Performers are always having the conversation about the fear of first nights, their nerves when singing or dancing for the first time in a show, or the fear of forgetting their lines. Their hearts pounding, mouths hellishly dry and beads of perspiration breaking out on their forehead. Then all is all resolved when they walk on stage, the symptoms miraculously disappearing, allowing them to perform perfectly without a glitch.
In the majority of cases performers are at home on stage or in front of a camera, but what happens if the nerves really do take over, and start wreaking havoc in a performer’s life.
Actor Denise Welch recently admitted to an overwhelming bout of anxiety whilst on tour, and explained how she suffered from bouts of depression. This brave lady has told the world how she has been suffering over the years, and how it creeps up on us without warning and sets out to wreak our lives.
Anxiety does not discriminate and can affect any one of us, and I am sure the majority of you will have suffered from this devastating condition at some time in your life. Thankfully it is no longer a stigma or considered a weakness to own up to mental health issues, and it is now being encouraged by public figures, actors and even members of our Royal family, to speak out about it, because when we share problems they are far more easily overcome.
I have suffered personally from acute anxiety and it began at school when I was asked to read in assembly when I was 14. I was incredibly excited as I had begun to be interested in a local amateur dramatic group for under 20s, and this was my opportunity to shine. To my horror, as I began to read my hands started to shake, my voice began to tremble and I had to walk offstage not finishing the piece of prose I had been asked to perform. I felt humiliated and desperate, which was not helped by the words of sympathy from my classmates, which only added to my grief. In those days anxiety and depression were swept under the carpet, and yet I had managed to give a highly visible display of acute anxiety in front of 200 people. I was devastated.
Fortunately, I had a wonderful teacher called Mrs Frears who taught literature and drama, who supported me throughout and encouraged me to get back on the stage and perform. I owe so much to her as she not only helped me turn it round, she also was a big part of why I went to performing arts school and worked in theatre and television.
The best advice that was ever given to me when I was tackling the ongoing problem of acute anxiety was from a brilliant psychotherapist who told me to embrace the anxiety, and not try to push it away. He said that I should give it a name as it was a living entity, and respect it and nurture it – I called it Martha.
I now live with the concept of ‘Martha’ and speak to her as a friend when she turns up unexpectedly. She can be high maintenance sometimes, in terms of time, but is well worth it as I can then get to grips with my own agenda and learn to live with my own fears and anxieties. It has certainly worked for me.
I now mentor and train speakers in Presentation and Public Speaking skills and a big part of that is managing anxiety. Why am I such an expert, is it because I have performed on stage for decades as an actor and singer? Of course that is a big part of it. But the most important aspect of my training is my ability to recognise fear of speaking in public because I have suffered badly from anxiety.
The condition is also not just reserved for performers and can infiltrate any area of your life, affecting your social interactions your relationships and even your everyday working life. It has no boundaries and there is no pattern of how or where it can manifest.
I have a friend who seems to have everything, a wonderful husband, beautiful kids, fabulous country house, great circle of friends, successful career – on the surface everything seems to be perfect, and yet she is the most anxious person I know.
There are so many ways of dealing with fear and anxiety, and these can be personal to you. You can begin by reaching out and knowing that you are not completely alone, which is a brilliant way to start.