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Managing Stage Fright
Dale Cyphert, Ph.D., © 2005
There is no question that the single biggest barrier to professional rapport is plain old stage fright. People will consistently name public speaking as their number one fear—right up there ahead of spiders and death (Wallechinsky, 1977 ), but communication apprehension is just as strong—stronger for some people—in the impromptu elevator chat or during the first line of a phone call.
Because they fear the experience, they procrastinate about preparation, and then they become more fearful because they know they are not well prepared! Giving eloquent presentations, then, requires a bit of attention to the dynamics and management of stage fright.
Definitions and Causes
Recognizing the Symptoms
Controlling the Symptoms
Listen to Your Body
Definitions and Causes
Although most people describe their fears in terms of “fear of public speaking” or “fear of getting up in front of an audience,” it is quite possible to experience fear about any kind of performance, including athletic events, artistic endeavors and even sex. Some psychologists will thus be careful to talk about “performance anxiety,” which emphasizes the fear that arises any time we worry about doing well in a high-stakes situation. Certainly, when your job is on the line and you have a hostile audience to impress, you have every reason to be anxious about your performance!
Other individuals will realize that it doesn’t take a large audience to cause them concern. These people might be equally concerned about talking to a stranger on an airplane, about speaking up in a meeting, or even about leaving a voice mail message. Sometimes people just consider themselves “shy” about talking to others. When the fear is a generalized reaction to interaction with others, it is usually called “communication apprehension.”
If you were to name the cause of stage fright, the rather obvious answer—being on stage—is obviously a bit simplistic. The real question is, why are so many people afraid of public speaking? It certainly isn’t as dangerous as sky-diving, but more people are afraid of it. The symptoms aren’t as severe as having the flu, but most people would opt for the flu.
One suggestion is that most people simply haven’t had much practice at it. Any unfamiliar activity creates some stress; add the normal “first time” jitters to the unfamiliar territory of a management performance review or a client’s office, and you’re guaranteed to feel some symptoms. Another theory is that people respond “automatically” to the threat signals implicit in having everyone stare at them. We simply find being the center of attention an inherently stressful situation. Many people will admit that the real cause of their fear is a sense that they are inadequately prepared. Sometimes that fear is perfectly justified—you’re trying to “wing” a performance that you know required more time and attention on your part. Another reasonable source of fear is a history of hostility, lack of respect, or misunderstanding on the part of your audience.
Whatever their source, the symptoms of stage fright are essentially a stress reaction. You might be stressed by large audiences, or by small audiences, or by using PowerPoint…. but the end result is the same. You might not be able to change the situation, but if you’ve got symptoms of stress you can deal with them directly and give a more polished presentation.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Regardless of its cause, your stage fright symptoms are part of the body’s Primary Threat Response, which you might know as the “fight or flight syndrome.” This is a set of healthy physiological responses that allow a human being to take effective action—running away or fighting—when attacked. Most speaking engagements don’t require you to do anything physical, but your body doesn’t know that. It perceives the adrenaline signals, assumes that some sort of attack is possible, and simply prepares you for the worst. So, thank your body for doing a few very sensible things:
- Muscles contract throughout your body. Your body is now prepared to spring into action with a burst of energy. In particular, the neck muscles contract, pulling the head down and the shoulders up, while the back muscles draw the spine into a concave curve. This, in turn, pushes the pelvis forward and pulls the genitalia up, slumping the body into a classic fetal position. Your body has done all the right things to protect your vital organs from saber-toothed tigers, but there’s not a wild animal in sight. Instead, you stand still and straight in front of the audience. Your muscles, still contracted, begin to tremble. And the harder you try to hold contracted muscles still, the more they tremble! Your neck, shoulder and back muscles, in particular, begin to fatigue, while your lungs and diaphragm are constricted in the body’s attempt to maintain a fetal position. As you continue to hold your head up in an effort to make eye contact, your vocal cords are stretched and your voice tightens, and a moderate to severe headache can set in.
- Blood vessels in the extremities constrict. Your body knows it has only so much oxygen and blood, so it chooses carefully. The tiny blood vessels serving your toes, fingers, ears and nose constrict, forcing additional oxygen to your major organs and reducing the risk of blood loss. Of course, this leaves you with a sensation of cold hands and feet (and perhaps a cold nose and ears as well), along with numbness and tingling.
- Blood pressure is elevated. In order to insure that nutrients and oxygen are distributed quickly and any poisons are flushed from the system, the healthy body reacts to stress with an elevated blood pressure. Heat builds up in those areas where major organs are being primed for action—the head, chest and stomach. Frequently, the body must begin sweating in order not to overheat, and you can often feel the heart pumping more quickly than normal as it maintains the higher blood pressure. Of course, the sweat will appear in all the normal places, like armpits, groin and forehead, as well as on the palms of your cold hands, leaving them with that nasty clammy feeling.
- Breaths become rapid. The body’s need for a steady supply of oxygen requires rapid, shallow breathing, which cycles the largest volume of air in and out of the lungs.
- The digestive system shuts down. Food processing is deemed a low priority by the body under stress, and the digestive system shuts down for the duration of the emergency. Any foods already in the system just sit there, waiting for stomach acid and saliva secretions to resume. The resulting sensations are the familiar “lump” or “butterflies” in the stomach, along with a dry mouth and nausea.
- The pupils dilate. In a dangerous situation the body needs accurate, complete information about the environment, which it obtains through a heightened sense of hearing along with broad, long distance visual acuity. In other words, your eyes automatically shift to “long distance” view, sacrificing short distance focus for a clear view of the horizon. Many people also notice an increased sensitivity to motion and better peripheral vision. Of course, none of this helps a speaker read his or her notes. The speaker is painfully aware of every little frown from every member of the audience, and easily spooked by things happening off to the side. Meanwhile, your ability to focus—or even see—at a short distance can be lost completely.
Controlling the Symptoms
- Brain wave frequency increases. Finally (thank goodness!), the human brain itself changes in response to stress and potential attack. The frequency of brain activity literally speeds up, allowing you to think more quickly, process more information, and make accurate decisions. This is not a “natural” state, however, and it can feel as though time is distorted. Your natural pace of thinking and reacting is disrupted, making you react “too quickly” to stimuli. You think of new things to say in the middle of your speech, causing you to ramble about ideas you hadn’t prepared. You speak quickly, not even realizing that your pace is considerably faster than normal.
By and large, the symptoms of stage fright are normal, expected physiological reactions to stress, excitement or fear, but they prepare you for a physical response, rather than a speaking engagement. The symptoms won’t keep you from giving an excellent presentation, but the stress response also isn’t doing much to help you until you learn to channel those physical reactions into a dynamic, energized, vigorous delivery.
- Recognize the stress as excitement. The physiological symptoms associated with public speaking are virtually the same as those you’d experience if you rode a roller coaster, went on your first rafting trip, or got married. The real difference is that you have learned to associate “fright” with being on stage and “fun” with being on a roller coaster. The goal of stage fright control is not to make the symptoms go away; the goal is to learn ways to make the adrenaline rush work for you, rather than against you.
- Use your large muscles. Those contracted muscles are waiting for you to throw a spear at a mastodon, and until you do, they can’t relax. Walk briskly around the building a couple of times (watching out for wild animals, of course.) Throw your arms around, or punch at a nearby wall. Clench your fists, scowl, make ugly faces, and then relax those smaller muscles too. Focus on your back and neck muscles, stretching and rolling your head until they relax.
- Take deep breaths, from the diaphragm. Regulating the breath cycle is the most accessible technique for changing the body’s kinesthetic state. (Other techniques include meditation, trance inducement, alternate nostril breathing and other yoga exercises, and biofeedback.) As you force yourself to take a deep breath, the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance is restored, and the body interprets the big sigh as an “all clear” signal. As the stress levels begin to decline, so will the rest of the symptoms.
- Exaggerate your symptoms. The body will not automatically produce a symptom that you are doing consciously. Start breathing rapidly on purpose, for example. You can then stop on purpose, but your body won’t start up the automatic system again. This doesn’t work for everything, of course. Most people can’t sweat on purpose, or increase their pulse rates. But you can shake your legs, blink rapidly, scowl, or do whatever other little quirky things your body seems to want to do by itself.
- Watch what you eat. For many people the most debilitating symptoms of stage fright are the consequences of the digestive system shutting down. Figure out what your own digestive system does (or doesn’t do) under stress, and see that you time your food intake to accommodate it. Advice varies from person to person, but here’s a list of the most common solutions to various problems:Avoid milk. It creates phlegm, which is unpleasant and can be annoying while you speak.
Maintain sugar levels. Because you are under stress, the body is using up its high-energy sugar reserves, but you will not feel the normal hunger pangs. You have no desire to eat—the thought of food might even make you “feel sick”—but you nevertheless can begin to feel the effects of low blood sugar: depression, anxiety, irritability, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, confusion, headache, body tremors, cold hands and feet. My, don’t those all sound like “stage fright” symptoms!
Eat sensibly. Protein increases energy and alertness, but takes a very long time to digest (about twelve hours). Fats will slow digestion even further. Eating a big T-bone before you speak is not going to help the situation a bit. You’ll just wind up with that lump of meat in your stomach, creating cramps or nausea. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are "comfort" foods because they trigger the release of serotonin and are best without protein, which lowers the levels of tryptophan, its amino acid building-block (Wurtman). Your best bet is to eat a low-fat meal of complex carbohydrates a couple of hours before the presentation. Pasta, pizza, bean burritos, or rice dishes are all good choices. Sugary cereal for breakfast is not.
Avoid a sugar high. Often when you are rushing around before a presentation, sitting down for a decent meal is the last thing on your mind. Be careful, though, that you don’t substitute a quick candy bar. That sugar fix will make you feel better for a few moments, but the body uses that form of energy almost immediately, leaving nothing for the presentation. What’s more, overall blood sugar levels drop even farther after the candy’s artificial peak. If you do need to snack, grab popcorn, pretzels, a banana or apple, or sugar-free yogurt.
Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. All stimulate the adrenal glands and increase stress symptoms. On the other hand, if you are a smoker this is probably not a good day to quit.
- Exercise. Most stage fright victims swear this is the best solution of all. Not only does exercise reduce stress and help aleviate those large muscle contractions, it also produces endorphins. Regular excercise is best, of course, but even a workout the night before or morning of a big speech will help you stay relaxed.
- Take your vitamins. If stage fright is a long term thing, consider the impact of some key vitamins:Vitamin C: Reduces the effects of over-exertion, increases energy, stamina and general resistance to stress. If you catch colds frequently are feel run-down, you night not have the energy left for giving a speech.
Vitamin B: Used in large amounts when the body is under stress. Deficiencies can show up as tremors, loss of dexterity, lack of coordination, depression, insomnia, forgetfulness, confusion, a quick temper and nervousness. If you are already under stress, the demands of a speech might push you over the edge.
Calcium and Magnesium In balance, these minerals act as a tranquilizer to the system. A calcium deficiency can create cramps and "nerves."
- Check your prescriptions. Stress reactions can increase the potency of certain drugs (including a few that are illegal) with respect to their neurological effects (Vergano).
- Get your rest. For many business people, the presentation is just the most stressful event in an already stressed life. If you are already functioning at the borderline, you might lack the energy reserves you need to face a presentation. Speeches are not something you only need to give once in a while. Your life in business will probably require you to make presentations of one kind or another on a regular basis. If you are going to be successful, you simply must make sure that your body is ready for the challenge.
You won't have much luck telling yourself not to be afraid when the source of the problem is low blood sugar. On the other hand, you can do a few things to help your brain help itself.
- Some people swear by imagining the audience naked--or any other trick that allows you to relax about all those eyes staring at you.
- Making yourself laugh--whether you meant to or not--will nearly always help you relax. The more enjoyment you are feeling, the easier it is to think with your cortex instead of reacting with your adrenal glands.
- Associate speaking with fun. Practice your speeches in pleasant surroundings. At least during the rehearsal, get relaxed and have fun. Teach your brain to associate "talking with people" to having a party with friends.
- Eat happy foods. For the same reason, you can trigger a dose of pleasure with the endorphins that are triggered by certain foods. Women respond well to fat/sugar combinations (chocolate, ice cream, cake), while men tend toward fat/protein or fat/salt snacks (chips, french fries, pizza). Be careful with the timing to avoid a sugar high or a protein lump in the digestive system.
Listen to Your Body
- Make it a point to dress in something you know you look good in. Get a haircut or treat yourself to a manicure. Act like you're getting ready for a hot date or a big party when you want to be the center of attention.
A final word of advice is in order, especially if stage fright has suddenly appeared in someone who doesn't typically get stressed by public speaking. If you find yourself nervous about making a certain point, or about showing the evidence you are using to support it, your body might be giving you signals to which you should be paying close attention. Especially when there is a great deal of social pressure to conform, our brains sometimes manage to ignore information that would lead us to act in another way. A person who is pressured by colleagues to do something unethical, for instance, might "forget" to make a count or "miss" the meaning of an email. At the same time, though, the information has been processed unconsciously, and the body reacts. So a headache appears, or the person breaks out in hives. Stagefright can be a similar signal, warning you that these words are not the right thing to say, that the time is not right to say them, or that this is the wrong audience to hear them.
Markus, C. Rob. quoted in "Stress-Prone? Altering the Diet May Help." Science News: 23.
Vergano, D. Science News 14 Dec 1996: 375.
Wallechinsky, David, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace. The Book of Lists. 1977.