Stage Fright ( I call it Presenteritis )
Presenteritis can strike at any time and the symptoms are different for every individual. Whether you sweat, shake or stutter your symptoms are essentially a stress reaction. It can affect anyone at anytime, even people who have performed in front of an audience many, many times. Robbie Williams cancelled his stadium tour in 2006 blaming it on intense stage fright and Hugh Grant attributes his early retirement to it.
It sounds crazy but you don’t need to be on stage to get stage fright, you can get it at a networking event, when talking to a work colleague or at the mere thought of picking up the phone to make a sales call. Whatever the source, Presenteritis is a very real problem for sufferers.
The symptoms of stage fright are actually a natural part of the body’s primary threat response. Every living creature, whether reptile, mammal or primate is pre programmed with a basic survival instinct, the primary threat response, which is commonly called the “fight or flight” response.
The “fight or flight response” is an autonomic response, in other words it is instinct, something that our brain automatically triggers within our body in the belief that it will keep us safe. It is a set of healthy physiological responses that allow an animal to take effective action to either avoid or face what it perceives to be danger. For example if you startle a deer it will nearly always run away from you rather than confront you. Every animal will decide whether to flee from danger or stand its ground and fight it.
We humans will make a virtually instant assessment of every dangerous situation, very often we will decide to flee to a safe distance in which case we need our body moving as fast as possible, and, if we do decide to stay and fight, we need our body on full alert so that we can react physically to our opponent.
The problem you have as a presenter is that when someone asks you to address and audience or even, sometimes, just chat to a couple of your colleagues, they expect you to be fairly friendly and stand more or less in one place not leaving much of a “fight” or “flight” option.
So, you are standing pretty much still and the amygdala in your brain is busy trying to protect you by releasing chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream via your nerve cells. These cause really dramatic changes in your body giving it the best possibly chance of running away or fighting to the death. In theory you should be thanking your body for doing a few very sensible things but in reality you could well be struggling to cope with the unwanted reactions.
What are the Symptoms?
Muscles contract throughout your body – it is now prepared to spring into action with a burst of energy. When your back muscles contract it draws your spine into a concave curve. Basically your body tries to go into a fetal position to protect its vital organs but you insist on standing up straight in front of your audience. The longer you fight your body the more likely the muscles are to tremble, the more you try to hold them still the more they tremble. This can well result in knocking knees or quivering hands.
As your neck muscles contract it draws up your shoulders and pulls your head down. When you keep your head up, looking at your audience, your vocal chords stretch and your voice tightens. The blood also rushes away from your viscera, (the bit down the middle of your body) and goes to your limbs so your voice is quite likely to squeak and you may also start to get a headache – nice!
The blood initially rushes away from your frontal lobes and into your limbs so you can get that totally blank feeling, leading to stuttering or even complete silence. That’s why you always need notes, even if they are in your pocket.
Ever wondered where the expression cold feet comes from?
During fight or flight (stage fright) the blood vessels in your extremities constrict, your body reckons that you need less oxygen in your toes and feet, your nose and ears so it is diverted to your major limbs and guess what – you get cold tingling feet and nose and sometimes ears.
Your heart races because your blood pressure rises as your body pumps blood and oxygen to your major organs, your head, chest and stomach priming them for action.
And yes, you sweat because as the blood pumps quickly round your body it starts to overheat and needs to sweat to cool down so you perspire on your brow, under your arms, in fact anywhere and everywhere.
Shortness of Breath
You automatically start to breathe in rapid, shallow breaths. Your body thinks it needs more oxygen and rapid shallow breathing cycles the largest amount of air in and out of the lungs but it also leaves you with little breath to speak.
These are caused by the digestive system shutting down. Who needs to process food when you need to flee or fight? Your stomach will feel like it has a lead weight in it or a kaleidoscope of butterflies performing the loop the loop; add to this your dry mouth and one thing you will not feel like doing is talking.
In a dangerous situation you need good long distance eyesight so your pupils dilate and you become able to focus on a clear view of the horizon – not great for reading notes but fabulous for seeing the expressions on the faces of the audience.
Well so much for the symptoms, if you have Presenteritis you are probably familiar with them already
What is the Cure?
The “cure” varies from person to person just as the symptoms do. In my 20+ years of helping individuals overcome stage fright I have developed a series of successful programmes and am happy to say that I have a 100% success rate. Sadly it’s not possible for me to blog a one size fits all “cure”, but I don’t want you to go away empty handed so, below, are a few top tips that will make a difference until we can get together personally.
Part of the fear of performing comes from thinking that you’ll forget your lines and won’t know what to do. The best way to prepare against forgetting your lines is to know what they are, be really familiar with them, and practice saying them out loud. Things always sound different in your head so if you don’t want any surprises on stage hear how your words sound first.
Tense and relax all your muscles – all of them.
Use your large muscles – those ones that are waiting for you to spring into action and attack – use them to walk briskly round the building, swing your arms clench and unclench your fists, pull faces – big ones – stretch your back, and stretch your neck, basically use up all the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that you amydala has kindly produced and stop it hanging around in your body causing problems.
Take control of your breathing.
This exercise is great for correcting the shallow, rapid, anxious breathing that Presenteritis has brought on and giving your cells the oxygen that they need. It is really simple and no one will even know you are doing it.
Take a deep breath in through your nose for the count of three and then breathe out through your mouth slowly for the count of six. It is the breathing out that relaxes you. When you breathe out in an long slow breath your body interprets that sigh as a signal that the danger has passed and your stress levels begin to decline again. As they decline so will the rest of your symptoms.
Play your body at its own Game
If your legs are shaking or your hands are quivering then shake them yourself, on purpose, for a few minutes. It’s amazing but your body won’t repeat the autonomic reaction if you have consciously made it do it too.
Watch what you Eat
Remember your digestive system shuts down so don’t have a mega meal just before you speak.
You may also want to avoid milk which can cause phlegm.
And Watch what you don’t Eat
Don’t starve yourself – all that stress uses up your sugar reserves so make sure you manage something and if you can make it high in carbohydrates even better. Lack of food results in irritability, loss of memory, lack of concentration cold hands, cold feet, headaches, trembling. Hmmm sound like those Presenteritis stage fright
Watch what you Drink
Avoid Alcohol & be careful with Caffeine. Alcohol will not help, not one little bit, so do not have even one little drop! And caffeine is well known for making you jittery – do you want to be jittery?
And Keep Your Vitamin & Mineral Levels Up
All vitamins and minerals are good for you in a balanced proportion, but my top 3 tips are:
Vitamin C – it’s well known for boosting the immune system and combatting stress.
Vitamin B is used up in huge amounts when the body is under stress so make sure you eat plenty in the run up to the event.
The minerals Calcium and Magnesium together act as a natural tranquilliser and help calm nerves and avoid cramps.
Watch out for more Presenteritis Blogs – It’s a huge subject.