When Grammy-nominated classical musician Blair Tindall thinks back to one of the first times she was struck by stage fright, she remembers being at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
In her best-selling book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, she describes feeling paralyzed with performance anxiety, a doubt that was coming from just being a young, inexperienced musician combined with criticism from her conductor:
"Stop, stop!” Harsányi [the conductor] scowled as fifty pairs of eyes stared at me. “Louder. Don’t rush. Why you rush? How old you are?” I’d had stage fright before, but my pounding heart and quivering body were worse than ever now. I felt like a firecracker with its fuse spitting and jumping, about to rocket to the ceiling, explode, and shower ashes everywhere. I gulped, feeling faint.
“Fifteen,” I squeaked. Harsányi snorted. I noticed John, the concertmaster, trying to catch my eye.
“Again. Letter E.” This time, I played, but I was too nervous to remember anything about my eight-bar solo.”
From that moment on, performance anxiety followed Blair through the remainder of her music education, into big auditions, and performances in front of live audiences.
The stress from stage fright limited her career opportunities, robbed her of confidence, and took a toll on her overall mental health.
That is until she discovered Propranolol, a beta-blocker medication with a reputation for preventing anxious symptoms.
What Are Beta-Blockers?
Beta-blockers are a common medication approved by the Food And Drug Administration to treat conditions like high blood pressure, arrhythmia, angina, and other conditions.
But Propranolol, when taken in a smaller dose, has also been shown to stop adrenaline - and with it the physical symptoms of anxiety, like shakiness, rapid heart rate, and sweaty armpits. In short, it stops the body from going into fight-or-flight mode when there really isn't anything to fight or run away from.
While this may be a surprising revelation to most, it's a very well-known tactic for tackling pre-performance jitters by top performers including classical musicians, pop stars, and comedians.
It has precedence outside of the stage community too. Some athletes, most notably those in archery, billiards, and sport shooting, have been known to use beta-blockers to keep their hands steady in competitions or in front of an audience.
In some cases, Propranolol might be used alongside exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy to help someone overcome social anxiety or certain phobias.
Recently, it's become a more common-place solution for treating public speaking fears amongst professionals.
So why is Propranolol such a trusted solution, especially when there are other options available?
First, because it's an effective way to stop the physical symptoms of anxiety.
A cellist can keep her heart rate at baseline so it doesn't throw her off. A comedian can deliver a joke without his voice shaking into the microphone. Golfers can stop their hands and arms from shaking when they're attempting a big shot that might win them the match.
Perhaps more importantly, beta-blockers tend to have fewer side effects than some other popular stage fright coping mechanisms like alcohol or Xanax. Most who use them don't experience the tiredness and brain fog that often comes along with these other alternatives.
It is important to point out, however, that beta-blockers aren't right for everyone and should be avoided by some, such as asthmatics, people with blood pressure abnormalities, or those with more serious anxiety disorders.
Let's take a closer look at some big names who turn to beta-blockers to stop their stage fright from getting the best of them.
Celebrities Who Use Propranolol For Anxiety
Katy Perry has performed for literally millions of fans and has won acclaim for her electrifying performances. But despite years of experience, hundreds of live performances, and awards to prove just how talented she is - Katy is still affected by performance anxiety in the moments before she walks out on stage.
Talking about the type of pressure she puts on herself, she's said “I think, ‘I have to get through this. I can't let these people down.’ But mostly I can't let myself down.”
So, a little while before she takes the stage, Katy takes a beta-blocker to calm her body and keep her mind focused so she can deliver a performance her audience will never forget.
“I have to take beta-blockers [before each show], I get so nervous,” she's said.
Shooting into sudden stardom at a young age, 22-year-old Shawn Mendes has been open about the toll fame has taken on his mental health.
During a performance on stage, he told his fans:
“As a performer, you get very nervous, sometimes you freak out and things can become a lot for you.”
But Shawn also went further, talking about how he has used beta-blockers to help him work through his performance anxiety and maintain his composure on stage:
“There’s a medicine called beta-blockers and basically it’s a very calm medicine, but what it does is it slows your heart rate down so you can be less stressed out and calm down and breathe…I want you guys to know that for the last year I’ve been taking the medicine that’s been slowing down my heart rate so that I can be calm on stage.”
Having suffered from stress-induced migraines for her entire life, comedian and co-creator of the TV show Two Broke Girls, Whitney Cummings has been very open about her anxiety. She found that the stress of anticipating an event could trigger her migraines but has found ways to manage them.
In addition to keeping to a regular routine, she also occasionally takes beta-blockers. Far from hiding it, she has said “I take beta-blockers now, which help hugely.”
She went on to say, “I know if I have a big meeting, or a big audition, or a big performance, or anything where I know I’m going to be nervous, I just take one preemptively so that I’m not blasting my brain with adrenaline.”
Actor and comedian Bobby Lee spoke with Whitney Cummings on her Good For You podcast about how his performance anxiety had become severe enough that he had begun to experience panic attacks.
He noted this was particularly true for him in auditions, and it was something he was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about for a long time.
Bobby discovered beta-blockers after confiding in Whitney Cummings a few years back and has said they help him stay calm, noting:
“I did this pilot in Chicago, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without beta-blockers.”
Oboist, TV producer, and author of the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, Blair Tindall has been very outspoken about the benefits of beta-blockers to performers who suffer from stage fright.
Blair experienced almost debilitating performance anxiety until she discovered beta-blockers:
“I remember going home and telling my roommate ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it! This stuff really works!’”
Despite the relatively few celebrities who have opened up about their stage fright, it’s clear that people in the industry know about them.
“[Beta-blockers] have saved the careers of countless musicians,” according to Blair.
There's comfort in that even the most successful performers - the very people we think of as confident - also face the same self-doubt and insecurity the rest of us do. But perhaps even more comforting is knowing that there's a real solution out there that can help us overcome stage fright and perform at the level we know we can.
Jeff Denberg from Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Alex42west, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons