How it started
When I started learning to play the piano as a little girl, I remember being curious about what having stage fright might feel like. In my mind, it somehow seemed like something exciting that I wanted to experience. Later, this wish would come back to haunt me.
At least once a year since the age of six, I would play and later sing at small concerts that the music school I went to organized for their students. In the first few years, I was never really nervous when it was my turn to play and I would even try to make myself anxious on purpose.
Somehow though, as I got older, my anxiety began to increase everytime I had to perform something in public. Each time, it would get worse.
The causes of developing stage fright?
I can only guess that my increasing stage fright was a consequence of becoming more self-aware, as well as more self-conscious and insecure, especially during puberty.
The expectations that I thought others had of me started to weigh me down. I felt a growing pressure to live up to my teachers' expectations, who believed in me and my abilities more than I did. On top of this, a generalized fear of being negatively judged or compared to others crystallized within me. And of course, my very self-critical and perfectionist tendencies paired with, at times, pretty low self-esteem, didn't exactly help.
I'm also a naturally introverted, rather shy person. So even though I always secretly dreamed of being some type of performer and love being creative and expressing myself through music, performing in front of people doesn't really come naturally to me, in many ways. To me, making music, whether it's playing the piano or singing, feels pretty intimate. So I often find it hard to be comfortable and open myself up enough to just let loose in front of others. Consequently, I was often told I needed to relax more in order to have better stage presence. And so, the pressure of being expected to put on a show and seemingly struggling more than others to succeed at this also contributed to my stage fright manifesting.
A negative spiral
I find that the danger of stage fright is that it can easily trap you into a vicious cycle. First, stage fright affects your capacity to perform to the best of your abilities. This results in feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation. Your experience on stage has turned sour. So, the next time you perform anywhere there is still a bad taste left in your mouth from your last, negative experience. The trauma of not feeling good enough still lingers in the back of your mind. Thus, you become more anxious and unable to perform with each time. Slowly, your stage fright becomes an increasingly deeply rooted part of you.
What it feels like
Aside from a noticeably increased heart rate, feeling hot, sweating and wet palms, one of my worst symptoms of stage fright is uncontrollable shaking. This particularly affected me when I had to play classical piano at concerts. My hands and legs would shake so much, I could barely press the keys or the pedals of the piano at my feet. I would always feel quite vulnerable and exposed, having to present myself in front of people in this state.
At first, my stage fright would only come out when playing piano, since I was always quite confident in my singing. But with time and a few wrong notes sung at student concerts here and there, I started getting anxious about singing as well. And, like I described earlier, it would get progressively worse. I was officially caught in a vicious cycle. In the beginning, nerves wouldn't have much of an effect on my vocal abilities. But as the anxiety increased, I would find it harder and harder to keep control over my voice like I normally could. My breath would get shallow and I would be left with no proper breath support to help me sing.
How I deal with it
This is, admittedly, still a work in progress.
One of the ways that I try to get rid of my stage fright is by repeating positive mantras to myself. Meaning that I tell myself the obvious:
It doesn't matter if you make a mistake, it doesn't matter if it's not perfect, the world won't end.
People don't actually care as much about how you do, as you think. People aren't judging you as harshly, as you think. People will have forgotten all about you and your mistakes in a matter of minutes, or seconds.
You don't need to prove that you are good enough to anybody. You should accept yourself as you are. You should know your own worth.
Don't overthink things.
But, to tell you the truth, this method is not the most effective. It's one thing to tell yourself all these things, and another one for you to actually believe it.
Another way I am currently trying to get my anxiety under control is by meditating or doing breath exercises. My goal in doing this is to progressively build a consistently more stable, calm mindset. I want to be more in control of my feelings, not ruled by them. I no longer want to identify with my negative thoughts and feelings. I want to be able to acknowledge them and then let them go. To deal with them in a more mindful, productive manner. And I want to react and respond to things happening around me in a more balanced, healthy way. Plus, meditation has been shown to improve your ability to concentrate! I believe that all of this could help me on my journey of overcoming stage fright. I'm currently on Day 5 of a 30 Day Meditation Challenge and it has been feeling pretty good. For now, I will keep up with it and see how it goes. :)
I am also trying to create new, positive experiences of performing. If I were to succeed at that, I could finally escape the vicious cycle I described.
But how do I do this? Preparation.
I have learned that the best and most effective way to fight stage fright is making sure you feel as prepared as possible before a perfomance. The better prepared you feel, the calmer you can be. The calmer you are, the better you can perform. The better you perform, the more you enjoy yourself. And the more you enjoy yourself while performing, the more trauma of past negative experiences can be replaced by memories of positive ones.