The condition of stage fright is defined and its effect on performances is discussed. Its physical and mental causes as well as its physiological manifestations are detailed. The differences between stage fright and anxiety or shyness are clarified. An overview of common techniques for handling the condition, especially nonmedical treatment, is included. Finally, the relevance of handling stage fright in engineering presentations is discussed.

Theory and Background

Stage fright is a condition nearly all of us have experienced. Before a big event—an exam, a presentation, a recital, or a sports game—a number of physiological changes start to occur. We may become tense, begin to sweat, or have feelings of nausea. On stage, on the field, or in front of the class, we may draw a blank on information we had perfectly memorized just moments before, or we might have difficulty finding the right words, even though we can articulate perfectly in normal conversation.

All of these sensations and symptoms are the result of stage fright. Although in general, we may all be able to relate to the term, there is an ambiguity about what it actually means. This paper will introduce related clinical language to help define what stage fright is, as well as provide examples of symptoms, options for controlling the symptoms, and case studies in undergraduate engineering. By exploring both engineering and nontechnical examples and official definitions, we realize that stage fright is a normal issue, not a psychological one that requires serious professional help. This result encourages us to take matters into our own hands and overcome stage fright with a few simple steps.

Defining Stage Fright

Official Psychological Definitions

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, there is no official diagnosis of “stage fright.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual for the professional classification and diagnosis of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). For someone to receive a diagnosis for a mental disorder, they must meet certain criteria established by the DSM. As anyone who has experienced stage fright knows, the condition involves both a mental and physical element. Since this psychological condition with physiological manifestations could inhibit someone from functioning normally or performing their job well, it seems plausible that the condition could have its own DSM diagnosis.

Powell explains, however, that neither the term stage fright nor performance anxiety appears as an official diagnosis; instead, it is included as a “performance-only” subset of “social phobia or social anxiety disorder” (2004). Although there is no official diagnosis for stage fright, consulting the DSM does indicate, “Individuals with performance only social anxiety disorder do not fear or avoid nonperformance social situations” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

This highlights the fact that stage fright is an instance of anxiety for the average person—someone not normally affected by anxiety disorders in other social situations. Symptoms such as fear and anxiety begin to occur that only inhibit the particular situations of performances or public speaking. Powell emphasizes that these specific instances are limited to when an individual is committed to a task (like a play, dance recital, or sporting event) and has high expectations of how that task should be performed (not forgetting lines, staying in tune, running at top speed, etc.). The benefit of this condition being limited to certain situations and not being a clinical diagnosis is the indication that people can take precautions and other measures to prepare before those situations and limit stage fright’s effects.

Human Physiological Response

In clinical terms, an individual’s physiological response may vary , including “tachycardia, sweaty palms, cardiac irregularities, tremors, hypertension, tight breathing, nausea and the urge to micturate” (Brantigan, Brantigan, & Joseph, 1982). Professional stress coach Greene describes the response in terms that are easier to understand. Instead of focusing on listing the body’s possible specific reactions, he redefines stage fright simply as panic, “our typical response to overwhelming stress.” As depicted in Figure 1, panic is a high-energy state, but the energy is negative. For most people to give their peak performances, they need to be either pumped up with positive high energy or relaxed and mellow with positive low energy. The peak energy level varies by person, but the difference between the optimal energy level and their panic level causes them to perform poorly, resulting in “impair[ed] fine motor coordination and sense of timing,” confusion, and the “[in]ability to focus on the task at hand” (2002). Reaching the optimal energy level is then intuitively the key to handling stage fright effectively.

Figure 1

"Four Energy Zones" (Greene, 2002, p. 44).

Dealing with Stage Fright

Mental Approaches

There are a number of non-medical approaches that individuals can use to control their performance anxiety, or at least the physical indicators of the anxiety. Along with Greene’s description of poor performance due to panic, he suggests one method for achieving peak performance by consciously changing one’s energy from panic to the optimal performance level. Greene’s approach primarily follows the martial art of aikido, which uses deep breathing, directed focus, and the conscious release of muscular tension. By “modulating” their energy states with aikido, people can move away from the negative panic state to a positive state at their optimal energy level (2002).

A study performed on undergraduate nursing students, scientifically confirming the anecdotes in Greene’s book. Students were taught to use “diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenics training,” resulting in “statistically significant changes in respiratory rates, peripheral skin temperatures, and pulse rates” for all of the above techniques (Prato, 2009). Thus, these nonmedical approaches succeeded in reducing stage fright by using relaxation to stimulate the body into releasing endorphins and calming itself down.

Medical Approaches

Throughout human history, people have used substances external to the body, such as alcohol or tranquilizers, to artificially relax . Unfortunately, this approach can also lead to a reduction in “brilliance and sensitivity of [a] performance itself” (Brantigan et al., 1982). Musicians, for instance, may shed their inhibitions with alcohol, with the unfortunate side effect of forgotten lyrics or diminished timing.

Instead, the approach of beta blocking can be used to suppress more targeted effects of the sympathetic nervous system without the negative effects of tranquilizers. Brantigan et al. found that the beta blocker propranolol administered to musicians “effectively eliminates the physical impediments to performance caused by stage fright.” For instance, the class of drugs called beta blockers dramatically reduce the heart rate, prevent dry-mouth by increasing saliva production, and “can increase the quality of musical performance as judged by experienced musical critics” (Brantigan et al., 1982). By targeting the physical response to stressors, beta blockers help the body effectively ignore the stage fright, resulting in a better performance.

Examples in Engineering

Stage fright can manifest itself in all occupations, including engineering and engineering education. A study of perceived stress in engineering undergraduates at Cornell University identified the top sources of student stress, which included a “ heavy workload ,” “competition … for grades, ” and an “inflexible curriculum” (Schneider, 2007). These sources of stress fit neatly into the causes of stage fright outlined by Powell: students are committed to their education and have high expectations for their grades, possibly resulting in difficulty performing at their peak. An engineering student would likely be anxious before/during an exam or presentation, when they feel they must keep their grades up, especially as compared to other students. Likewise, when engineers enter the workforce, most are highly committed to success in their field, face competition with their peers for promotions and salary raises, and may have trouble with the inflexibility of a corporate structure. As in school, engineers in the workplace may have trouble dealing with these pressures, resulting in poor performance in meetings with managers or clients, lack of focus and lower quality of work in written reports, or trouble making decisions required to meet key deliverables.

Engineering events for which stage fright could be a factor may not be as obvious as a concert or an athletic event. Typically, engineers are thought of as working iteratively on projects, such that the merit of an engineer is measured in the quality of an end product, not in a singular, time-limited performance. Nevertheless, engineering is actually quite similar to music or sports. A student, for example, practices skills with homework and assembles a project the way a musician practices chops and assembles songs and a set list, or the way an athlete drills certain motions and scrimmages to prepare for a game. When the time comes for an exam, the engineering student may be overwhelmed by anxiety at having seemingly one chance to successfully demonstrate those skills. Likewise, an engineer demonstrating a product may have trouble articulating the workings of the product or panic if the demonstration goes awry.

Case Study

Greene describes several examples of people learning to perform under pressure by getting to know their strengths and weaknesses. One such example is Audrey, “a thirty-seven-year-old marketing researcher for a Fortune 500 company” (Greene, 2002, p. 42). Audrey is described as having a high-pressure job, for which presentations about market strategy and data-collection results are integral and indicative to her superiors of her performance. Although she is not an engineer, Audrey faces many of the same problems as engineers in the workplace—she deals mainly with data and coordinating with colleagues on a day-to-day basis, but when it comes time for her to present her work to company executives, she panics. Audrey experiences many of the symptoms that characterize stage fright, including increased heart rate, tight breathing, and nausea. With Greene’s help, Audrey became aware that her optimal energy level was “positive but low” (Greene, 2002, p. 45), the polar opposite of panic on the chart. Audrey was then able to overcome her panic by progressively learning Greene’s aikido breathing and releasing her tension under control. She also adjusted her mindset from feeling like every meeting was a make-or-break moment of her career to feeling like these meetings were opportunities to contribute (Greene, 2002, p. 42-61). While not everyone’s situation is quite like Audrey’s, she is a good example of how small physical and mental changes can center people and help them achieve their optimal energy level.

Application to Senior Project

In-Class Presentations, Meetings with Superiors, Poster Sessions

The major goals of the Senior Design course in the Tufts University electrical engineering curriculum are to build skills in two distinct areas: engineering product design through project work, and effective communication through spoken and written word.

In particular, stage fright affects opportunities for clear communication. Part of the course design is to place a different group in the spotlight every week to present project progress and other details. Even in this friendly environment in which the professor and all other students are familiar, students may still feel the effects of performance anxiety: increased skin temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, etc. Students who have been working on researching, implementing, and writing about their projects may suddenly have trouble articulating and expressing their knowledge, making it appear that they are less qualified or less knowledgeable. Additionally, some students become nervous in interactions with professors, even if they otherwise have a good relationship. In weekly instructor or advisor meetings, students may forget details of their progress or have trouble asking questions for which they had not prepared. Finally, students certainly feel some anxiety before or during the poster sessions, when presenting their work in front of experienced faculty.

The rigor of an engineering curriculum is such that many of the techniques proven to work for nursing students, professional musicians, or a marketing researcher would likely work for engineering students as well. For students, the best suggestion for ameliorating stage fright would be to practice and prepare as much as possible before a performance of any kind. In the minutes leading up to an exam or presentation, students practicing deep breathing or muscle relaxation techniques would likely see the quality of their work improve. They should realize, like Audrey, that exams are usually not make-or-break moments but opportunities to contribute to their grades. Finally, if stage fright is a persistent issue, a student may want to consult a doctor about beta-blockers, which could help reduce pulse rates or dry mouths during presentations, although a dependence on medication as treatment is far less desirable for reasons of possible side effects. Nevertheless, students should be assured that they could overcome their stage fright with a few simple changes to their outlook and energy level.

Cited References

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., ). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. Retrieved from American Psychiatric Association DSM-5
  • Brantigan, C. O., Brantigan, T. A., & Joseph, N. (1982). Effect of beta blockade and beta stimulation on stage fright. The American Journal of Medicine, 72(1), 88-94. DOI: 10.1016/0002-9343(82)90592-7
  • Greene, D. (2002). Fight your fear and win: Seven skills for performing your best under pressure–at work, in sports, on stage. New York: Broadway Books. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44885322
  • Powell, D. H. (2004). Treating individuals with debilitating performance anxiety: An introduction. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(8), 801-808. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20038
  • Prato, C. A. (2009). Biofeedback assisted relaxation training program to decrease test anxiety in nursing students. UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 81. Retrieved from http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/thesesdissertations/81/
  • Schneider, L. (2007). Perceived stress among engineering students. Paper presented at the St. Lawrence Section Conference, ASEE, Toronto, Canada.

Additional Sources / Recommended Reading

See Also