You can thank your ancestors for stage fright. It really is their fault. But it’s also why they lasted long enough to ensure you are here.
What Causes Stage Fright
Stage fright, or performance anxiety, is nothing more than a flood of adrenaline pumping through your system. It is triggered the same way your most ancient ancestors felt flight or flight syndrome when they faced a dangerous, even life-threatening situation—a saber tooth tiger outside their hut or Visigoths or Huns storming their village.
In perceived dangerous situations, adrenaline floods through your body to help you make fast decisions and to act on those decisions. Fight or flight. You decide. Then you do it. Adrenaline helps you pull it off. It came in handy for your ancestors.
Unfortunately, part of your brain perceives things like public speaking, making a presentation, singing to an audience, talking on camera, going to a job interview, or briefing your boss as “dangerous” situations. The part of your brain that does that is called your reptile brain, the part that hasn’t evolved past identifying that when 1,000 Huns are storming the village it’s time to run like hell and get out of there. It’s the part of your brain designed too keep you alive. It doesn’t evaluate and consider that maybe the Huns will bring better farming tools or building skills and improve the village. It’s more like an on-off switch. Safe. Not safe. And when it flips on not safe mode the adrenaline flood goes open.
That’s why you get stage fright. The reason some people get more and others get less is just a DNA pass through. It all goes back to how your ancestors were wired.
How to Manage Stage Fright
Now that you know what causes it, you can do something about it.
Here is a three-step approach to managing your stage fright or performance anxiety.
- Accept that you will get it.
- Everyone gets it to one degree or another. Remember, it’s there to serve you
- Most people think of it as fear. Instead, think of it as “fuel.” It will get you up for your presentation, your meeting, your performance. It’s actually a very good and helpful thing.
- The problem isn’t that you get an adrenaline rush. The problem is you get too much adrenaline. It’s your job to control how much you need and want and what to do with the rest of it.
Think of adrenaline impacting how you feel the way the temperatures control on the wall impacts how hot or cold a room is. If the room is too hot, you cool it down. That’s all you have to do with adrenaline. You cool things down a little by releasing some of it.
Adrenaline gets out of your system most efficiently through your teeth, your voice, your hands, and your feet. So when you feel overwhelmed by stage fright try any of three approaches until you burn off a little fuel and cool down the “room.”
- I like to work out the morning of a big presentation or a speech, but even a quick set of pushups, climbing a few flights of stairs, a brisk walk around the block will do the trick. When you put your body into physical motion you naturally burn off some of the excess adrenaline.
- Just before you go on or go into the meeting take your open palms and press them together vigorously as you exhale. Really push hard. Breathe through your lips like you are blowing air through a straw. This one is magic and works immediately. Do it as many times as necessary to bring down the adrenaline to a more comfortable level.
- Ever notice how much better you feel after you yell? I mean really let it loose. Obviously you can’t do this in front of an audience or your boss, but you can do it in your car, in your bedroom, in your hotel room (Just do it into a pillow so the people next door don’t call the police). Cut loose and scream. Arrrrrrrrggghhhhh. Or if you prefer, try cursing $H&! at a wildly exaggerated volume. You will feel so much better. Guaranteed.
Remember, you don’t want to get rid of all the adrenaline. It’s there to serve you, to get you up, to perform at your highest level. You just want to get rid of the excess adrenaline, the part that makes you hyper jittery, gives you an upset stomach, and makes you wish you were never born.
Play around with the three approaches. Combine them. With a tiny bit of experimenting, you’ll find what works for you. And when you do, you’ll know why you get stage fright and exactly what do to about it.