The Science of Stage Fright and How to Overcome It
By Daniel Zeevi
Palms sweaty, heart racing, too panicked to even breathe? No, you aren’t being stalked by some monster (or Dexter): you’re about to speak in public! While some would claim public speaking is a fate “worse than death,” public speaking might actually feel worse than death: at least you won’t feel stage fright in death! If public speaking is so nerve-racking, do genetics cause social anxiety?
At some point in your life, you will have to communicate in front of people. Learning what stage fright really is could make you more comfortable doing so. Basically you, as a human, are wired to care about your reputation or what people think of you. So what happens if you get up there and forget a few lines or completely bomb a speech? This fear of being considered an idiot by your peers is a natural instinct called the flight or fight response, a primitive function in your brain that acts to self-protect at all times. The flight or fight response is a very difficult thing to control. Though it’s present in all animals, most creatures don’t have to get up in front of the entire animal kingdom to make any speeches!
Fight or Flight
Charles Darwin experimented with fight or flight reactions at the London Zoo and concluded that this response is an ancient reaction to fearing the unknown. When you start to perceive the possible consequences of blowing a speech, you naturally want to run for the hills or fight to the death to get out of the engagement. This causes a chemical reaction within your body, shooting adrenaline into your blood which causes you to sweat, your neck and back to tense up and your hands to shake as you prepare for battle! Your pupils even dilate, making it harder to read anything, like your notes, up close.
How Do We Fight Stage Fright?
Try to gain perspective. Your fear isn’t all in your head, but rather an automatic reaction by your nervous system engineered into your makeup. Even some of your favorite celebrities who always appear calm and collected in public are nervous too! Can you imagine that John Lennon played thousands of concerts yet still threw up out of nervousness before each of his shows?
What you can do to fight your natural instincts is to practice and keep practicing in an environment similar to the one you’ll be speaking in. Steve Jobs used to practice now-famous speeches for hundreds of hours, weeks in advance! If you know what you’re saying, you can use the crowd’s energy to enhance your talk instead of being prey to a pack of predators.
So the next time you have a big speech, be prepared, and learn how to trick your brain into an aura of comfort. Take those last few moments when the anxiety is at its highest point to stretch your arms and breathe deeply to help relax. You didn’t overcome stage fright, you just adapted to handle it!
Remember: “No matter how civilized you may seem, in a part of your brain you are still a wild animal, a profound, well-spoken wild animal.”