a microphone in front of an auditorium

Q. I love acting, but I suffer from stage fright. My doctor prescribed propranolol to ease my anxiety during a play.
Fortunately, I experimented during the final days of rehearsal. The first night, I couldn’t remember where I put my clothes during a scene change. The second night, I couldn’t recall my lines. It was a very strange and frightening experience.
Instead, I took Benadryl an hour before going on stage and it took the edge off my anxiety.

A. Many people who love acting as you do also suffer from nerves or even debilitating stage fright. Others are gripped with fear when faced with a public speaking obligation.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is not an ideal solution for stage fright. This antihistamine can be very sedating and might interfere with your best performance.
Propranolol (Inderal) and other beta blocker heart medicines like atenolol (Tenormin) and metoprolol (Toprol) have been used for years by professional golfers and musicians to steady their nerves and hands. The PGA banned beta blockers in 2008 as part of its antidoping policy. While some people may find that a beta blocker is helpful for stage fright, it makes sense to test it before show time. You have plenty of company finding that this is not the ideal way to handle performance anxiety.
Another option is cognitive behavioral therapy. Although this may require several sessions with a trained therapist, the results are long-lasting.
Readers of this column also report the herb valerian can be quite helpful:

“I am a professional singer and my daughter does public speaking for her job. We both swear by valerian. It does the trick for nerves if you take it 15 minutes prior to performing or taking the podium.”

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  1. J.T.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the writers who commented above. I play the bagpipes. When I was learning to play, I practiced constantly, both solo and with our pipe band. As I played for my first public event with the band, I was slightly nervous, but my practice carried me through the event and I didn’t freeze. After a while I rarely gave it a second thought. In contrast, I’ve been away from the band for 12 years, and rarely play except for an occasional request. The last time I played I was sorely out of practice. My knees began to knock together, my hands were shaking, and I shook so bad I ended up jerking the chanter right out of the bag! Talk about an embarrassing moment . . . it sounded like someone trying to kill several cats at once. I was horrified and walked away.
    The Toastmaster’s suggestion is truly the way to go. I know several persons who’ve been members, and they became wonderful speakers. There is a recent book by an author I cannot recall called “The Choke.” It was written by a former soccer player who choked during her Olympic tryouts in college. She later became a noted neuroscientist who has done extensive research on why our brains “choke” under pressure. What did she find? That folks who wrote down their fears and anxieties before taking a test or performing were able to bypass the emotional anxiety and fear response, and maintain a strong link to logical thinking and processing. Perhaps her research may help you with your performance anxiety.

  2. MJW

    I agree with the above comment, in that there’s nothing like practice to help you deal with that type of anxiety. Every performing artist I know experiences unpleasant feeling before going on, and the trick is to learn to channel them into useful expression rather than dull them.

  3. MM

    A much better solution than drugs or therapy is to join a local Toastmasters club. They will give you the experience and confidence you need for successful public speaking.

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