To illustrate extreme stage fright conditions, here is a story from my sister Pam's experience. Many thanks to my sister for getting this unpleasant memory down from the shelf for us:
"If someone would ask me to sing that day I would have no problem so long as I kept my mind busy till then. But, if as usual they scheduled it in advance, I would gradually get to the point the day or two before that I became incapacitated and would sadly have to cancel. I say, "sadly", because it got to be very depressing.
When I was a young girl scheduled to sing in church, I'd get very sick like with the flu (with fever, no less) and remember even sneaking into a robe room to lie down on the floor, I was so weak. I didn't want to admit to anyone I was sick because they'd think it was an excuse and that I was scared. (LOL) But the diarrhea and heart palpitations/anxiety stopped me in my tracks. Fact is, I was terrified. But I loved to sing! I really, really loved to sing. I needed to sing. So, I learned that if I just would go on a fast for two or three days before the event, I'd have no problem with the diarrhea. Problem solved...NOT!"
My body still found a way out of the singing arrangements: LARYNGITIS! Complete laryngitis. Not a squeak to be heard. Actually once I did squeak. It was a muscle spasm of my diaphragm. Happened during rehearsal but since it was uncontrollable, I feared I'd do it again. These disorders persisted into my adult life even after having children. I tried a few different vocal teachers to no avail. I got books. I got older. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Panic Attacks (anxiety disorder) along with chronic allergies. Lots of doctors and alternative health folks and biofeedback lessons...results: I no longer sing. I'm 54 years old now and am past the desire to do any singing, thank goodness. But sometimes I wonder what life might have been like if...
...and yet...I wouldn't be who I am if I'd been able to sing all my life. I've developed in other ways to compensate for my love of music. Still, there are times that surprise me when tears well up in response to a set of unusual harmonies or a phrase or just an instrumental flow...
There is a book written by a minister who was in a terrible wreck in which he lost both legs and an arm. He describes that having died and passing through heaven's gates made of undulating, pearlescent, opaque organic matter, there was music. Individual pieces of music, alive and coming from every direction; not in harmony per se, yet indescribably beautiful together. Do some of us sense the impossibility of attaining that in human form. Is that it? Or are we just terrified of each other?
Hopefully, Judy, you'll be able to help some brave souls to keep trying because we shouldn't fear sharing warmth from our deepest quarters even if those quarters aren't perfect."
I have personally known people who try to anesthetize stage fright with substance abuse. Besides the health issues that come from this approach, there is also this: If the cocaine, alcohol or other substance momentarily does cause anxiety to abate and courage to artificially (and many times arrogantly) increase, you become terrified to sing, play or write WITHOUT the drink or drug. Then you, my friend, are most horribly hooked on a merry-go-round that will steal your life. Don't know about you, but even my own voice- as important as it is to me- is not worth that.
As you see, self medicating can backfire. I asked James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. ( publisher of My Family Doctor Magazine) for a professional medical approach to this issue. He says:
"The prescription medicine most commonly used is a beta-blocker such as propranolol. It peaks within a few hours and slows the heart rate down along with decreasing a tremor. Also the SSRI antidepressants such ac paxil have been approved for "social anxiety" of which stage fright is a type. Theses are usually tolerated well in most healthy adults but, as in all medications, there are potential side effects that your doctor should go over with you."Donn Marshall, Associate Director for Counseling Services at the University of Puget Sound, agrees -quoting an email in his blogpost on extreme stage fright:
"...the use of beta-blockers provided the much-needed relief. Plus, he wrote that with more stage experience, increased acceptance of his level of skill, and by allowing his playing to become more fun he has not needed to use beta-blockers in years. A real success story!"
Power, Path & Performance associate teacher Kayla Morrison had such huge issues with stage fright they came with symptoms like vascular knots in her neck and vocal cords that were partially paralyzed. Oh yeah. Amazing what fear can do. She healed, and says that talking it out, not keeping it to herself, was a big part of the solution to overwhelming fear.
Carly Simon and Barbara Streisand both have managed to conquer extreme stage fright and get back to the stage as a joyful experience. As for my sister Pam, she is singing, too. Last Christmas I sat at her grand piano playing Christmas tunes. She sat with me and then began to ... SING... inviting everyone else to come join us. Soon her daughter's boyfriend, a photojournalist, began FILMING us, and we all had a ball... including my sister! She says she can "do it in the moment... just not if there is scheduling involved", giving the brain too much time to build anxiety.
There is an old (Chinese??) proverb that goes "A bird doesn't sing to be heard, it sings because it has a song". Perhaps that is what my sister now does, and perhaps I need to add other motivations for singing: "To express your heart with music, feel your own song, find the joy of joining with other voices". Performance doesn't have to be scheduled to be powerfully successful!
More thoughts on stage fright:
The very act of singing can help in the healing of stage fright. Sound vibrations cause physical and biochemical changes in the brain. Just the music itself (humming, singing in nonsense syllables or languages you don't understand, etc) can have power to heal.
Encourage, but don't MAKE people, especially children, sing! Making children perform can lead to deep seated stage fright. Just let them know their voices are important to you and to others, and then them sing as they feel the authentic urge to do so, of course given the appropriate opportunity. Also, teach them to listen and to affirm others' voices. This will help them believe in the importance and validity of their own voices.
We should indeed "FEEL" something - Numbness does not communicate. Butterflies just add to the excitement of performance. But when the butterflies turn into battering rams, we need to talk to someone and find help.
Keep vocal ability in perspective. There is an old man in our little Presbyterian congregation who is a recovering alchoholic. Every year, with fear and trembling, he sings a solo as his gift of gratitude to God for his healing. Technically, he has one of the worst voices I've ever heard. But when he sings, there are tears in the eyes of most everyone, including me, at the beauty of his communication. His performance is wildly successful, and we can't wait til next year when he does it again!
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