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Peter Flanagan Curing my stage fright - with meditation, therapy and hypnosis

The comedian looks at his crushing stage fright over the years and the many ways he tackled it.

MY FIRST THERAPIST was a bit of a boor. I was 19 and had been struggling with low self-esteem for years. His solution was to make fun of the secondary school I went to and told me I should have gone to Clongowes. He was like a cross between Sigmund Freud and Rob Kearney.

Is this what psychotherapy is, I wondered? Getting bullied by a jock with a receding hairline? During our last session, he finally gave me his verdict: I needed to get a girlfriend (he might have been right about that, in fairness).

Unsurprisingly, my issues resurfaced a few years later. A bleary-eyed GP in my university medical centre recommended anti-depressants. Her caveat was that if I took the pills, I would need to stop drinking alcohol. So, I did what any rational 22-year-old would do. I rejected the medication and went to see a hypnotherapist instead.

Going under

The appeal of hypnotherapy is obvious. There’s no recounting of painful memories, no medicine with unpleasant side effects. Someone else does all the work for you. They put you to sleep, and you supposedly wake up cured. That’s what I wanted.

Young men in Ireland are forever being told that it’s good to talk, but very often the process of actually getting help is messy and expensive.

It can take time to find the right therapist with an approach that is appropriate for your bespoke issues. The UK’s NHS offers a variety of free mental health supports to patients, from talk therapy to cognitive behavioural therapy. Though underfunded and imperfect, it’s a world ahead of what we have at home.

In Ireland, the mentally unwell are encouraged to seek support but are typically left to navigate the system without the financial support or psychological vocabulary to do so effectively.

My hypnotherapist didn’t ask me to talk about my feelings, thank God. He just needed to know what my problem was, and a cheque. “I struggle with my nerves, but I want to be a stand-up comedian”, I told him sheepishly. “Stand-up comedy? Tough profession” he said, polishing his hypnotic clock. Then he put me under. 

Hitting the stage

I had wanted to be a comic since I was a little boy. Whenever a comedian appeared on the Late Late Show, I’d sit as close to the television set as I could as if I could absorb some of their power through the electric crackles screen. I loved all comedians – from the D’Unbelieavables to Tommy Tiernan.

To my mind, they were special people sent from the heavens to make us all laugh and feel good. It seemed impossible that I would ever even try it.

Then I joined my university’s comedy society and a few of us decided we’d give it a go. The others were studying drama and seemed impossibly confident. I pretended that I was, too. But on the night of our debut performance in a dive bar in Dublin’s inner city, I thought I might puke.

Pint in a hand and covered in a disquieting patchwork of sweat stains, I stumbled onto the stage. I told my jokes in a rictus of terror that the audience confused for offbeat deadpan, and the laughs rolled in from the back of the room like a wave. I have not felt a high like it to this day.

But the rush faded and the terror never went away. Butterflies 30 minutes before stage time is healthy, but I was waking up in a damp panic two months before a gig. No one could live like that, so I quit.

That was until I tried hypnosis. I can’t tell you for sure that it worked, but I can tell you that a few weeks later I tried stand-up again and the paralysing stage fright was gone.

Probably it was a combination of getting older, the positive affirmations the hypnotherapist purred into my ear, and a feeling of wanting to get my money’s worth from the sessions.

Today I still struggle with anxiety. But a combination of meditation and CBT exercises have turned stand-up into a productive and joyful exercise. This month I will make my debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, something that would have seemed impossible when I was in the throes of my troubles. The show is called ‘Meditations’, and is packed with jokes about bad therapists, weird dates, and the Dalai Lama.

I don’t know where my hypnotherapist is now. I’d like to think he’s helping people to quit smoking, or performing on a cruise ship, or saving the world from Black Magic. I hope he knows that when it comes to me at least, his work here is done.