Anatomy of Stage Fright

As an investigator of the human body, I love to solve a puzzle and figure out the “why’s” and the “what’s” of a situation.  If you’re anything like me, knowing the reason behind things is often the solution to its weight on me. 

So many of us, whether it be in a formal setting like work or school, or even everyday situations communicating to friends or family, experience nervousness before or while we speak our truths before a receptive audience.  Speaking up is scary, especially if you fear being ignored or made fun of for what you have to say.  But who are you not to say something?  Your voice and expertise is just the thing the world needs and, as I would like to point out, as long as you stick to your intention and hold integrity to what you have to say, once the words leave your mouth they simply become sound waves.  The way another person receives and interprets your message is actually none of your business.  Their perspective and attitude is going to be based on their perception, their framework, and their filters.   Maybe what you have to say is the perfect thing at just the right time to “ping” them into a new way of looking at something?  Maybe it does nothing for them at the time.  Who knows?  

Regardless, let’s dissect and look a little deeper into the world of stage fright and it’s griping effects on the human body.

Imagine being in front of a room of people.  Multiple pairs of eyes staring at you in anticipation of what you are going to say.  The room is waiting on your every word.  The silence becomes amplified, as your vulnerability increases with the hopes of delivering a solid speech to your expectant audience.  Your breathing quickens.  Perhaps you feel tongue twisted, are talking too fast, or feel like you aren’t making any sense.  You know your mouth is moving, but you can’t hear the words as they come out.  Your knees shake, your body sweats, your mouth is dry.  

WTH….what the hormone!?

Yes, hormones!  Sounds sexy, right?  Well, not these kinds of hormones. 

During a stressful event, the sympathetic nervous system of your body sends out its “fight or flight” hormones of adrenaline and cortisol.  These players on the stage aren’t invited by choice, they just show up subconsciously from a evolutionary process that was built to protect the body from the threat of physical harm or….in todays world, public embarrassment.  Even though you don’t really believe someone will throw tomatoes at you or “boo” you off stage, the rationalization doesn’t stop the adrenaline.   This hormone is already out there increasing your heart rate, decreasing your peripheral vision and hearing, redistributing blood to your muscles, and decreasing your digestion which produces nausea, stomach butterflies, and dry mouth.     

By dissecting this apart, I can now prescribe three helpful antidotes to the experience of adrenaline and, fortunately, ones that will also make you a better speaker. 

  1.  Have a glass of water handy.  Water will naturally replenish the moisture in your mouth that the adrenaline removed by halting all salivary activity and may drown your nervous butterflies.  Swallowing water also closes our airway, and as we finish taking a sip of water, it will then lead to an automatic in breath.  When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to another part of your brain called the parasympathetic system, that works to calm down and relax you. 
  2.  Slow down!  While it would be worthwhile to channel your inner auctioneer at a fundraiser, it is not ideal during a speech or other times when you want to get your point across, as people can comfortably hear only 150 to 160 words per minute.   Being mindful of your speed will leave room for your audience to be captivated by the message instead of bombarded with words.  Another interesting take away for slowing down is that the half-life of adrenaline in your blood is approximately 1.2 min.  Perfect way to use the exhilaration of your adrenaline rush to make a stimulating speech opening and then keep a slower speed, so that by the time you are done with your opening, the adrenaline has mostly worn off and your audience is already hooked. 
  3.  Move around on stage, but don’t fidget.  Movement changes the position of your muscles, will help the rigidity relax, and burns energy.  Under the presence of adrenaline, the neck muscles contract, bringing the head down and shoulders up, while the back muscles draw the spine into a concave curve.  This, in turn, pushes the pelvis forward.  Do you see what’s happening?  You’re going fetal on your audience!  This is not a position of power.  In trying to resist this position, the body will begin to shake in places such as the legs and hands, so move around and use your hands to gesture and engage with your audience.

These three tools will help with the effects of adrenaline while you speak, but in closing, I’ll leave you with this positive fact.  Those experiencing adrenaline rushes typically feel temporarily stronger, faster and more tolerant of pain.  This may actually help you feel more motivated and prepared when faced with challenges, to be a better speaker, make a good impression, or move towards your goals.  Go ahead, speak and let your voice be heard. 

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