The Important Difference Between Nerves, Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright

Defining Nerves, Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright For Actors, Singers, Dancers and Musicians


There is a distinct difference between nerves, performance anxiety and stage fright. In this article I will explain it all for you. It is integral to know where you are if you want to know how to move forward. But let me tell you from the offset, it is possible to get back to full confidence and control no matter what stage you are at. I’ve done it, I’ve helped hundreds of clients do it, and you can do it too.

Those of you that know me will be aware how passionate I am about busting the myths such as “nerves are good for you”, “nerves means you care”, and “nerves keeps you in the game”. These are age old myths that have no basis in fact, truth or evidence. Just because somebody said it, it doesn’t make it true.

So, nerves, performance anxiety and stage fright are very different, but they’re obviously in the same family. But it is integral to know the difference if you are really wanting to overcome them.

Redefining Nerves And Their Role In A Performer’s Life

First of all, let me clear one thing up - nerves are NOT defined by butterflies in your tummy, a little increase in your heart rate, pacing around or the slight change in your breathing. These are in fact totally normal, natural and acceptable physical responses to doing something outside your usual comfort zone.

The impulse to pace up and down or to fidget before a performance is simply a way to bring energy and movement into the body. It is totally normal and natural. It is when these functions start getting in your way that they become a problem.

The slight change in your breathing is just a way to bring more oxygen into your body to help with clearer, sharper thinking and more accurate physical movement.

The slight increase in your heart rate simply pumps that oxygen and blood around the body. And the butterflies in the tummy are simply anticipatory feelings of excitement caused by a little adrenaline.

But these functions are not nerves.

In my model, nerves shut things down. Nerves push you over the edge so the oxygen can’t get to the brain - this is why we forget lyrics on stage when we sing them perfectly at home or when rehearsing. I even treated a client who had had a brain haemorrhage on stage. She believed her “nerves were the cause”. She did not have nerves. It had turned into severe performance anxiety.

Nerves push you over the edge so that you are no longer healthily pacing up and down or moving your body but instead scratching at the skin on your fingers, digging your nails into your thigh or clenching your jaw.

Barbra Streisand famously suffered with performance anxiety. It doesn’t matter what level you are in your career, it can affect anyone

Barbra Streisand famously suffered with performance anxiety. It doesn’t matter what level you are in your career, it can affect anyone

Are you starting to understand the difference between normal, natural physical responses and nerves? This is REALLY important because all to often someone says “I’m nervous” when in fact they are not. Put simply nerves ruins things. I call nerves Level 1 of the Downward Descent.

What Performance Anxiety Is and How It Is Different To Nerves

If nerves are level 1 then performance anxiety is Level 2 of the Downward Descent. It is the next stage and it is worse than nerves.

Performance anxiety begins to be characterised by disturbed sleep and sleeplessness. This will usually be the night before an important engagement up to weeks in advance.

Performance anxiety is where you may get more dramatic physical responses like nausea, sweating hands, thumping heart against the chest and very fast shallow breathing.

Other symptoms of performance anxiety may be developing obsessive habits to make sure everything is in place before an engagement - for example, you may check your music is in order more times than is necessary. Repetitive warming up and ‘checking’ that you have a voice is also a sign you may be moving over into performance anxiety. The impulse to go over and over your lines when you know you have them down.


Anxiety itself is defined by a fear of a lack of control. So, performance anxiety symptoms usually take the form of behaviours designed to keep as much in control as possible, but to a level that seems unnecessary and stressful. And in fact, these behaviours usually lead to feeling more out of control anyway. This is what we call a viscous cycle.

What Stage Fright Is and How It Is Different To Nerves

Stage fright is Level 3 of the Downward Descent and it is the rock bottom stage. There are various levels to stage fright in and of itself, but for the purpose of this article I’ll keep it simple.

Stage fright is devastating and it ruins careers and lives. Excellent and talented performers with no reason to be anything less than super confident simply can no longer step on a stage.

At its worst stage fright is characterised by a performer finding it impossible to even think about performing without having a panic attack. This was my experience 10 years ago and a Hypnotherapist cured me in one single session of hypnotherapy.

The initial symptoms of stage fright are mild panic attacks, paranoia and deeper obsessive behaviours. The victim of stage fright often will believe that something terrible will happen once they walk on stage. They will spend pretty much all day, for days, weeks or even months on end panicking about an engagement.

Stage fright ultimately ends in an inability to perform which for me is one of the saddest things.


Overcoming Nerves, Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright

Let me tell you this - it does not matter what stage you are at with nerves, performance anxiety or stage fright, it is always possible to reverse the condition and make a full recovery.

And guess what? In all 3 cases it is usually easy, quick, simple and painless. Even with stage fright. I have helped hundreds of clients overcome nerves, performance anxiety and stage fright even at the seemingly worst levels.

I’ve even developed an online program called “Nerve Buster For Singers; 5 Steps To Unshakeable Confidence” which takes you on your first steps to becoming free from nerves.

However, if you want some personal, bespoke guidance then book a free phone strategy session with me now. I’ll help you develop a game plan to move towards confidence, self-belief and a life and career that you enjoy. Just pop your name and email in the box and I’ll email you a link to my calendar and we can jump on the phone.

Speak soon.
Gary x