As far as irrational fears go, stage fright ranks pretty high. “You won’t die if you do it!” is the sarcastic reaction many have received from teachers, friends and family if they have voiced their concerns about getting in front of a crowd to assume the centre of attention. They are right, as far as I could find, in that there are no recorded deaths caused by stage fright – but this doesn’t make the fear any less real.
Glossophobia – glossa from the Greek for “tongue”, is more common than you may think. It’s hard to find a person who hasn’t experienced it at some point in their lives. In the UK, it is the third biggest fear after snakes and heights, and it is number one in the US. Globally, 5% of the world’s population suffer from stage fright. Hypnosis therapy and self-help books are used to find a solution for this fear more than any other.
Many who have made a living being in the spotlight still fear the thought of the stage. Stephen Fry, an award-winning writer and actor, couldn’t bear the thought of performing again in the West End production of Cell Mates and disappeared before the third performance began, leading to a 17-year hiatus from stage shows. Lorde, the internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter, has suffered from such intense stage anxiety that she is physically sick before a show. In 1967, a young Barbra Streisand forgot the words during a live performance, leaving a lasting effect on the EGOT winning legend. Streisand avoided live performances for 30 years and to this day she uses a teleprompter to provide her lyrics and onstage banter: “I couldn’t come out of it… What if I forgot the words again?” The pressure is heavy on the shoulders of many professionals in front of millions, but it can still be felt just the same by a student doing a presentation in front of their class.
Most people feel a slight nervousness when taking the mic before a performance or presentation, but some feel full on panic. There are two types of reaction: psychological and physical. The psychological reaction caused by stage fright is usually experienced beforehand and this means many back away from the situation due to the negative anticipation, never facing their fear. The embarrassment they could feel if they fail and the rejection that they could face afterwards from peers is too much to bear. This rollercoaster of emotions is all, of course, hypothetical and unlikely - but paired with a physical reaction, it can make the person feel like they are fighting for their life.
The intense physical response is what makes this anxiety feel so close to dying. The stress felt has been found to cause pain equal to a small car crash in some instances according to one medical study. As the performance begins, the body is in autopilot mode. The hypothalamus has signalled to the pituitary gland to stimulate ACHT which in turn allows the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline into the bloodstream, creating a domino effect of defences all over the body. The pupils dilate making it harder to read notes but easier to see long distance, allowing the performer to focus on the faces in the crowd. The muscles in the throat, neck and back tense up and prepare for an attack, resulting in difficulty in keeping one’s posture. A feeling of butterflies is caused by slowing down digestion and palms become sweaty. All of this is the brain attempting to protect you from danger - it’s the usual fight or flight response and it's actually perfectly natural.
The reason for it being so high on the list of fears for humans across the globe actually lies in our history and evolution. We evolved from hunters who had to have sharp instincts for danger to survive in the wild. The hypothalamus triggers these hormonal reactions in the body when it senses danger, which is what we perceive the stage as - a danger to our reputation. Unfortunately, our body doesn’t know the difference between a crowd waiting to see you perform and a bear in the woods ready to attack. The difference is that you do.
The first tip to limit these reactions is to trick the hypothalamus into a state of safety. A few deep breaths before getting on the stage can really make a difference and bring the attention back to the task at hand. Slowing the heart rate and relaxing the body is the best thing to do right before the performance. A glass of water can help prevent the mouth from drying up and avoiding any drinks high in caffeine can be useful to decrease nerves.
There are things you can do further in advance too. Know the material off by heart – whether this is song lyrics, facts and statistics, a speech or a script. Knowing these inside out can make you feel comfortable and increases the familiarity you have with what you are doing. This will allow you to be present in the moment whilst you’re on stage and you may even enjoy it. Practicing in front of those closest to you can also help in preparing. To be in an environment with no judgment and constructive criticism will allow you to get used to others hearing or seeing your performance, help you know how to feed on a crowd’s energy and increase your stage presence.
It can take years to achieve a stage presence with the right levels of charisma to keep an audience’s attention. The spotlight is not for everyone, but to be able to manage public speaking can improve career opportunities and self-confidence like nothing else can. Take a deep breath and remember that both your psychological and physical reactions are valid, normal and can eventually be controlled.