The Science Of Stage Fright And How To Overcome It
People experience stage fright in all sorts of ways. For some, it’s a ball of energy that gets you pumped and excited. For others, the butterflies aren’t limited to the stomach. And, most unfortunately, some experience a severe and paralyzing nausea.
Everyone experiences some level of nervousness before speaking in front of an audience and everyone has to figure out their own way to overcome and conquer the feeling. It may not go away entirely, nor should it, but knowing how to diminish it and make it work for you is essential for any public speaker.
Before I speak in front of a group of 5 or 500, I get the pre-stage jitters just like anyone else. Thankfully, my acting training gave me so many tools I can use at a moment’s notice to help me get into an effective state.
However, I know that some people enjoy the more scientific approach to dealing with stage fright (myself included). And so, Isaiah Hankel the Cheeky Scientist offered to write a post with a bit more left-brained approach to conquering stage fright. I was more than happy to have him step in and share his thoughts.
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
One of the worst things that can happen to a speaker moments before they take the stage happened to me.
No alarm and no wake up call and I’m supposed to speak in front of 200 people! I ran out of the hotel room with my laptop tucked under my arm. As I rushed into the lecture hall I was finishing slamming down a stale cup of coffee that I got in the hotel lobby courtesy counter. 5 minutes before I was supposed to start and the only thing I could think of was the image of an angry audience waiting impatiently. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had rotten tomatoes and cabbages armed and ready to throw at me.
Thankfully, I was able to set up quickly and start (almost) on time. The MC introduced me and I began hustling through my first presentation slide.
Then, things got weird.
All of a sudden, I started feeling shaky, lightheaded, and uncomfortable. My heart pounded and my lungs tightened. I felt like I couldn’t breath. I looked out at the audience and was absolutely certain they knew I was freaking out.
I looked around for the exits and rationalized ways how I could escape or at least take a quick break. I was having a panic attack.
Separated From The Herd
Most people fear speaking in front of an audience more than they fear death. Seriously, numerous public polls have shown that the average person would rather be dead than be on a stage.
Why is public speaking so terrifying?
The reason people would rather die than look dumb is because our bodies are hardwired to initiate a very strong flight-or-fight response in front of a captive audience. Your brain does not like being alone, completely exposed, surrounded by other people staring at you. These conditions are reminiscent of a young zebra, separated from its herd, slowly realizing he is being circled by a pride of lions.
Stage fright is a biological response.
This response, often referred to as hyperarousal (or, flight-or-flight) is characterized by a strong discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. Your subconscious brain starts attacking your body with large doses of adrenaline. As a result, the blood vessels in your muscles dilate while the rest of your blood vessels constrict. Your heart and lung activity accelerates, you digestion slows down, your skin pales and flushes, your pupils dilate, you get tunnel vision, lose your hearing, and start sweating and shaking.
Public speaking would be a lot easier if someone slapped you in the face 5 minutes before you took the podium
The key to overcoming stage fright is to activate it on your own terms.
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By entering a state of hyperarousal prior to speaking, you will deplete your sympathetic nervous system. In other words, you will take away your brain’s ammunition. It won’t be able to attack you.
The best way to do this is with exercise and cold shower therapy (or a slap in the face).
Putting yourself through a difficult work out, or taking a very cold shower, does not feel good. It hurts. But, it hurts in a good way. Your body activates your sympathetic nervous system and releases large amounts of adrenaline, as well as endorphins. Endorphins are painkillers that give you a sense of calm and clarity. This is why, after a hard work out or a cold shower, you feel energized and relaxed at the same time.
Before your next presentation, wake up early and go for a run, or do a short weight circuit at the gym. Other options include yoga, Pilates, or just basic stretching. Any type of physical activity will force your sympathetic nervous system to discharge on your terms. Then turn your shower’s temperature control nob all the way towards the big “C” and jump in for at least 5 minutes.
These steps will help you feel energized and relaxed before your next big presentation.
One final note: avoid overloading your body with caffeine and sugar, especially on an empty stomach. Things like coffee and soda put your sympathetic nervous system in an overactive state and will lower your threshold for freaking out on stage.
Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D. is a scientist, entrepreneur, and coach. He manages four online business and is currently a consultant for over a dozen leading biotechnology companies. Most recently, Isaiah launched Cheeky Scientist, a platform for entrepreneurs and people with advanced degrees. In the last two years, he’s given 250 seminars in 20 different countries including keynote addresses at Harvard University and Cambridge University.