Stage fright – occurs with different intensity, before talks, during talks, and even after them. In order to deal with it, you need to learn about its symptoms and which methods you can use to prevent it

Stage Fright – Origin

The word stage fright is a feeling of fright when performing in front of the public. Stage fright itself can have different levels of intensity. A factor which amplifies this feeling can be fear of how one will be judged by the recipient. The higher one is in a hierarchy, or the more important the audience, the greater the intensity of stage fright can be. According to Mary L. Wolfe, there are two types of stage fright. One of them is a kind of stimulus and can actually be motivating, while the second one constitutes a type of shock, which inhibits action.


Symptoms of Stage Fright

Stage fright can be experienced on different levels. Just like in the case of every emotional problem, we have the following types of symptoms: physiological, cognitive, and behavioural. When it comes to the body – somatic (soma – body) symptoms are visible, for instance, in the reaction of the cardiovascular or respiratory systems, or they can occur as stomach and intestine perturbations. When looking at someone who is stressed out, we can see that they are pale, they are sweating, their feet and hands are shaking, and their muscles are tense. People who are stressed out may complain about dry mouth and dizziness. Where do these symptoms come from? At a high-stress level, adrenaline and noradrenaline are produced and transmitted into the blood system; it is said that in distant past, this had helped mankind to survive. The following rule is employed here – “fight or run”, which, to be honest, apparently has worked very well at the time of the Neanderthal people. Cognitive symptoms result from a thinking pattern, which is a burden we carry our whole life. From the first days of our life, we are surrounded by people and influenced by the way they behave and the way they react to different situations. We assimilate some of these behavioural patterns; they are imprinted on our identity and affect our lives. This can, e.g., be the fear of being made fun of, or judged by someone, the questioning of our values and competencies, and negative thinking. Behavioral symptoms can be observed as well. These are, for instance, nervous tics, a nervous smile, too much gesticulation, or de-automatization, which is the result of you not believing in your competences.


De-automatization in Musicians

De-automatization is a process in which “psychological structures that organise, select, restrict and interpret perceptual stimuli […] are temporally suspended or cancelled”.

To illustrate this topic, let us consider the case of musicians, who improve their motor muscle memory when learning, in other words, kinesthesis. For example, during a concert, musicians do not consciously focus on the technical aspect of playing an instrument, but on the artistic interpretation of the music. Now, when an artist becomes too excited, they might question their skills, start thinking consciously about the technical aspect of playing or get stressed out due to fear of forgetting a sequence of the melody. A too high dose of stress may then lead to the deautomatization of the earlier acquired habits. Which usually ends in a disaster. In the case of musicians, if someone cannot deal with a high level of stage fright, they will never be able to perform in front of an audience. In the music business, stage fright is perceived as one of the main reasons for not becoming successful. Even the most talented musician in such circumstance will not be able to show his, or her, skills in public.


Stress-Intensifying Factor

It is interesting to note that, according to studies, the social position of an audience is meant to the speaker. If someone’s audience is their boss, they are more prone to stress, as they may be judged, and if their presentation was weak, they may need to face the consequences. J. M. Jackson and B. Latané proved that fear and size of the auditorium is not of linear character, but the relationship gets weaker when the number of listener rises. The stress level is also lower; when we present concurrently with other people, the responsibility is divided.


Can We Say that Stress Is Bad?

A very high dose of stress – a paralyzing one – is destructive. You should do everything that is possible to avoid it. By understanding the activities going on in your organism, by knowing where stress comes from, we can control it to some extent. A low level of stress is actually motivating in the process of preparing for a talk. It helps to concentrate and raises the quality of the tasks you are doing. A soft form of stage fright can be our ally.


Methods of Fighting Stage Fright

We need to tackle our stress – be aware of what we hear in our minds. We need to understand the cognitive symptoms, i.e., why it is that we actually think in a negative way. If we understand that our negative thinking relates to the past and that the unpleasant situation will not reoccur again during our talk, it will be easier to fight the stress. We must do everything we can to win back our self-confidence and our competencies which we may have lost to some degree during. Autosuggestion can be helpful here. Try to separate yourself from negative judgments; you should rather consider the way you judge yourself and be aware of your values and successes.

Learn to hold a sober view of yourself and to understand where negative emotions actually come from.

Try to tackle the cognitive symptoms by affecting the somatic symptoms – so those which come from your body. Of course, you cannot actively control your hormone levels, but you can control two factors – your breath and your muscle tension. Get familiar with relaxation techniques, yoga, breathing exercises. The Internet is full of valuable methods.Apart from this, do not forget that your nutrition also affects your moods, hormone levels and ability to focus.


The Lumberjack’s Breath – Relaxation Exercises

In a critical or very stressful situation, I personally use a technique called “the Lumberjack’s Breath”. I stand with my legs fairly apart from each other (at best in a place where no one can see me  ), I stretch out my arms in front of me, as if I was holding an axe. I put my joined hands above my head and concurrently take a breath and let my hands down while swinging them (as if I was cutting wood) and exhaling the air energetically. I try to think about an axe and imagine a tree and the smell of the forest. The more details you can think of, the better.

When we take a deep breath which relaxes our body properly, the visualization of the exercise releases us from our past, letting us concentrate on the HERE and NOW. The exercise eliminates the muscle tension and allows us to feel relaxed. Our brain gets some fresh air, our muscles are loosened, and, as we concentrate on the absurd posture of the lumberjack, we manage to (partially) quiet our emotions.

I also advise you to get familiar with Schultz’s autogenic training or with the Alexander Technique and choose the one that suits you best.


Concluding Remarks

Focus on your strong points; be aware of your weak ones and eliminate them; find a positive aspect in your talk, be satisfied with it; try to think optimistically (at best, in every aspect of life); understand that stress is neither negative, nor positive; it is a state of mind that changes and you can partially control it. Remember that stage fright to some extent is motivating and can be your ally.

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