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Stage Fright or Stage Fight?

29 November, 2015


In prehistoric times two hormones geared us up for action – either to fight off enemies and predators – or to run away from the danger they posed. Known as adrenaline and noradrenaline (or epinephrine and norepinephrine) they are “neurotransmitter” chemicals without which we would have died out as a species. Their evolutionary effects are still with us today – though as performers we are no longer required to “fight or flee” for survival!

Though both are similar, adrenaline is the more commonly recognized of the two, though both are released during a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline acts on almost all body tissues, whereas Noradrenaline’s action is more specific – it causes vasoconstriction (a narrowing of the blood vessels) so is useful for maintaining blood pressure and increasing it in times of acute stress.

The effects of both are responsible for regulating the body’s response to stress – creating the symptoms we call “nerves”. As a performer I believe an understanding of the role of these chemicals can help us cope with their effects and ensure that they are our friend and not our foe – which was of course their original purpose!

So what do they do – and why? Put simply, their aim is to assist the body to mobilise energy to enable our muscles to respond to a perceived threat. This happens fast – and creates a chain reaction that is impossible to resist – though you can “work with it”. Your parasympathetic nervous system causes your adrenal glands (located on the kidneys) to release large amounts of adrenaline into your system, in what is often called an adrenaline dump, rush, or surge. The good news is you can learn to love it – and become an “adrenaline junkie!”

Here are the most common functions of adrenaline – and its side effects for a speaker.

a) Breathing, Heart rate and Blood pressure increase, to supply the body with more oxygen for the muscles and organs. This in turn causes the body to overheat and sweating becomes apparent on face, palms and armpits. Wearing a dark shirt or jacket will help conceal this!

b) Blood vessels constrict in the extremities (Vasoconstriction) to redirect blood to the major muscle groups and away from energy consuming bodily functions (see (e) below). The vessels supplying the muscles dilate to cope with the increased supply (leading to a pale face, and often a feeling of cold fingers, toes, nose, and ears.)

c) Pupils dilate, making it harder to read anything up close (like presenter notes) but improves long range visibility, making you more aware of your audience’s facial expressions and body language

d) Skeletal muscles become tense and ready for action. Your motor neurons “gear up” to respond to the impending threat – and this “excitation” leads to shaking and trembling – which is particularly noticeable in the hands. The “shakes” are made more obvious if a speaker is holding a piece of A4 paper with their notes on – which amplifies the vibrations! This is why it is better to use record cards – or place notes on a lectern.

e) The digestive system shuts down (including production of saliva). Vasoconstriction diverts blood away from the digestive system to more “essential” functions. This can leave the body with the effects of a dry mouth, nausea and dizziness. The presence of food in the stomach conflicts with this digestive shut-down and exacerbates the feeling of nausea – causing the churning sensation in your stomach that we call “butterflies”. Emptying the stomach solves the conflict – which is why many performers and sportspeople “throw up” before performing! Getting “butterflies” is unavoidable – the trick – as the saying goes – is not to fear them – but to get them “to fly in formation”! Never speak on a full stomach – eat a light, easily digestible carbohydrate-rich meal well before your event (see f.) below). Dry mouth? Always have a glass of water handy and take a sip at an opportune moment!

f) Metabolic rate increases and assists in breaking down the body’s stored energy in fat cells. Glycogen stores in the liver are metabolized to provide instant energy, spiking blood sugar and blocking the appetite receptors in the brain, reducing the urge to eat. The combined effects of  e) and f) explain why many after-dinner speakers never eat their meal – me included! (Solution: eat several hours before speaking at a dinner – and choose light menu options like soup or fish – not steak!). You need your brain to be receiving the maximum blood flow of oxygen – and not having to compete with digesting a heavy meal! Drink water – not alcohol  – which can further affect your ability to think clearly!!

g) Though unlikely to affect a speaker …  adrenaline affects the sphincters controlling the bowels and bladder, causing them to relax – leading to well documented instances of involuntary excretion in extreme situations of fear and shock (for similar reasons to vomiting – i.e. ridding the body of unwanted matter).

While the above are the main physical symptoms …  there are also emotional symptoms, which one writer described as “having racing thoughts, feeling incompetent for the task, embarrassment or fear of forgetting what to say. The individual can feel that the room is closing  in on them, their throat constricts making breathing and speaking difficult, and the beating of the heart is so fast it’s like having a heart attack. In more severe conditions, the brain “freezes” (actors and speakers call it “drying”) and the individual feels giddy and lightheaded.”

Anyone reading the above would be entirely justified in asking why on earth a performer would choose to do a job with the potential for such severe side effects! The fact is however – that when you learn to channel these symptoms into improving your performance, the feeling is one of exhilaration – a true life-enhancing drug rush! Its a case of “feel the fear and do it anyway” – I love it! Luckily I don’t have to throw myself off a mountain to experience it!

Also of interest to speakers is an article on the effects of adrenaline by blogger Ashish Arora – who describes the effects of the “flight or fight” syndrome on memory – and throws some light on the reason for the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach when nervous – see here:

In my next post I shall examine some strategies for working with – and not against – the power of adrenaline, and will be giving you my top 10 tips to harness it’s amazing capacity to improve and enhance your performance – as it was designed to do!

If you are looking for a speaker or conference host to ensure the success of your next event – please get in touch!

Next post: How to appear confident, poised and nerveless – guaranteed!

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