Performance anxiety impacts students differently

Story & Featured Photo by Cade Dannhaus/COMM 2311

“When the spotlight is literally on you, you get hot and sweaty and start to shake.”   

That’s how Isabela Salas, a public relations major at South Plains College, describes what happens to her with “stage fright” or performance anxiety. She says she grew up singing and dancing, and that’s when performance anxiety hit her.

The American Psychological Association lists “performance anxiety” in its “Dictionary of Psychology.”  It defines it as, “apprehension and fear of the consequences of being unable to perform a task or of performing it at a level that will raise expectations of even better task achievement.”  Examples it lists are test anxiety, fear of public speaking, participating in classes or meetings, playing a musical instrument in public, and eating in public.

Photo by Morgan Minnick

How common is it?

According to WebMD, millions of people suffer from it. 

Can it even affect athletes?  The NFL Players’ Association thinks so.  In an article on its webpage called “10 Ways to Combat Performance Anxiety in Competition”,  Dr. Nyaka NiiLampti, the NFLPA director of wellness, explains anxiety is a necessary part of any competition.  For most people, she says, the anxiety level drops or disappears before a competition or event.  

If it doesn’t, she warns, there could be bad results.  “For others, anxiety can remain throughout the entire event,” NiiLampti writes, “resulting in increased heart rate, loss of breath, shaking hands, tension, difficulty concentrating, not being able to ‘shake off’ mistakes, and, ultimately, a decrease in performance.”

South Plains College Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Janine Fox teaches classes full of students who stand up and give speeches.   That can be scary.  She says she prefers to call the fear“ communication apprehension”, and she says it’s quite normal and common.

 “In most cases,” Fox says, “it’s not normal to be comfortable when performing.  It is probably weirder to be a naturally good performer.”

So how do you overcome this anxiety, whatever you choose to call it?

Salas says she used to focus on her breathing and only look at her parents in the audience. She also says she used to rehearse beforehand many times.

Fox says she tries to teach her students the proper way to breathe and regulate their heart rates in order to stay calm, collected, and confident.  She says she also teaches her students to get their brains to focus on other things instead of the actual performance to keep from overreacting.

 “Breathing” and “Prepare Properly” are two out of the ten ways the NFLPA’s site advises its athletes combat performance anxiety in competition.  Other ways include:  differentiate between “playing well” and winning, set realistic goals to improve specific skills, and positive self- talk. 

Brent Wheeler, the commercial music coordinator at SPC, teaches students who hope to become musical professionals who perform.  A professional musician himself, he says he struggled with stage fright in his younger years.

“Practicing my craft,” he says, “along with trusting my equipment and the people I play with has helped me convert apprehension into confidence and pure excitement.”

Wheeler says it takes practice to learn to properly calm yourself.  He says he has played in front of thousands of fans, and he prefers larger performances rather than smaller, more intimate ones.  He says it’s “less tense” in those big stage environments.

Commercial Music Professor John Reid, who’s been teaching bass guitar at SPC for more than 30 years, also still performs professionally.  He says he gets performance anxiety sometimes, not very bad, but it does happen.

“I’ve always thought a little bit is probably healthy,” he says, “ in that it means you care about how a performance goes.  Too much, though, can be catastrophic.”

To avoid catastrophes, he says he has told his students to take big breaths and to exhale slowly before going out on stage to calm their nerves.  He also thinks experience helps make it less of a thing.

“There’s no doubt that it’s a real issue,” Reid says.  

In the real world, Reid says, outside of SPC, some performers self -medicate with alcohol and other substances to relieve the problem.  But that, he says, just creates additional problems over time.

In addition to breathing, practicing enough may be the most common advice for conquering performance anxiety.

Photo by Ariel Rodriguez

Salas says it worked for her.

Fox, too, says repetition is by far the most effective strategy.

Reid says, “I think the more prepared you are, the less of an issue it probably is.”

Wheeler agrees with the “trust your training” approach.  He also points out that practice is more than just going through the motions.

Photo by Dakota Whitlock

“Practice doesn’t make perfect,” he says, “but perfect practice makes permanent.”  The point being, when you practice your craft well the results will show.

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