What is Stage Fright: Everything You Need to Know About it
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What is Stage Fright: Everything You Need to Know About it

Believe it or not, but I get asked about stage fright almost every single day. Fear of public speaking is something that holds back a lot of speakers with great potential. This is a widespread phobia that many people I’ve talked to have struggled with. Fortunately, I’ve decided to put together a full guide for my readers who are struggling with this issue.

So, what exactly is stage fright? Stage fright is an incredibly common communication-based anxiety disorder, which usually occurs when you have to speak in front of a group of people. Studies estimate that between 40–80% of people may suffer from it. 

Performance anxiety can seriously affect your confidence when it comes to addressing a group of people in public. And today, we’re going to dive head-first into learning everything there is to know about this problem, and what you can do to make it better.

After all, you shouldn’t let a fear of public speaking hold you back anymore, and I am here to help. When we’re done, I hope that you will be able to get up on that stage and give your presentation with total confidence.

Table of Contents

What is Stage Fright?

Stage fright definition:

Stage fright is often thought of as 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. Also, the fear of public speaking is primarily a fear of speaking in front of an audience.

People who have this phobia typically feel vulnerable or at risk during the time they are speaking in front of an audience. Or the anticipation leading up to the presentation may create rising levels of anxiety that may trigger a fight or flight response. You may feel like you have a hard time concentrating. You might even want to avoid giving your presentation at all.

At some point, every speaker has been a victim of some level of speech anxiety but with the right technique and regular practice, most people are able to conquer this particular fear.

Is stage fright a form of anxiety?

Yes, it is. In fact, stage fear is considered to be one type of social anxiety disorder. Also, the fear of public speaking is considered to be the most widespread form of social anxiety disorder.

If you compare the symptoms of the stage fear described below with the symptoms of social anxiety disorder you’ll see a number of similarities. For example:

  • feeling stress or panic in front of the large groups
  • the incapability of coping with the increasing stress during the presentation
  • fear of crowds
  • rapid heartbeat
  • accelerating breathing or holding one’s breath

Stage fright and the fight-or-flight response

The fight or flight response

When you have a fear of public speaking, you may experience a range of physiological and psychological symptoms that can be very distracting. Unfortunately, these symptoms tend to feed into each other. That means that your physical symptoms can make your mental symptoms worse, and vice versa.

The fight or flight response 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).

Physical indications of fight or flight response

  • dilated pupils
  • tensed muscles
  • sweating
  • tunnel vision
  • pale or flushed skin
  • rapid heartbeat
  • rapid breathing
  • trembling

Read also: How to overcome the fear of public speaking – less commonly used methods

How serious is stage fright as a health disorder?

Generally, stage fright is not hazardous for your health. However, it can be damaging to your career goals, especially if you work in a position where you are required to speak in front of others. It may become more hazardous to your health if it causes you to have full-blown panic attacks.

If you are someone that experiences full-blown panic attacks, it important to note that this condition is more severe than average speech anxiety related problems. And if you think you are experiencing panic attacks, talk to your doctor.

Panic attacks are typically much more severe than common stage fright symptoms and therefore may require long-term medical treatment and talk therapy.

Stage Fright Synonyms

For every word or phrase, it seems that there are a hundred different ways to describe it. Therefore, you may know this term under a variety of different names.

Here is a list of other names that you may know stage fright by:

Glossophobia

The medical term for stage fright is “glossophobia.” This is the term that you may be professionally diagnosed with if you have gone to a doctor or therapist.

Fear of public speaking

This phobia is often referred to as “fear of public speaking,” which is a term that is very accurate of this problem.

Public speaking anxiety

“Public speaking anxiety” is another very accurate term to describe the stage phobia.

Performance jitters

“Performance jitters” is one common way to describe the type of stage fright that musicians and comedians suffer from. “Speech jitters” is a similar term.

Aphonia

Since Aphonia is defined as the inability to produce voiced sound some people may also use this term to refer to stage fright.

Speech anxiety

“Speech anxiety” is a good term to describe the type of condition that a public speaker may be experiencing before or during a presentation.

Stage fear

Quite often you will see that “stage fear” is a term which is used to describe your nervous condition on the stage.

Agoraphobia

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.)

As you can see, there are many ways that people use to refer to one common disorder. And no matter what name you use to refer to it by, stage fright can be an incredibly debilitating and uncomfortable problem. 

Some other synonyms

  • Stage phobia
  • Speaking anxiety
  • Presentation anxiety

Read also: 7 good public speaking tips you should use: A helpful guide

Types of Stage Fright

You may be confused to hear that there is more than one type of stage fright. What kind of stage phobia you have is depending on what type of presentations you give in public. For example, a singer will have a different kind of fear than most public speakers.

The most common types of stage fright you will experience are known as:

  • anticipation
  • avoidance
  • anxiety
  • panic

These range from weeks before your performance to things you may encounter while you are actively giving your presentation. It is important to work on your fear of speaking before you make it to the stage of panic. After you reach the panicking stage, it can be harder to help yourself calm down.

The type of fear you experience also depends on what kind of presentation or performance you are giving. Musicians and vocalists may be afraid of not only appearing in front of a crowd but anxious about how their performance will go.

And if you are giving a speech, you may be afraid of messing up, forgetting what you were going to say, or even worried about your body language.

Read also: 33 tips to improve your presentation skills: A Helpful Guide

What Causes Stage Fright?

You may be surprised to find out that there is more than one cause of stage fright symptoms. And what causes stage fear for you may be different than what causes it for someone else. It is mostly your brain playing tricks on you so you will have to learn to stop listening to it!

So, let’s take a look at the eight most common causes of glossophobia.

#1 You are letting your nerves get the best of you

One of the biggest causes of glossophobia is letting your nerves, and negative mentality gets the best of you. If you have a fear of public speaking, then it’s time to get out of your head and conquer that anxiety!

For most people, there is usually both physical and mental components to stage fright. These components reinforce each other, making the it worse. Sometimes, you may just need to change your perspective; anticipating that things will go wrong does not help you set the stage for success.

#2 Having a previous bad experience

Having a bad experience on stage in the past can also cause fear in the future.

Re-evaluate and work through what happened that caused you to have a bad experience. Were you under-prepared for your presentation? Was something wrong with the venue? Don’t let one lousy presentation affect your potential for future success.

#3 You already have social anxiety or another anxiety disorder

Another cause is if you already have social anxiety or another anxiety disorder. People with pre-existing anxiety are much more likely to experience stage fright, as well as a multitude of other anxiety issues. If this is the case, seeking help from a therapist may be the best resort for your anxiety problems.

Read more: Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) and the stage fear

#4 Fear of failure

It has been also described as the fear of social situations where a person has a strong fear of the negative evaluation of a failed performance. A person suffering from social anxiety disorder believes that they behave unacceptably and, as a result, is abandoned by others. The mere idea of failure is damaging to one’s self-esteem.

#5 Fear of appearing nervous in front of the audience

This is one of the most important points I need to make. Even seasoned performers and successful entrepreneurs get nervous before going in front of their people. It’s a natural, normal part of being human.

Is stage fright visible to everyone?

It is important to understand that you may benefit from knowing that it is usually not very visible. This means that your audience cannot usually tell how nervous you are.

Many people are able to overcome their fear by realizing that as long as they appear confident, the audience will assume they know what they are talking about. And that confidence will help you give a powerful presentation.

Read also: How to overcome stage fright: 7 effective and proven tips

#6 Negative thoughts before your presentation

Thoughts reflect how we interpret and value what’s happening around us. Sometimes, these evaluations are accurate, sometimes, over-optimistic. However, if a person is anxious, they tend to see everything in a negative light and to interpret it as a threat. We’re talking about compulsive thoughts such as:

  • „I’m considered foolish and annoying“
  • „Everyone’s looking at me and thinks I’m weird“
  • „Others don’t like me, I only say bizarre things“.

Unfortunately, these are not the thoughts of others, but mere illusions of a person suffering from the stage fear. If they only knew that very few people actually think about them, they would be seriously offended. One thing is certain, there’s no reason for panic.

#7 Perfectionism and comparing themselves to others

And finally, another major reason why people develop stage fright is because of perfectionism and comparing themselves to others. Stop comparing yourself to other public speakers!

You are you, and you’re not a carbon copy of someone else. Besides, the person you are comparing yourself to has probably come a long way and battled stage fright in the past, as well. 

#8 Fear of being in the center of attention (Scopophobia)

This is one type of social anxiety disorder which is characterized by a morbid fear of being seen or stared at by others. A person who suffers from a phobia tries to avoid such events or perceives them with great discomfort.

Read more: 17 Biggest Public Speaking Myths Debunked

Symptoms of Stage Fright

Think you may be experiencing stage fright, but not quite sure? Here, I have decided to compile some of the symptoms so that you can know for sure. Symptoms can be different for everyone, but many are the same for the majority of sufferers. Remember, some people may suffer from less than others so it can be milder for some performers than for others.

Here are some major symptoms of you should know about.

Physiological symptoms of stage fright

  • Your heart begins to race when you know that you have to get up in front of a group and deliver a speech.
  • Sweaty palms are a significant sign of nervousness
  • You may start to tremble all over. Your voice can tremble, as well, but you may notice it most in your hands.
  • Dry mouth is a common symptom of many types of anxiety, including fear of public speaking.
  • In severe cases, you may develop symptoms such as nausea, blurred vision and you may also feel like you are going to faint.
  • Among other causes, poor breathing habits can also contribute to causing or worsening your stage fright. Try to take slow, deep, calm breaths in order to minimize your anxiety and maximize your success.

Cognitive symptoms of stage fright

  • You find it hard to concentrate, especially on the day of your presentation.
  • Anxiety and avoidance feelings are most likely to develop
  • Some people may even have their “fight or flight” response triggered, and want to run far away
  • You may have a negative evaluation of your abilities and performance skills
  • You may have increased awareness (including being too focussed on oneself, not the task)
  • Distorted perception in which, during the presentation, various signs are interpreted in the wrong way than they really are by the audience

Behavioral symptoms of stage fright

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

Symptoms of your stage fear are mutually reinforcing

All those symptoms described above are mutually reinforcing. For example, the negative thoughts (cognitive) in connection with the presentation lead to elevated physical symptoms (physiological), which, in turn, increases the likelihood of mistakes (behavioral).

Read more: How to speak with confidence in public?

Stage Fright Facts, Statistics, surveys and research

What types of people are more likely to get stage fright than others? Are men more likely to have a stage phobia than women? What about the statistics of musicians or education levels? Let’s look at some of the statistics of the general public, and how they relate to this topic here.

Between 40–80% of people may suffer from stage fright

Have you ever felt terrified when you knew that you had to speak in front of a group of people? Or maybe you avoided speaking in public because you didn’t feel like you could conquer this fear? Perhaps you find yourself trying to get out of public speaking engagements? Trust me; you are not alone; stage fright is more common than you think. A large portion of the population suffers from a fear of speaking in public.

According to some studies, it is thought that around 75% of the general population suffers from a fear of speaking in public. However, a Gallup study done in 2001 estimates that about only 40% of people actually suffer from fear of public speaking.

According to a research by Tomas Furmark, 77% of people who are already suffering from some form of social anxiety disorder are more likely to experience stage fright. Also, in 2007, Forbes Magazine published a list of nine most common fears. One of them was the fear of public speaking.

Stage fright survey results from a University of Malaysia (2011)

A total of 202 second-year students (101 men and 101 women) took part in a study at the University of Malaysia in 2011. This study found that approximately 80% of the people surveyed had some type of stage fright.

Fear of public speaking research results from a University of Tallinn (2013)

A total of 504 people participated in my MA study in 2013. The results indicated that 65,9% public speakers suffer from average (18,6%), above average (10,3%) or high level (36,5%) of stage fright.

In addition, it was found that the extent of speaking anxiety differs between three different generations (read below). It displays rather clearly that people from older generation possess a lower level of stage fright.

Results from the US study (2008)

A total of 9,282 people participated in the 2008 US study that 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).

15 million American adults have social anxiety disorders

Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million American adults and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) and the fear of public speaking

Musicians are very likely to experience stage fright

Many famous musicians (Barbra Streisand, Adele) have revealed that they struggle with performance anxiety. In fact, you may be surprised to know that Peter Mak did a stage fright study in 2010 that revealed 60% of the musicians he surveyed suffered from some type of stage fear.

A study published in 2011 also revealed that musicians are much more likely to suffer from stage fright if they are performing solo rather than part of a group.

Women are slightly more likely to get stage fright than men are

But, the number is not that much higher for women than it is for men. According to a telephone survey conducted in the United States, an average of 44% of women suffer from stage fright. However, in comparison, only about 37% of men do on average.

My own fear of public speaking research (2013) also showed that as compared to men, the percentage of individuals with an average or above average level of the fear is significantly higher in women (65%) than it is in men (53.4%). A particularly notable difference occurs when comparing people with a high level of the fear of public speaking. In this case, 42.4% of the women obtained the score in the test (only 18.8% of the men).

However, the results of the study carried out at the University of Malaysia showed a bit different results. This study (2011) revealed that the level of fear was quite similar in both men and women, i.e., there were no significant differences.

Read more: 7+ Professional Public Speaking Tips for Women

Stage fright decreases with age (fear of public speaking research results from 2013)

According to my fear of public speaking research conducted in 2013 47.3% of baby boomers suffers from an average or a above average level of the glossophobia. Those percentages are significantly higher for Generations X (64.6%) and Millenials (79.1%). Have a look at the chart below.

How to overcome the fear of public speaking
Stage fright levels among different generations. Fear of public speaking research results. University of Tallinn (2013)

Solo performers tend to fear more

Stage fright is much more likely to occur in people who are giving presentations or performances by themselves. It is less likely to happen when people are giving group presentations. This is because group presentations take the pressure off of each person.

People with less education are more likely to suffer from stage fright

There have also been many correlations that suggest that people with less education are more likely to suffer from stage fright. Gallup’s survey revealed that 54% of people who did not have higher education were more likely to suffer from fear of public speaking. And those who did go on to pursue higher education only had a 24% chance.

People who do public speaking often suffer significantly less

2013. study of the University of Tallinn revealed that the people who do public speaking more often suffer from the fear of public speaking significantly less than those who do it rarely. Take a closer look at the chart below.

Stage fright levels
Stage fright levels. Fear of public speaking research results. University of Tallinn (2013)

Read more: Public speaking FAQs: Answers To the Top 22 Most Common Questions

Stage Fright Examples

Many celebrities have been open about their struggle with stage fright. This list includes Megan Fox, Thom Yorke, and more. Here are some examples.

Barbra Streisand had a stage fear for 27 year

We are all human beings, and professional performers are no exception. Many famous performers have admitted that they used to be so terrified of going on stage that they felt like fainting. Barbra Streisand, for example, could not appear on stage for the whole of 27 years after she once forgot the lyrics at one of her concerts.

Jim Carrey did not perform for two years

When Jim Carrey was 15 years old he had a very bad experience during his stand-up performance. Since everything did not go as planned the audience and the club host chanted repeatedly “Crucify him!” and “Totally boring.”.  It was a big blow for Carrey and therefore it took him two years to get back onto a stage.

Adele once escaped from the stage

Adele is one of the most famous singers but nevertheless, on time in Amsterdam, she was so frightened that she escaped out of the fire exit. In Brussels, she projectile-vomited over somebody.

Main Ways to Deal With Stage Fright

Breathing techniques, visualization, and changing your perspective are some of the most common ways that people help their stage fright. But what are some other things you can do to get over your fear of public speaking?

Do you have a trusted public speaking mentor? Ask them to give you tips on how they would deal with stage fright. Chances are, they were once facing what you are going through right now, and they will be able to give you some useful tips about what worked for them.

#1 Change your thought patterns

This technique is based on the principle that each person functions as a whole, and in order to achieve a healing change, a person must learn to constantly avoid unintentional, unnecessary, and harmful habits (such as speedy responses to stimuli, excessive tension in muscles and joints, as well as excessive tension and effort).

A whole number of people are afraid just for the reason of thinking, „What will they think of me?“.  You can’t control what others think of you as a person. However, being well-prepared, you can control what others think of your presentation. And that’s important!

#2 Stop worrying about your nervousness

So, there’s no point worrying about whether your listeners will notice your nervousness, trembling, etc. – they normally wouldn’t. Even if they are aware that you’re slightly nervous, nobody takes it seriously. For all this, you don’t need to excuse yourself for being nervous at the beginning of your presentation.

#3 Practice makes you better

Practice giving short speeches for small groups of friends and family. This will help you prepare for larger groups, work presentations, public speeches, and more.

Trying too hard to impress your audience will increase the level of stage fright that you are feeling. Instead of striving to impress your audience, try connecting with them instead. No presentation or speaker is ever completely perfect, so let go of your goal of perfection. When you are trying too hard to make everything “perfect” as possible, you only make yourself more anxious.

Even though it is often not thought of as one of the first things you may try, many people have had success using talk therapy to work through their fear of public speaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist! Many therapists may have specific experience treating people with stage fright.

Read more here: Prepared speech: 10 effective tips on how to practice a speech

#4 Good preparation

Become familiar with the topic and with the background of the audience. Think about:

  • what you can do to draw attention to yourself before you start
  • how to make an introduction to your speech
  • how to answer questions
  • how to explain one or another complex topic, etc.
  • what is your Plan B if something goes wrong

Read more: Speech Writing Tips: 27 Key Tips from Seasoned Pros

#5 Start by using proper posture

When you are trying to be confident on stage, start by using proper posture. Not only will it help you feel more confident, but you will appear more confident to your audience members. Take a few minutes to relax before your presentation.

Then, make sure you are standing correctly, not slouching over. If space allows, slowly move across the stage while speaking; this will help you look more natural and confident overall.

#6 Go on stage and make a presentation whenever you get an opportunity

The more experience you gain, the better you will be able to handle unexpected situations. You’ll also learn how to deal with tricky questions and smarty pants.

If you have never given a public speech or presentation before, your stage fright may be more intense. This is because you’re scared of what you don’t know, and it’s a brand new experience for you. This is entirely normal for novice speakers but with time and practice, you will become a more confident speaker.

#7 Beta-blockers

In rare cases, some people may have to be treated with medication for their fear of public speaking. A good doctor will be able to determine if this is necessary for you, and what kind of medication would be appropriate.

Beta blockers are a popular choice for anxiety and glossophobia. However, your doctor will assess your particular situation before prescribing any type of medication. Talk to your doctor before trying any supplements or over-the-counter treatments.

7 good public speaking tips you should use

Does Stage Fright Go Away Over Time if Ignored?

If you ignore your fear and do not give presentations, do not give speeches, and do not get up in front of others to conquer your fear? Chances are, you will always have stage fright.

You must work on your condition and not let it get the better of you. When you face this problem head-on and set out to conquer your phobia, you have a real chance at making it go away. Every time you have a positive experience giving a public speech, this helps to defeat your stage fright.

When up on the stage, don’t focus on your anxiety or what you are afraid of. Instead, tell yourself that you will be successful with your presentation. Don’t do things that will set you up for failure before you even begin. Setting yourself up for success will help you conquer your performance anxiety over time, and improve your talents as a public speaker.

Keep trying different treatment methods until you find something that works for you. Even if your performance anxiety ends up being a permanent ailment, find ways that you can still work through this condition so that it does not hold you back too much.

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Who is Janek Tuttar?

My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of Speak and Conquer website.

I have been teaching public speaking at Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences

Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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Janek Tuttar

Hi! My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of SpeakAndConquer.com.

I have been teaching and blogging about public speaking since spring 2007. Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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