Performance anxiety is a common problem among both amateur and professional musicians. It afflicts individuals who are generally prone to anxiety, particularly in situations of high public exposure and competitive scrutiny, and so is best understood as a form of social phobia (a fear of humiliation). Some degree of tension adds electricity to a performance, but pessimistic self-talk and feelings of panic can seriously affect it.
The most effective psychological treatments seem to be those that combine relaxation training with anxiety inoculation (developing realistic expectations of what will be felt during performance) and cognitive restructuring (modifying habitual thoughts and attitudes that are self-handicapping, regardless of their origins). Preliminary research with hypnotherapy and the Alexander Technique suggests that these might also be effective in reducing performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety, sometimes called stage fright, is an exaggerated, often in capacitating, fear of performing in public. As in any other kind of phobia, the symptoms are those produced by activation of the body's emergency system, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, including all the well known effects of increases of adrenaline in the bloodstream (Fredrikson & Gunnarsson, 1992). The changes observed would have an adaptive function inrelation to a physical threat, preparing us for an athletic response (fighting or fleeing).
Unfortunately, running from or attacking an audience is seldom appropriate and the aftereffects of the alarm system can interfere with musical performance. For example, the increased heart pumping intended to supply additional oxygen to the muscles is felt as distressing palpitations. The increased activity of the lungs and widening of airways produces a feeling of breathlessness. The sharpening of vision has an aftermath in visual disturbances such as blurring.
The diversion of resources away from digestion thus produces “butterflies” in the stomach.