Quite literally dying on stage
April 9, 2017 11:06 PM   Subscribe

I've been doing stand up as a hobby for the past year. First 8-9 months have been absolutely fine. But lately I've developed debilitating, alarmingly physical stage fright. It's like I'm physically allergic to the stage. How do I get over this?

I've always been an almost overconfident performer. Never phased by public speaking, totally confident on stage, always comfortable. It's been kind of a cornerstone of my identity, and a major reason why I decided to pursue stand up in the first place.

But in the past few months this confidence has been mysteriously chipped away. I don't cognitively 'feel' nervous, but as I'm waiting to go on stage I feel dizzy, sweaty, pounding heart, blurred vision. This gets substantially, substantially worse on stage. My vision in particular gets super blurry, I feel nauseous, faint, dizzy, I tremble uncontrollably. I actually cut a set short last night because I just needed to get off stage, which is why I'm asking this question today.

I've spoken to a few other comics, and their advice mostly centres on self-consciousness and a fear of the audience. That's not how I'm feeling, and it's not how my stage fright is manifesting. At least not consciously, I'm not particularly concerned about the audience - it's just five minutes - and I'm not concerned about forgetting my material or flubbing my lines. It's like I get an instant migraine or drug reaction in the lead up to going on stage, and the cure is getting off.

This hobby is important to me, and I don't want to lose it to stage fright. I also want to emphasise that this is very out of character for me. So, my question is, what do I do about it? Hypnotherapy? Is there a particular modality of therapy I should look into (NB: I've had poor experiences of CBD in the past and would be reluctant to pursue that again)? Beta blockers? Has anyone else experienced highly physical stage fright and managed to move past it?

Thanks for any suggestions!
posted by nerdfish to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a professional musician. I've had a few bouts of this in my career. For me, it seems to have come when I have leveled up, and the stakes have gotten higher (bigger venues and bigger pay checks). Confidence seems to me to be a muscle. You must work it to have it.

The bouts I've had with stage fright have been overcome by practicing my "performance state of mind" not just my technique and chops. This means practicing getting into a headspace where any negative thought is replaced by a positive one - then all thoughts are dropped for focus is turned to just playing and "giving it"

Fear is always in your head. And know you have the ability to turn it off. But it's a battle. And know that it takes a little time, practice and patience. You have to face it with courage and know you are good. You have to train yourself to know that you yourself produce the negative thoughts and you yourself have the power to shut them off and replace them with positive. You have to really want it. Be willing to die quite a few figurative deaths for it. You have to be willing to do this for the love of what you do and to make it better.

If you go through it you will grow in amazing ways. It's learning the power of your mind.
posted by Lucky Bobo at 12:04 AM on April 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

You are having a literal panic attack.

So, thing is the #1 most effective thing to treat phobias /physical panic (which is what your developing by running away!) Is exposure.

Take deep breaths, flub some lines, talk about panic attacks on stage whatever you need to do but DO IT and stay. The anxiety will subside, you will get through and you will not die.

Deep Breathing is probably the easiest way to feedback your body into slowing back down.

You can take medication, but I'd recommend avoiding it for an activity you do so regularly.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:34 AM on April 10, 2017

In addition, if you drink any alcohol at all before performing, all medication to stop the panic attack is pretty much out.

Also, be careful of alcohol use, as it can decrease anxiety but make you dependent as well.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:40 AM on April 10, 2017

Ouch, that sounds very challenging.

Like Alexia Sky, I wonder whether you could integrate it into your act? When it happens do a metaphorical handbrake turn and tackle it head on. Livetweet it, so to speak. This is making me think of Stewart Lee and the way he plays with metacomedy during his set. It's amazing.

Best of luck to you.
posted by ZipRibbons at 3:20 AM on April 10, 2017

Best answer: Different medium, but take a look at this article by Patrick Pentland of the band Sloan. His stage fright came on suddenly, but over time he developed a variety of "touchstones" that help him manage it. (And his band tours all the time, so what he's doing certainly seems to be helping him and is not too obvious to the audience.)
posted by dayintoday at 3:39 AM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

This isn't a spot technique, but a daily meditation practice can really help with this long term. I agree that it sounds like you're having a panic attack, though you might go to the doctor anyway. I would caution against taking something for it as a first response, especially because it's not your livelihood. Benzodiazepines are super habit forming, for example, and you can develop actual allergies to beta blockers (which I've done).

Anyway, the person who mentioned leveling up upthread might be on to something. It's not uncommon to freak out when things get too good, and it's definitely not uncommon to be cognitively unaware of that that's what's happening at first. A meditation practice can really help with this. (You can use it to literally practice feeling good, so you strengthen it, like a muscle.)
posted by schadenfrau at 5:59 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a professional musician and I had the same problem. I was a rock solid performer for years when suddenly performance anxiety hit seemingly out of nowhere. It was bad. My hands would shake, my vision would narrow, I'd feel short of breath and my mind would go blank. I had bunch of gigs lined up, and I sort of white knuckled my way through a couple of them, but the situation really was unmanageable, so I went to my doctor and got a prescription for a beta blocker.

The beta blocker controlled the worst of the physical issues, and got me to a place where I could perform at an acceptable level, but the nerves still affected my performance. My mind would still go blank, and I'd have mental lapses that would cause me to make mistakes.

What ended up helping me the most were a couple of books by a sports psychologist named Don Greene. My favorite is Performance Success, which would probably work for you, but is very music focused. There's also Fight Your Fear and Win, which sounds cheesy, but applies the same principles from his other book to many different types of creative pursuits. The books help you analyze what happens mentally during practice, rehearsals and performance and then teaches you techniques to get into an optimal state of mind.

What it boiled down to for me was like Lucky Bobo said above... A performance state of mind requires deliberate practice. Every day before I practice my instrument, I do some work on my performance mindset. In my case, however, I never would have gotten to a place where I could call on that state of mind in a real performance without the beta blocker to get me over the hump. Also, after giving some thought to why the wheels might have fallen off the bus all of the sudden, I realized that my sudden attack of nerves coincided with some jobs that I had been recommended for by someone who is great mentor to me, and it turns out I was terrified about letting him down. I talked to him about it a bit, which also helped calm my nerves.

It's been a long process, and I don't know if I'll ever feel as rock solid as I did in the early days, but the nerves don't really affect my performance anymore. It can be done!
posted by Kicky at 7:45 AM on April 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

This may just be a "me" thing but something that has traditionally helped me with psychological difficulties has been to really thoroughly understand the underlying physical phenomena. Panic attacks have biological substrates! Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems kicking in and whatnot. It's possible that if you can understand what your body is doing, you may be able to watch it happen and watch the calming response kick in also, abstracting things a bit. Works for me, anyway.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:51 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also a professional musician, though my anxiety usually flares up in auditions rather than performances.

Seconding the Don Greene books.

Also seconding beta-blockers. Even if you never use them in performance, it's nice to have them, to know that the anxiety is optional. If you get some prescribed, be sure and take the first one in a non-performance situation just so you know what it feels like.

A personal anecdote: Last Thursday, I screwed up *badly* in an orchestral rehearsal with the full choir standing there; the concert was Sunday. Between Thursday's screwup and Sunday's gig, I was in a more or less constant anxiety attack mode. I took beta-blockers so I could practice on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday I didn't need them for the performance (though I had them in my handbag, just in case). The concert went fine.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:26 PM on April 10, 2017

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