who are likely to experience more fear. Also, people who suffer from a great fear of public speaking are those who feel most at risk during the presentation.

Robin Hart develops this idea even further, adding that people react with the fight-or-flight response in similar situations related to stage fright. This means that our physiological system prepares us for fighting (i.e., presentation) or fleeing (e.g., rushing from the stage or rushing one’s scheduled presentation).

Although performing on stage does not pose any physical danger, the possibility of failure is something that greatly affects the performer’s self-esteem. It brings out a similar response that occurs when something goes wrong. He asserts, therefore, that fear of public speaking occurs as a result of our imagination (Hart, 2007).

Georgia Dias notes that if the performer experiences fear, the fight-or-flight response will also reflex in the shoulder tension, which, in turn, affects breathing, the functions of the nose, head, neck, and body.

Components of stage fright

Components of stage fright

Andres Steptoe looked (1989) at it in more detail and, in his view, stage fear consists of the following components:

Physiological component

These are changes in our nervous and endocrine systems, which, among other things, are visible in high heart rate, dry mouth, sweating, shaking hands, irregular breathing, nausea, and blurred vision.

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Physical excitement is a natural response to a fight-or-flight situation in which people react to danger as it has been done for millennia.

Cognitive component

The cognitive component manifests itself primarily in concentration difficulties, abstinence, negative evaluation of one’s abilities and performance, as well as increased awareness (including being too focussed on oneself, not the task). The cognitive component also manifests itself in focussing too much on how others respond to your presentation.

In this context, a distorted perception is also singled out, in which, during the presentation, various signs are interpreted in the wrong way than they really are by the audience.

Affective component

This component is about fear, panic, insecurity, and inferiority.

Behavioral component

This means, among other things, blunt (or too expressive) presentations, problems with presentation rhythm, reading errors, and other behavioural changes such as irritation, audience avoidance, etc.

Stage fright components are mutually reinforcing

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Peter Mak (2010) adds that all these components are mutually reinforcing. The negative thoughts (cognitive) in connection with the presentation lead to elevated physical symptoms (physiological), which, in turn, increases the likelihood of mistakes (behavioral).

This all adds to the fact that the next presentation will bring about even stronger responses. Hardy and Parfitt (1991) further add that the cognitive component plays the most important part in the intensification and preservation of stage fright. They argue that, according to the disaster theory, cognitive fear with physical stress leads to an increase in stress intensity. This, in turn, drastically reduces the performance level.

Cognitive, somatic, emotional and behavioral components

Also, Dias mentions in her work that anxiety is an uncomfortable combination of cognitive, somatic, emotional, and behavioral components. The cognitive component recognizes the danger, and the somatic component prepares the body for it. She also adds that in a panic situation, we instinctively rely on the fight-or-flight response that has kept people alive for thousands of years.

Paul Salmon and Robert Meyer (1992) develop this idea further saying that the fear of public speaking affects the cognitive system in two ways. First of all, the individual begins to mostly apply the previously learned behavioral mechanics (routine) and, secondly, this limits one’s access to stored knowledge and reduces the ability to focus.

Andreas Lehmann (2007) formulates the relationship between the performance anxiety components by the example of musicians as follows: „The musician’s concern about performance (cognitive) can lead to sweating, shaking, and feeling tense on stage (physiological), which results in poor technique and faults in performance (behavioral) All this, in turn, leads to negative thinking (cognitive).“

Frequency of stage fright occurrence

Frequency of stage fright occurence

There is a lot of unconfirmed content on the Internet about the frequency of stage fear occurrence, and, as a result, data that creates misconceptions in people. For example, according to, about 75% of people are afraid of public performances. Since the website does not provide proof of how this number was obtained, it is difficult to verify the validity of the claim.

Thus, I will provide the data of several reliable studies, according to which the individual level of performance anxiety fluctuates in a number of ways. However, some factors must be taken into account in terms of which study methods were used, who were the participants as well as under what conditions the study was carried out.

Mak (2010) generally argues that according to a study conducted among professional musicians, 60% of the participants suffer from glossophobia. Of these, 20% have reported that the level of stage fright affects their professional career.

Solo performer vs group performance

Also, Papageorgi, Creech, and Welch (2011) conducted a survey among 244 musicians, which revealed that solo performances generated greater tension than the group ones. Without quantifying the results, they claim that stage fright was a concern for a significant majority of participants.

Ruscio et al. (US National Library of Medicine, 2008) also carried out a study of social anxiety disorder. The study involved 9,282 people and revealed that the worst fear in the context of social anxiety disorder was the fear of public appearance or presentation (21.2%). If we also add business meetings or class discussions (19.5%), it turns out that 40.7% of people are afraid of public speaking situations (ibid).

According to Fumark (2000), public speaking anxiety prevailed in 77.1% of the people suffering from a social anxiety disorder. Of 2,000 study participants, 24% of the respondents indicated that stage fright was an issue. It can be concluded that although the limits are difficult to determine, social anxiety disorder is an embarrassing problem for a significant part of the population (ibid).

In 2013, I carried out my own study in Estonia (involving 504 people). The study showed that an average or above average level was found in 65.4% of the respondents. At the same time, a high level occurred in a total of 36.5% of the population.

Public speaking anxiety among men and women

Wilson (1997) also studied musicians and found that glossophobia manifests itself in the performers of all levels. He also found that women seemed to be slightly more susceptible to that than men. He suggested women being more open to communication must be the reason. At the same time, Fumark (2000) found in his study that social anxiety disorder is more prevalent in women than in men.

Mursa (2013) argues that comparing the level of stage fright in women and men, she would not be very certain to say that it is more common in women. In practice, a female student can be more open-minded and more fluent, but it does not mean that a male student is less sensitive – a male student may not know or want to be open about it and generally retrains faster (ibid).

Wilson’s and Fumark’s statements are confirmed by a telephone survey conducted in the United States in 2001 (Brewer, 2001), with a total number of participants reaching 1,016 people (over the age of 17). This survey studied the worst fears of Americans. It was revealed that 37% of men and 44% of women suffered from stage fright.

Looking at the general sample, 40% of people are afraid of public speaking. The same study also compared racial differences, and it was found that 43% of white people and 34% of the representatives of other races suffer from stage fright (ibid).

Stage fear and education levels

Fumark (2000) further found that people suffering from social anxiety disorder have lower education levels. Whether a participant lived in a city or in the countryside had little effect on the results. The Gallup survey portal (Brewer, 2001) confirms Fumark’s statement, according to which 54% of people with secondary or lower education suffer from stage fright as compared to 24% of people with higher education.


As you can see, performance anxiety is a phenomenon that generally comes down to your brain playing tricks on you and is mostly a type of fear that springs from your imagination. As soon as you sort out the thoughts in your head, other accompanying factors (such as sweating, shaking hands, etc.) will start to fade away. Until then, as long as you are trapped inside your own head, do not hope for any of these to disappear!

Related questions

What is social anxiety disorder? Social anxiety disorder is a condition in which the fear of a situation where one has to make a presentation or where others are watching is very strong. Sometimes, the fear is so strong that such situations are avoided completely (read more about it here…).

Is public speaking really more feared than death? It depends. On the one hand, the results of the studies seem to suggest it, but on the other hand, it should be taken into account that the fear of flying, heights, deep waters, etc., are all related to death. (full article here)

Does the level of the fear of public speaking decrease with age? In general, the answer is yes. In my Master’s thesis, I also studied how people of three different generations cope with the fear of public speaking. To sum it up, 47.3% of baby boomers suffer from an average or a above average level of the fear of public speaking. Those percentages are significantly higher for Generations X (64.6%) and Millenials (79.1%). Have a closer look here.

What is audience analysis? Audience analysis gives you the opportunity to get as much information about the background of your listeners as possible. Using this information, you can prepare your message so that it builds on the interests, needs, and expectations of your listeners. (full article here)

How to give a speech without crying? Take deep, calming breaths. Add some humor, if appropriate. Take a moment to acknowledge the emotions involved. Don’t forget to pause for reflection and composure. Focus on the mundane. (full article here)