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Stage fright


I love to perform.  Getting up in front of an audience and singing, acting, reading or just speaking is about the most fun thing I can think of.

But many people find that hard to imagine.  Research shows that what North Americans fear more than anything else–more than snakes, heights, disease, going broke, even death–is public speaking.  Not listening to it (although, thanks to the referendum, that can be scary enough), but doing it.

You can call this “speech anxiety” if you wish, since that’s the formal term for it, but I call it “stage fright.”

Its symptoms are well-known:  sweaty palms, dry mouth, increased heart rate, shaky hands, weak knees, shortness of breath and butterflies in the stomach.  Blood pressure and muscle tension also increase.  All of these symptoms have the same cause:  confronted with a stressful situation, our bodies prepare us for flight or fight by activating the “HPA axis stress circuit.”

HPA stands for the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands.  As speech- (or curtain-) time approaches, the overly-concerned brain sends chemical signals to the hypothalamus, telling it to secrete a hormone which causes the pituitary gland to release another hormone which stimulates the adrenal glands to release yet another hormone which prepares the body to (supposedly) deal with any challenge.  Except the challenge the body has in mind is fleeing a rampaging water buffalo, not speaking to the local IODE chapter.  A case of “nerves” is really just the result of hormonal overkill.

For example, your heart rate speeds up.  Starting a few moments before that dreadful moment you must speak, act or sing, your heart rate rises into the 95 to 140 beat-per-minute range, compared to a typical resting heart rate in the 70s.  When you actually begin your speech, song or scene, your heart rate jumps clear into the 110 to 190 range–jazzercise territory.  About 30 seconds after that, however, the heart rate slowly returns to pre-speech levels, or even lower. 

With all that blood rushing around, you may find yourself flushing.  The hypothalamus interprets the surge of blood as a sign of increased body temperature and responds by routing more blood through the capillaries, tiny blood vessels close to the skin.

Stomach butterflies and knocking knees are another side-effect of this rush of hormone-laced blood.  At the same time your body pumps more blood to the brain, it constricts other blood vessels (to prevent you from bleeding to death if you’re gored by that non-existent water buffalo). This probably causes that tingly feeling in your gut. 

Meanwhile, the flood of hormones can overwhelm the muscles in your legs, which  are expecting you to run away.  Since running away from the IODE is not socially acceptable, your legs are all fired up with nowhere to go.  The overstimulated muscles spasm.

I said at the start of this column that I enjoy performing, and it’s true:  but I still experience some of these same symptoms before the curtain goes up.  The fact is, there’s no difference in physiological reactions between, say, someone who’s just fallen off a 10-story building and someone plunging down a 10-story-tall roller-coaster hill.  The difference is that the first person interprets those sensations as fear, while the second person interprets those sensations as “excitement.”  Which is why, when people ask me if I get scared before I go on stage, I say, no, I get excited.  Stage fright is a state of mind as much as a state of body.

Fear of public speaking is really a fear of being judged by the audience.  The speaker starts imagining (usually over-imagining) all the horrible things that will happen if his speech isn’t perfect, and then every little problem adds to his fear–especially since one of the things speakers most fear is appearing nervous.  But studies show that audiences are really bad about judging when a speaker is nervous, and generally they don’t care, if they’re interested in what the speaker has to say.  (People do tend to notice when a speaker faints; sorry, can’t be helped.)

The best way to get around the fear of public speaking, then, is to concentrate on the message, not the act of speaking.  And do your best to convince yourself your physical reactions are a sign you’re raring to go, instead of a sign you should crawl under the head table.

If all else fails, try that old saw about picturing your audience naked.  At least it’ll keep your mind off your own nervousness.

Of course, it may also give you nightmares, but that’s a topic for another column.

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