But Would You Rather Die Than Give A Speech??
Your professor has just asked you to present a research project in front of a lecture hall filled to the rafters with people. You completed the project weeks ago, and you know the information like the back of your hand. Yet, as soon as you stand in front of the podium, your hands start to shake. Your brow beads with sweat and your heart begins to race. As you attempt your first word, your voice quivers and your throat clenches. You fumble with your notes and you ask yourself ‘Why on earth did I agree to this?’ You wish that you were anywhere but behind that podium and in front of hundreds of eyes, and you blame the common phenomenon of stage fright (1).
But what exactly is stage fright? Why does it feel uncontrollable, even when you know that you are capable of performing the task at hand? Why is it so common? And why do some people feel it so extremely and others not at all? Can stage fright be overcome, or is there no hope of recovery? Although much remains a mystery, many of these questions can be answered by examining the role of the brain and the I-function during these critical moments.
Let’s return to the podium. Your stage fright, or performance anxiety, is defined as a state of intense anxiety that occurs prior to and/or during a performance (2). It is characterized by range of symptoms that indicate a fight or flight response in the body’s system. Your adrenal glands suddenly secrete a mass amount of adrenaline which makes you feel overly edgy. Your muscles contract as though they are ready for action and begin to tremble under the constant, heavy stress. Your blood vessels constrict in your extremities to provide blood flow to your core, leaving your hands and feet cold and clammy. Your blood pressure is elevated to pump more oxygen throughout your system which in turn increases your rate of breathing. Your digestive system shuts down and leaves you feeling as though you have ‘butterflies in your stomach.’ Finally, your brain function is increased and your thoughts seem to jump back and forth. Your body reacts to the stress of the situation as though you should be ready to fend off a ferocious beast—but your only goal is to read from your note cards and present your information to your classmates (3). What could have triggered such an intense response?
Your brain is sending your body chemical signals that suggest one thing: Danger! However, you are well aware that your life is not being threatened, and that you are not preparing for a battle. This suggests that your I-function is the one in charge of triggering your anxious symptoms. Your I-function is telling you that this situation is stressful—not because you are about to be eaten by a lion—but because perhaps your semester grade depends on your performance. Perhaps you have a crush on the person sitting in the second row. Perhaps because you don’t want to bore, or offend, or anger your classmates sitting in the audience. Perhaps you aren’t as prepared as you thought you were and you are now afraid of messing something up. A primal urge is telling you about self-preservation—stop the speech and stop the potential for humiliation. Stop the potential for the front row to chuck tomatoes at your head. The list goes on and on, but the effect is the same: for lack of a better phrase, you’ve let your I-function ‘psych you out (4).’ Deep down inside, you know that you are physically capable of giving a perfect presentation—if only you could stop sweating.
So you try to remember what your mother said to you on the phone: Take some deep breaths. You try to do what your friends told you to do before you went up on stage: Think about everyone in their underwear. You unclench your fingers. You breathe deeply and focus strongly on your notes and not about what’s running through your crushes mind. You close your eyes and think about your favorite movie or your favorite joke. You ask yourself ‘What’s the worst that could possibly happen?’ You try to rationalize with your I-function so that the situation starts feeling more comfortable and less catastrophic. And a miracle occurs: Your attempt your introduction, and as you speak, your heart rate slows. Your shoulders start to relax and the words come out a little easier. You picture your professor in his underwear and you even sneak a grin in the middle of your first point. As you realize that you do actually have control over your anxiety, your words seem to roll off your tongue like butter. This is just more proof that the I-function is to blame for your crippling anxiety: That just as easily as you can jump start your fears, you can make them all turn to dust if you force your self to think about something else(4).
After your speech, you feel like a new person. The butterflies in your stomach dissipate and your muscles relax completely. You feel little trace of the stage fright that gripped you just 20 minutes before. The extra adrenaline flowing through your veins makes you feel like you can fly (3). And then a week later, you are asked to sing a solo for the choir and it starts all over. You ask yourself ‘Why? I know I can overcome this fear, just like I know I can sing perfectly well—so why is this happening again?’ Part of it has to do with your I-function repeating the same steps as before, but part of it has to do with the fear imprint the experience left in your brain (5).
Your brain stored the memory of your fear, and packed it away with its experiences and knowledge learned—just like it did for that snake you saw in the garden last week that scared you out of your shoes. If next week you saw a long, curved stick hidden in the grass, it is most likely that you would have a similar reaction to the stick that you had to the snake. Why? Because your brain stored a generalized fear memory in hopes that it would protect you in the future. For the 99.9% of the time that it’s just a stick, it’ll simply be a false alarm. But for the .1% of the time that it’s a snake, your brain will have saved your life. Your stage fright experience is similar in that it triggered an intense reaction throughout your body, and so your brain marked that fear as being important. Regardless of the fact that your fear may have been constructed by your own self, your brain still marks this occasion as one that should be remembered. Therefore, just thinking about getting back behind that podium might make your stomach turn over (5).
This also helps to explain why some people feel stage fright more intensely than others. While up on that podium, your brain flashed back to the time when you were twelve years old and you forgot your line in the school play. Your friends were disappointed, and the audience snickered as you began to sweat. You remember feeling embarrassed, self conscious, and frightened. But what if someone never had a bad experience in public speaking? Wouldn’t it then be innately easier for them to step up to that very same podium, in front of that very same audience, and give the exact same speech—butterfly free (5)? The answer is yes, which is why many speech coaches suggest that practice really does make perfect. The more times you succeed in your public performances, the more likely you are to associate that experience with something good, and not something stressful. You may also get into better practice of controlling the nervous effects your I-function can trigger if you do it time and time again. Taking your mind off what the audience is thinking in an effort to slow your own heart is no easy task if you have not practiced it before (4).
In all, stage fright is a vastly common affliction that can feel crippling when its your moment to shine in the spotlight. But as said here, it can be overcome if you have the right tools to do so. Bad experiences are embarrassing, but they are not proof of what you are capable of. And practice makes not only your performance perfect, but also your ability to control your I-function and the fear that it can inflict upon you. If you can understand your body’s own signals, you are capable of overcoming stage fright—no matter how difficult it can seem.
- Johnson, Steven Mind Wide Open
Scribner Publishers, New York, NY. 2004