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Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias

Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All PhobiasPublic speaking is the king of phobias. That’s according to Taylor Clark, author of the insightful book, Nerve. He writes:

According to a 2001 poll, more than 40 percent of Americans confess to a dread of appearing before spectators. (In some surveys, fear of public speaking even outranks fear of death, a fact that inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s famous observation that at a funeral, this means the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.)

To get to the solution of this phobia — which can help us with all our other phobias — Clark tells the story of cellist Zoe Keating. Today her music is featured everywhere from National Public Radio to film scores to European ballets. Clark attended one of her performances and comments, “Keating seemed entirely oblivious to the hundreds of eyes watching her. She played as though she were in the midst of a dream, eyes closed, swaying languidly with her cello, utterly immersed in her performance.”

But it was a long way getting there.

Her process is intriguing and insightful for anyone trying to get over a severe case of jitters, or any phobia for that matter. Clark explains Keating’s starting point:

Stage nerves first hit Keating when she was fifteen years old—right when music becomes a brutally competitive dogfight for serious young orchestra musicians—and from that point on, each public performance felt like a battle for psychological survival.

Keating received nothing but bad advice, which is often the case when you are dealing with something psychological. Friends and mentors told her to practice more. If she was comfortable enough with her piece, then she wouldn’t feel nervous. Practicing, however, did little to alleviate her anxiety.

Here’s where Keating’s story takes a fascinating turn.

She detoured from the professional classical performance track. It was just too much torture. Despite scholarships to impressive programs, she chose to pursue her undergraduate degree at a small, liberal-arts college studying experimental electronic music composition and improvisation. Not exactly classical cello. She attempted to pay her bills with a slew of dead-end frustrating jobs.

Broke and desperate in the San Francisco Bay Area, she headed to the Embarcadero and Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) stations and began to play her cello for change at rush hour.

Playing in front of this uncaring audience was a perfect way for her to confront her fear. And then once they became a caring audience — actually thanking her for playing — she became even more empowered. Her playing became a kind of ministry, where the focus was taken off of her and projected unto the folks she played for.

According to Keating:

Even if I’d gotten the technique wrong, people would hand me a five-dollar bill and say, “That was fantastic!” That was the first sense I ever got that musicians might have a role in enriching the world….In other words, I allowed myself to play the music without worrying about all the little things—“Is your shoulder too high? Is your vibrato correct” And it was fun.

Clark goes on to explain why this exercise was invaluable from a psychological/neuroscientific standpoint:

Based on what we’ve already learned, we know that by exposing herself to her fear without running away, Keating was letting her brain slowly habituate to the idea of performing for an audience. Over the hours, as the realization dawned in her unconscious mind that these commuters weren’t going to descend on her like starving jackals, her prefrontal cortex taught itself to soothe the amygdala’s reaction to the crowd. …

But neuroscience aside, Keating was also coming to an important conscious insight: her listeners couldn’t see through her like she’d thought they could….No one really saw her nervousness. If people stopped to listen, that meant they were enjoying the music, not judging her. Keating had finally broken through one of the most pervasive misconceptions underlying performance anxiety, the “illusions of transparency” bias. Put simply, we tend to believe that our internal emotional states are more obvious to others than they truly are.

The final step in helping Keating transform her stage fright into passionate shows was changing her interpretation of the fear. In her practice at the public transit stations, she learned that anxiety can actually facilitate a performance. It can augment your performances if you learn to interpret the fear that way. Says Clark:

The move from a debilitative view of performance anxiety to a facilitative one is more than a mere sleight of hand. Several studies have shown that a major difference between novice and accomplished performers isn’t how much fear they have but how they frame that fear.

So, in summary, here’s how Keating demonstrates for us a way to overcome performance anxiety:

  • Keep the focus off yourself, and on the people you are playing for. Attempt to have some fun!
  • Know that the folks in the audience don’t know how nervous you are. In fact, they are blind to the psychological mess that is happening in you.
  • Interpret fear as your ally … it’s normal, and can help you perform even better!
  • Attach your performance to a higher cause. You are offering a gift, and it’s the gift—and not the perfection—that’s important.

For a great piece on overcoming public speaking, click here.

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Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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