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Stage Fright: The Brain Science of Why, and 5 Hacks to Defeat It.

Updated: Jan 17, 2022


Stage fright is the worst.

If you've experienced it, you know it. You're stepping onto the stage. You know you're prepared for your performance. But... your body doesn't get the memo.


You're shaking, flushing, nauseous, your mouth is dry and you're sweating. Once all that starts happening, you're in a terrible mind-body loop that can amplify your anxiety. This feels awful, and is not the stage presence you had hoped to share.



Stage fright is a common experience for those in the performing arts. That same neurological response that prompts adrenaline (epinephrine) to course through your body can also be triggered by public speaking, test-taking, sex, interviews, and athletic events. The physical response can be as mild as a slightly dry mouth, and as extreme as vomiting or dizziness.


One explanation for this physical response to being the center of attention 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 As A Survival Trait?

Let me give you an example.

Babies are not intrinsically cute. They’re just babies.

But the hominids who experienced 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 might be hostile, aggressive, or want to take your stuff.


Whether your monkey brain feels a need to protect either your well-being or protect your bananas, it sends the message that you're in danger. Perception of danger will almost always trigger a response from the sympathetic nervous system which gets your body ready to fight or flee. 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 – typically 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.)

Stage fright is a slippery subject. You know when it's happening, but you may not know why. You may never get over it, but you can learn to manage it.

 

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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 (1)

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett studies emotions. She says that for many people, simply reframing the physical response they're perceiving can alter the experience of their performance. As you're feeling your breath get shallow and your heart rate increase, you can interpret those symptoms as fear. But Dr. Feldman Barrett says you can also choose to interpret those symptoms as excitement or anticipation. Emotions are, in large part, about the stories we have learned to associate with physical feelings.


Choose your thoughts (2)

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.