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