Student advocate: Microphone in front of a crowd

Stage fright is super common for lots of people, but especially among students who may find themselves frequently being asked to give presentations or perform in front of a crowd.

The problem is, students don’t know how to get over the fear. In a 2011 study of 160 music students, half of the respondents admitted that they knew little or nothing about coping strategies for stage fright (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Yet two in three expressed willingness to accept support, and all of them wanted to learn more. 

How you can help students stand up at the podium with confidence 

Cognitive behavioral (“CB”) techniques are an effective way to reduce performance anxiety, research shows. This therapeutic approach has two steps, experts say. “It entails recognizing and altering the faulty thoughts contributing to the fear,” says Dr. Rachel Koslowski, a clinical psychologist with expertise in anxiety who practices privately in New York City. Then, “integrate behavioral techniques to assuage anxiety,” she says. These three strategies can help:

1. Have them create a “fear-hierarchy” 

A “fear hierarchy” is a list of situations that make you anxious, arranged from least to most anxiety-provoking. The idea is to tackle these situations one at a time. For example, “Reading a paragraph from this article aloud to [their] roommate could be the scenario that makes [them] the least anxious…followed by speaking to a stranger at a party, then asking a question in a meeting…then offering to speak at an event,” says Dr. Koslowski. Students can practice each goal until they’re truly comfortable before moving on.

2. Get them to challenge their automatic thoughts

Dr. Koslowski suggests you “identify the unhelpful thoughts that come to mind when you think about performing in public.” The process looks like this:

  • Identify the thought that accompanies your anxiety; for example, “My presentation is going to go horribly, and I’ll never be good enough.”
  • Challenge that thought with questions like these:
    • What is the evidence that your presentation will go badly?
    • Why should the quality of your presentation determine your worth as a person?
  • Once they’ve recognized the flaws in their thinking, replace the original thought with a more helpful and less distorted one, such as, “I’ve prepared extensively for this presentation and have no reason to think it will go badly.”

Girl standing in front of a lecture hall speaking

3. Teach them to reframe anxiety as something positive

Those sensations of pre-performance anxiety they feel in their body? All they have to do is reframe them as excitement, instead of something sinister. Sped-up heart, fluttery stomach—these occur if you have performance anxiety, sure, but also if they’re about to do something exciting like meet Rihanna or accept a job offer.

It’s important to consider also that the physiological changes brought on by stress are, in many ways, specifically designed by evolution to improve performance (Emotion, 2014). Studies have shown that viewing anxiety symptoms as excitement and reframing them as helpful can improve performance in public speaking, musical performance, and sports. It’s easy to do: In one study, participants accomplished it simply by saying “I am excited” out loud before performing (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014).

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Article sources

Rachel Koslowski, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, New York City.

Beltzer, M. L., Nock, M. K., Peters, B. J., & Jamieson, J. P. (2014). Rethinking butterflies: The affective, physiological, and performance effects of reappraising arousal during social evaluation. Emotion, 14(4), 761.

Berger, G. (2016, August 30). Soft skills are increasingly crucial to getting your dream job. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/soft-skills-increasingly-crucial-getting-your-dream-guy-berger-ph-d-

Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144–1158.

Chapman University. (2018, October 16). America’s top fears 2018—The Chapman University Survey of American Fears. Retrieved from https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2018/10/16/americas-top-fears-2018/

Hermans, E. J., van Marle, H. J., Ossewaarde, L., Henckens, M. J., et al. (2011). Stress-related noradrenergic activity prompts large-scale neural network reconfiguration. Science, 334(6059), 1151–1153.

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169.

Kenny, D. T. (2005). A systematic review of treatments for music performance anxiety. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 18(3), 183–208.

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., et al. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763–771.

King, C. R. (2012, December 18). Hayden Panettiere overcomes stage fright as singer. SFGate. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/tv/article/Hayden-Panettiere-overcomes-stage-fright-as-singer-4129194.php

Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2015). Reappraising threat: How to optimize performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37(3), 339–343.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015, November 18). Job outlook 2016: The attributes employers want to see on new college graduates’ resumes. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/s11182015/employers-look-for-in-new-hires.aspx

Studer, R., Gomez, P., Hildebrandt, H., Arial, M., et al. (2011). Stage fright: Its experience as a problem and coping with it. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 84(7), 761–771.

Touré. (2011, April 28). Adele opens up about her inspirations, looks and stage fright. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/adele-opens-up-about-her-inspirations-looks-and-stage-fright-20120210?page=3