When Emma Raducanu quit Wimbledon after suffering breathing difficulties, she said she felt the experience of competing in the championship’s last-16 had “caught up with her”.
Though the details of exactly what forced the 18-year-old to withdraw are unknown, she is not the first star performer in the world of sport or the arts to shock fans by stepping away from the big stage.
In the run-up to the 2016 Capital Summertime Ball, Zayn Malik cancelled his performance, opening up to fans about the anxiety he had about live performances and saying the magnitude of the event had led him to suffer “the worst anxiety of my career”.
The former One Direction singer, who at the time was not used to performing alone, wrote in Time: “As a solo performer, I felt much more exposed, and the psychological stress of performing had just gotten to be too much for me to handle – at that moment, at least.”
The US comedian and actor Bo Burnham has also spoken candidly about his anxiety about performing onstage. He took five years off doing live shows after having severe panic attacks onstage. He once suffered three in four shows, a time he called the worst of his life.
He told Time in 2018: “It was the roughest time in my life that last tour. It felt like every night onstage there was just a fucking axe hanging over my head and at any point this thing’s going to fucking drop. And, like, I’m going to faint onstage and someone’s going to video it and post it everywhere.”
Performers who had similar experiences include Barbra Streisand, Donny Osmond, Eddie Van Halen – who drank to deal with his stage anxiety – and Laurence Olivier.
Hugh Grant, who has spoken several times about retiring from acting, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that he suffered panic attacks when the cameras started rolling. “I do live in terror of an attack. I used to get three or four” on a film, he said.
Performance anxiety is an acute response in the moment and occurs “when we feel like we don’t have the capacity or the capability to handle either a situation or specific stresses in front of us”, according to Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychologist and author of Performing Under Pressure.
Most people experience similar symptoms, such as an increased heart rate, heavy breathing and nausea, when taking an exam or giving a big presentation, Perry said. “It’s just that athletes and performing artists are doing it in a fishbowl where we can all watch.”
Lee Chambers, a psychologist and wellbeing consultant who has worked in Premiership football, said: “The public rarely sees the reality of the buildup to these events, where the players and entertainers are very human and vulnerable.” So by sharing their stories, entertainers and sportspeople are “increasingly opening the door into that backstage that we don’t see, and normalising the conversation”.
Dr Sheri Jacobson, the founder of Harley Therapy, said: “Fears about presenting in public is remarkably common, but many stars would have previously concealed it, considering it to be a weakness. Increasingly, performers are recognising it for what it is, a natural feeling state among a range of other emotions that we go through.”
The biggest benefits of breaking down the stigma surrounding such discussions is how it filters down to the next generation, Chambers said: “Seeing their heroes and icons open up gives them permission to do the same, increases the awareness around mental wellbeing and creates a platform to start conversations that are at times hard to broach.”
Within an hour of Raducanu sharing her statement on her Wimbledon withdrawal on Tuesday, the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford tweeted his encouragement and said he had experienced something similar during a match early in his career.
He wrote: “It happened to me playing for the national team in U16s against Wales. I remember it to this day. No explanation for it and it never happened again. You should be very proud of yourself. The country is proud of you. Glad to read your [sic] feeling better. Onwards and upwards.”
Chambers said such expressive and honest behaviour from people with such influence was a powerful way to be role models. “Ultimately it shows it’s not a topic to shy away from, but an increasingly important area to focus on in life, especially after the past 18 months,” he said.