Performance anxiety is, like fear, joy or grief, an emotion which includes physical and psychological components. Motor responses, autonomic reactions, memories, ideas and thoughts continuously interact. Performance anxiety is no longer thought of as an isolated symptom but rather as a syndrome comprising attitudes, traits and unconscious conflicts that become activated in particular circumstances.
Nearly every person must deal with performance anxiety in one form or another at one time or another. By the nature of their profession, however, performing artists, or those for whom public performance is an important part of their profession, have to deal with performance anxiety more frequently and often more intensely than do others. Even those with years of experience may still have a performance anxiety problem.
Performance anxiety is mainly characterized by an irrational situational anxiety accompanied by unwanted physical symptoms which can lead to dysfunction and/or uncontrolled behaviour. It occurs especially in those situations in which a task has to be done that could subject the performer to possible criticism from others. Examples of such situations include public speaking, giving a concert, writing exams, sexual performance, etc. Performance anxiety can cause a broad range of possible physical symptoms of distress, such as trembling hands, trembling lips, diarrhoea, sweating hands and palpitations of the heart. These symptoms can not only affect the quality of a performance but may also negatively influence the sufferer’s future and career.
Some experts believe that the causes of performance anxiety include improper practice and preparation habits, insufficient performance experience, having an inappropriate repertoire and so on. Other theories view performance anxiety as mainly caused by negative thoughts and poor self-esteem. Still others are of the opinion that the stress and fear of performance anxiety is closely related to so-called career stress, which includes feelings of inadequacy, anticipation of punishment or criticism and loss of status. Although there is no agreement as to the cause of performance anxiety, and the explanation cannot be simple, it is clear that the problem is widespread and that even world-famous artists such as Yehudi Menuhin or Pablo Casals are known to have suffered from performance anxiety and fear all their lives.
Personal traits are undoubtedly related to performance anxiety. A challenge for one person can be a catastrophe for another. The experience of performance anxiety depends to a great extent on the personal perception of a fearful situation. Some introverted individuals may, for example, be more prone to stressful events and thus more likely to suffer performance anxiety than others. For some people, success can also cause fear and performance anxiety. This in turn reduces and undermines the communicative and creative aspects of the performer.
To achieve an optimum performance a bit of fear and stress and a certain amount of nervousness may be unavoidable. The margin between the degree of (still) acceptable performance anxiety and the necessity of therapeutic intervention, however, can be set only by the performer.
Performance anxiety is a complex phenomenon; its various components lead to variable and changing reactions depending on the situation. Individual aspects, work situations, social factors, personal development and so on play a considerable role, making it difficult to give general rules.
Methods for diminishing performance anxiety include developing personal coping strategies or learning relaxation techniques such as biofeedback. Such approaches are directed towards transforming task-irrelevant negative thoughts and worrisome anticipations into task-relevant demands and the positive task-orientated self. Medical interventions, such as beta-blockers and tranquillizers are also commonly used (Nubé 1995). The taking of drugs however, remains controversial and should be done only under medical supervision due to possible side effects and contra-indications.