Charles Brantigan, an MD and researcher at the University of Colorado’s Health Services Center, has spent approximately twenty years studying the manifestation of stage fright in psychological and biological terms. He concludes that stage fright is the body’s defense mechanism consisting of the outpouring of adrenaline and the massive discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. This defense mechanism is inherent in all of us. It is instinctual, and more correctly referred to as the fight or flight reaction. Brantigan says this outpouring of adrenaline is tantamount to self poisoning.
Fight or flight is designed to strengthen the organisms defenses against dangers in the environment and attacks by enemies. The reaction is useful and valuable when we are confronted by saber toothed tigers, grizzly bears or a guy with a gun; but not useful when confronted with auditions, competitions for orchestra chairs, or even for the eight-bar solo you get to provide during your band’s performance. When performing for others, we perceive critics as enemies, audiences as thirsting for blood, and fiddle contest judges as assassins wielding a pencil.
Brantigan points out that this perception is highly inappropriate. We have misidentified the reality of the situation. He says the performer needs to psychologically re-identify performance as something other than dangerous. If we do, then the fight or flight symptoms are eliminated.
His studies indicate that often times the person can’t re-identify the situation, so they can’t control the symptoms. Remember the symptoms follow the identification. If you identify the situation as something to be feared, the inappropriate symptoms will follow. An individual cannot control the symptoms but can control the identification.
In order to help re-identify we need to remember that audiences are friendly. If they were not, they wouldn’t be there. Remember the selective exposure principle: We actively avoid information (people, music, performances, etc.) we disagree with, and actively seek information (people, music, performances, etc.) we do agree with. Your audience came to see you. If they didn’t like what you have to offer, they would avoid you by staying home or by going to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Your audience is not there to fight, so you do not have to flee. Your audience is friendly; it is not dangerous.
Limiting the Effects!
There are some things you can try when you are in front of an audience in order to help you minimize the effects of stage fright. Because the fight or flight reaction prepares a person for sudden and massive physical effort rather than the analytical or articulation or psychomotor skills required for a good performance. So:
Strut your stuff! Do not stand still!
Do not, get under the microphone or behind the lecturn and freeze in place. Once in front of the audience, limiting your movements is the worst thing you can do. The adrenaline rush is calling for you to move around, so move around. Don’t fight it, go with it. So:
Do, move around if at all possible and as much as possible. In some settings it will be easier to use big muscles to move around than in others. Some stages will allow you to walk around the room while others will keep you pinned behind the podium or under a microphone, but you can still move around while staying in place.
Speakers will use hand and arm movements, flex their legs, and look around the room. Fiddlers and other musicians can move around in time with the music. Tap your toe, tap your toes from the knee down, sway you body and shoulders with the music while holding the fiddle under the microphone. The movement burns off the accumulated adrenaline.
Many times, beginning speakers and musicians playing from memory are afraid they will lose their place and not be able to find it again, and that it will be obvious to the audience. Unless you provide the audience with an advance copy of your speech, they don’t know what you are going to say next. They have no idea. If they did, they wouldn’t need to be there. So:
Say anything you want! Play anything you want (try to stay in the right key). The audience will not know you blew it, or have stepped out of order, or don’t know where you are, unless you tell them. So, don’t tell them. You can simply re-state or even re-play something you have already said, while collecting thoughts or checking your notes.
Some experts in the field recommend that you as the speaker pick out certain people in the audience and center on them. Try to make yourself feel as though you are having an interpersonal conversation with them. If you do this, you still need to scan the rest of the audience occasionally so it does not appear as though you are ignoring them. Others suggest thinking of the speech as though you were having an interpersonal, across the dinner table, conversation with 150 people. Most of us do not have trouble articulating our thoughts when in a small group of friends. Think of the audience the same way.
But, what do you do when you have tried absolutely everything, nothing works, and you still suffer greatly from paralyzing stage fright?
When all else fails, try drugs!
Hold on, don’t panic, and don’t call the cops! What I am about to tell you has been explained in far greater detail in magazines like Time, Newsweek and a number of others; the information is public knowledge, but not as common as it should be.
When all else fails, trying drugs does not mean, take a handful of sedatives or tranquilizers, nor is it authorization to chug a six pack of beer or a quart of brandy. I do mean, talk to your family doctor about a type of prescription drug called a beta blocker.
These drugs have been thoroughly researched by the medical community. Although they were first introduced to assist humans with high blood pressure and/or migraine headaches, a corollary effect that was discovered was that they also help folks who suffer from stage fright.
According to Charles Brantigan, beta blockers are non-addictive, have no mental effects and have no effects on manual dexterity. They have been tested on surgeons performing operations, students taking exams, race car drivers, speechmakers and musicians among others. The Drug selectively blocks the beta division of sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stage fright.
He says that stage fright is a two stage biological process. The bodies release of adrenaline is not enough two trigger the overwhelming fear. The body must first release the adrenaline and then be received by the beta division of the sympathetic nervous system. It is the receipt of the adrenaline that causes the stage fright. Beta blockers block the receipt of the adrenaline even though it is still being released. Since it is not being received, the person does not feel the fear. Neither do they feel sedated or tranquil, drunk or stoned. They do feel normal.
His and others’ studies indicate that beta blockers can serve to help a person learn to re-identify a speaking or other stage performance away from a dangerous situation to one which does not result in the flight or flight reaction. They can help to break the psychological pattern of anxiety following the thought of performance, fright following the thought of stage, and apprehension follows the thought of communication.
In the summer of 1996 I taught a speech class in which one of the students admitted to me that any time he had ever tried to give a speech before, he would go to the front of the room and pass out. After hearing this part of my lecture, he went to his doctor and asked about beta blockers. Since the student had to give four speeches in the class, the doctor prescribed five of the pills. One for each of the speeches and one to try a day or two before the first speech, just so the student would know what happened when taking them. He told me they did not make him feel any different at all. Although he was still mentally anxious before and during his speeches he got through all of them without tipping over. The student received a “B” on his first two speeches and an “A” on his last two.
If you do suffer from stage fright, talk to your doctor. Help may be available to you in the form of beta blockers.