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No more sweaty palms? Biofeedback may fight stage fright

Singer Barbra Streisand famously suffers from stage fright.
Singer Barbra Streisand famously suffers from stage fright.AP

“Shaky hands, racing heart, negative thoughts, forgetfulness – it’s not a good way to perform,” says musician Evan Robertson, 36, of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. “By the time I’d walk on stage, it felt as if I were driving a race car at 200 mph and that the slightest break in concentration would end in a fiery wreck.” We’ve all had stage fright at some point. A few of us are still reliving some band concert nightmare. But imagine living with sweaty palms, a hammering heart and that horrible feeling of dread on a regular basis. Being so freaked out that even picturing the entire audience naked doesn’t help. That’s what it’s like for people with musical performance anxiety (or MPA), say experts, a condition affects 30 percent to 80 percent of amateur and professional musicians, including Barbra Streisand, Cat Power and Carly Simon. Before now, those with performance jitters have had to contend with the nausea and the nerves on their own, or take beta blockers to battle the symptoms. New research has come up with another way to fight stage fright: biofeedback. “Our research looks at both the psychological and physiological effect of stage fright,” says Dr. Myron Thurber, a counselor, physical therapist and biofeedback expert from Spokane, Wash. “It raises our conscious awareness of our heart rhythms by allowing us to see them on a screen.” In the study, anxiety-ridden musicians were trained in the use of a small biofeedback machine to “train” their body’s emotional response to stress. After being hooked to the device with an ear clip or finger monitor, the musicians could see their heart’s responses to both anxiety or stress (typified by a jerky, edgy pattern) as well as feelings of joy or appreciation (a smooth, coherent pattern). After four sessions, the subjects were able to shift their emotional response -- holding onto the feelings of joy even while performing – successfully keeping the stage fright out of the limelight. “After we trained them, people reported on average about a 70 percent improvement in playing ability as well as the same decrease in their sense of stress or performance anxiety,” says Thurber. In other words, no more flubbed notes, flushed faces or tossed cookies in the recital hall restroom. Even better, Thurber says the biofeedback machine is both versatile — it can be used for other types of anxiety such as test taking or public speaking -- and it's unobtrusive, about the size to an iPod. “Some people would practice using it in the recital hall before a performance,” he says. “People are used to seeing little handheld devices so we hardly notice them any more.” Have you ever gotten nervous before performing or speaking in public? What happened? To read more Body Odd posts, click here. You can also find us on Twitter and on Facebook.