Stage Fright: The Neuroscience of Why, and 5 Hacks to Defeat It.
Updated: Jan 31
Stage fright is the worst.
Anybody who’s had it will confirm that. Your brain goes in feeling that it's in control of what’s happening - it’s assessing the situation and trying to follow through with the plan – but your body didn’t get the memo. It’s shaking, flushing, nauseous, has dry mouth, is stuttering and sweating. Really not cool.
Stage fright is such a common experience, and the explanation for it lies in evolution. Evolution theory says that individuals with traits that help them survive are then, because they survived, able to pass those genes on to their progeny.
Stage Fright Is A Survival Trait?
Let me give you an example.
Babies are not intrinsically cute. They’re just babies.
But the hominids who found babies cute were probably more attentive and responsive parents, and because of that, their babies survived into adulthood and passed along their genes. Do that for a few dozen generations and the number of babies-are-cute people start to strongly outnumber the babies-are-just-babies people.
One sensible theory about stage fright says that social anxiety originated as a survival response to “hostile dominants,” triggering escape, avoidance, or submissive behavior.
So, from a monkey-brain perspective, you’re getting stage fright because you think your audience just might kill you.
Maybe not kill you, but your monkey brain does see your audience as potentially hostile, aggressives, or wanting your stuff. But whether your monkey brain feels a need to either protect your life or protect your bananas, it starts the limbic system (fight or flight) firing on all cylinders. And that becomes stage fright.
Stage fright becomes debilitating when your mind invests in or exaggerates that natural response. People with certain personality traits – perfectionism, control issues, fear of failure, the need to be liked – struggle more with stage fright than others. (If you want to know more, George Dvorsky has a wonderful article about the neuroscience of stage fright.)
Among performers, stage fright is very common. So let’s look at ways to deal with stage fright. You may never get over it, but you can learn to manage it.
HACKS FOR STAGE FRIGHT
Diaphragm breathing: When you’re afraid or stressed, you take short, shallow, and irregular breaths. When you sleep, you take long, deep, and regular breaths. If you can make yourself take “sleeping breaths” it will be harder for your body to remember that it’s panicking. Taking a breath, holding it for a beat, and releasing it (repeating for 2-5 minutes) can stimulate the vagus nerve, and encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to step up and calm you down!
Choose your thoughts: People with stage fright tend to imagine the worst, and those thoughts increase the symptoms. Instead, think (or even say out loud) thoughts that will calm and reassure you.
Visualize: This won’t help in the moment, but is your best investment in the long term. Long before your performance, regularly imagine the scene you anticipate triggering your stage fright. See yourself calm, cool, and kickin’ some audience ass.
Therapy. There are many kinds of therapy, and you may find one that works for you. There’s talk therapy, bio-feedback, hypnosis, and other options.
Beta Blockers: Better living through chemistry, people. Beta blockers are a non-addicting, cheap drug that blocks the effects of adrenaline. They really work for musicians with stage fright. You’ll need an Rx.
#Stagefright can be debilitating. The #neuroscienceofstagefright is predictable and makes it possible to understand and #controlstagefright. Here #meredithcolby lists #fiveways to #controlstagefright.