FEAR IS GOOD; in emergencies, it enables us to fight or flee. But often we get scared at the wrong time—when we step onto the field for a big soccer game or up to the microphone at a contentious town meeting. Professional athletes and actors say some nervousness helps them concentrate better. But when performance anxiety is too powerful, it undermines our efforts: a player's legs become wobbly, a violinist cannot find the correct notes, a manager in a meeting forgets all the talking points. Survival may not hang in the balance, but social, professional or financial success can seem to be in grave danger.

The human anxiety reaction begins almost automatically and includes clear physiological symptoms: a racing heart, sweating, stomach pains, even diarrhea. Some people have trouble breathing or feel faint. Thus alarmed, victims may withdraw into themselves or shock others around them with aggressive outbursts. If the need to perform is a regular requirement, they may suffer from nightmares or fall into depression. All these symptoms eat away at the very resources needed to rise to the occasion: steady hands, clear memory and a cool head. Studies reveal that anxiety-plagued executives are less able to apply logical intelligence on standard tests than calmer colleagues.

Because performance anxiety arises when other people are present, many psychologists believe that the condition is a subcategory of social anxiety. Yet psychologist Douglas H. Powell of Harvard Medical School is convinced that severe stage fright is a phenomenon unto itself, given that it appears in only certain well-defined situations. Sociophobes, in contrast, suffer merely when others are present. Whereas people with social phobias fear the negative feelings of others, those with performance anxiety are their own harshest critics. They are perfectionists and would rather cancel an appearance—or avoid it—than not meet their own standards and, by extension, not be able to demonstrate how good they are.

This catastrophic style of thinking often arises from a lack of self-esteem. The individual begins by imagining failure, works himself or herself into a state and then deprecates his or her own abilities. Previous bad experiences can be a trigger—an embarrassing experience in a school play or a single botched test can sometimes evoke such strong feelings of shame in youngsters that as adults they will avoid any remotely similar undertaking.

Getting a Grip

If you are prone to stage fright, you can choose from several tactics that can allay fears. So-called cognitive methods are based on the observation that you can control your feelings through directed thinking. To ward off negative thoughts, begin by writing them down. Then, find a quiet time and place to review them and consciously block them by replacing them with favorable notions. Afraid to give a short speech? Recall a great talk you gave to your son or daughter. Worried you’ll forget a line? Remember how well you tell stories to your friends.

It also helps to examine the real risk involved. Decide what value the upcoming performance in question has for you. If you fail, will the world really come to an end? Does your inner peace really depend on stunning success in this situation? Over the long term, your sense of self-worth depends mostly on things unconnected to any given performance, such as having a happy family or enjoying good friends.

Another proven technique for overcoming fear of failure is called desensitization. After some initial guidance from an expert, you can do it for yourself. The technique exploits the fact that anyone who regularly finds himself or herself in the same fear-inducing situation gradually gets used to it. The first step to lessen a fear of public speaking, for example, would be to talk through your presentation while imagining that you are explaining the topic to your always supportive parents or siblings. Then read the talk aloud while sitting with a good friend. The next step in difficulty would be to choose a somewhat larger group of acquaintances and work from only a couple of note cards. Then invite some outsiders into the audience. Graduation from this desensitization training would be speaking extemporaneously to a hall full of strangers.

Some therapists utilize techniques that act against the physical symptoms of fear. Examples include restful breathing cadences and calm-inducing regimens such as the Jacobson exercise, which uses a controlled, progressive plan to systematically relax the body's muscles.

If the root of the performance anxiety is inadequate psychic stability, a controversial technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing may help. The approach, discounted by some psychologists, should be carried out only with a therapist trained in this method. Individuals face frightening situations or feelings while the left and right hemispheres of the brain are stimulated in alternation, by concentrating on different points of light or hand movements. The activity appears to reduce emotional pressure and promote a positive attitude toward the difficult performance situation.

Facing anxiety can be a hard task. But many times the fear arises from completely controllable preconditions. At Harvard, Powell realized this fact while treating 67 medical students and five young doctors who were suffering from high performance anxiety and had failed tests. He asked them to write down and categorize their thoughts, feelings and modes of behavior before and during important exams. What he found was that more than anything else, the individuals had poorly estimated the range of material that would be tested as well as the time needed to prepare well. They did not know how best to study or how to monitor their progress. Many of them began to cram only shortly before the test date. They also did not show much expertise at test taking: they addressed questions in order and spent too much time on vexing ones, instead of more efficiently handling the confidence-building easy questions and looping back to the tough ones later.

Avoiding stage fright for an impending speech may well come down to better preparation. Study the content until you know it cold, write out the entire presentation, rehearse it alone and in front of a few volunteers until you could give it in your sleep. Then perhaps the actual event won’t seem so foreboding.