State fright, performance anxiety, pre-game jitters, a case of the “nerves.” We call it by many different names but it’s all the same thing. And it happens to everyone. Yes, even the biggest music stars, political stars, business icons, and sports stars feel performance anxiety before stepping on stage, stepping into a debate, or stepping over a three-foot putt that could win the Masters. Sir Richard Branson and Warren Buffett both say they had enormous stage fright early in their careers. Barbara Streisand felt paralyzed by it much of her career. Hip Hop star Jay Z says he had such stage fright he felt naked on stage. That’s why he puts his hand over his crotch. So don’t feel like you’re the only person who suffers before getting to the front of the room, the stage, the opportunity.
Here’s the big difference between the people who thrive and the people who shrivel under the weight of stage fright: The people who thrive make it work for them. They control it. The people who shrivel allow it to work against them. It controls them.
You will always feel a measure of performance anxiety, pre-game jitters, stage fright before a big presentation, important speech, major media interview. The key isn’t eliminating performance anxiety because you can’t eliminate it. The key is understanding what’s going on in your body and learning how to put that to use for you instead of against you.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it performance anxiety. There are two parts to it:
- Psychological triggers—what you think
- Physiological reactions—how our body reacts
Let’s walk through the process. It’s a week out before a major presentation you have to deliver. The program isn’t fully together and you have a busy week ahead. You start to worry that you won’t even have time to finish the presentation, no less have time to practice it. Your thoughts start sprinting down a very dark alley. See if these sound familiar:
“This is going to look terrible.”
“I’m going to look terrible.”
“If I bomb this presentation than (fill in your negative consequence)”
“If that happens, I’m out of a job. In this economy I can’t be out of a job.”
Before you know it, you feel awful. Your breathing gets shallow. Your stomach is in knots. Your heart rate has accelerated. Your palms feel sweaty. You have cotton mouth. You try to push thoughts of the presentation out of your mind. But the thoughts and your physical reactions only multiply the next time they come up as the presentation grows closer.
Even if you pull together the presentation—and you usually do—the same symptoms show up: shallow breathing, stomach in knots, you feel bent over, sweaty palms, cotton mouth. The morning of the presentation you feel so bad, your thoughts convince you that the audience isn’t going to like it. You feel awful. So the only thing you can think of doing is just get through it.
When you do just get through it, you are out of breath, feel like your major organs went through a food processor, and you either want to lay down or vomit. And after all the sweat that has poured across your body you definitely need a shower!
You are not alone. Millions of people around the world share the same experience, the same performance anxiety.
The key is learning how to control it.
To do that you have to understand the role your mind and your body play in the process.
Any time we have to get up in front of other people and talk, play, or perform, we face the potential that something could go wrong. The key word here is “could.” Your brain identifies the presentation, the opportunity, as a perceived threat. And that starts a three-part chain reaction:
- The amygdala, two small, almond shaped masses of cells at the base of your central nervous system trigger a fight or flight response from your body to prepare your body for a perceived
threat. This is a survival mechanism passed along to you from your most ancient ancestors who faced threats from saber-tooth cats to Huns and Visigoths. And while you will likely never face a saber-tooth cat, Hun, or Visigoth in one of your presentations your body reacts the same way your ancestor’s did when they did have to face those threats.
- A flood of hormones races through your blood stream: adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrin among others. These hormones create added energy and a heightened sense of awareness. Your ancestors needed those to avoid the saber-toothed cats and to fight the Huns and Visigoths. We’ll call these The Visigoth hormones.
- The Visigoth hormones cause a series of physiological responses:
- Your neck and back muscles contract because your body is trying to force itself into the fetal position to defend your organs. This body slouches—good for hiding from Huns, bad for addressing an audience. This is called a low-power position. And at the moment you feel extreme stage fright you feel powerless.
- Your blood vessels constrict so your body can focus on feeding the organs. Your hands and legs might start to shake. Your fingers tingle. Your palms get sweaty. This is just because your body thinks it’s preparing for an impending attack. “Visigoth’s 200 yards. Take cover!”
- Your digestive system goes into energy conservation mode. Who knows how long you’ll have to hide from those damned Huns? Your body begins to maximize efficient delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your vital organs. This is why you feel dry mouth and butterflies.
- Your heart rate increases. Adrenaline causes this. Ever try to out run a saber-tooth? You’ll need a strong heart pumping very fast. This can create the sensation that your heart is moving up into your throat.
- Your Pupils dilate. Your ancestors didn’t have night-vision goggles. They needed to be able to scan the horizon and figure out how many Huns and Visigoths were heading their way. Only a couple? Stay and fight! There’s two thousand of them? Run! Your body automatically shifts into long distance view at the expense of your short-distance vision. Handy tool for the ancestors. Total suck for you because it makes it much harder to read your presentation notes.
Is it any wonder we call it stage fright? Performance anxiety is caused by the most primitive part of your brain mis-perceiving an opportunity as a threat.
Now that your eyes are wide open, your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, your breathing is shallow and your mouth is parched do you feel like doing a presentation? I didn’t think so.
But you have to so you do your best to just get through it. You race. You mumble. You stumble. You get out of sync with your slides. You notice someone yawning. That guy over there, the one who’s ancestor was probably a Visigoth, is looking at his phone. Oh my God, you think, I’ve lost the audience. This is coming apart. Bam! Your amygdala sees the audience as an even bigger threat. A threat to your reputation, career, and earning potential triggers the exact same three-part process that saber-tooth cats, Huns, and Visigoths triggered in your ancestors. You’re off to the races again, going through the same three-part process that now exacerbates all of the physiological responses to the psychological mis-perception of danger.
So you talk faster. You avoid eye contact with the audience. You do your best to just get through it. You’re happy you survived, but that’s all you did. The Huns have ransacked your opportunity. The Visigoths have run off with your pride, and the saber-tooth cat is busy eating what was left of the promotion you were hoping to get. Of course you don’t want to do any more presentations. The flood of The Visigoth hormones have run through you and torn you apart.
Here’s the good news. There is a way out of this vicious cycle.
You can’t control the triggering mechanism that starts with the amygdala identifying your speech, presentation, game, testimony, or media interview as a perceived threat. You can control what your brain does next. The next step is to get your brain to release elevated levels of three helpful hormones: endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. I call these The Advocate hormones.
Endorphins are your bodies natural pain medication. Think of them as instant aspirin. They make you feel better and they reduce both real and perceived pain. They lower stress—which you really need right now—and they increase your sense of well-being.
Dopamine motivates us to take action toward our goals, desires, and needs. Think of them as a friendly nudge that makes you want to get in front of the audience. When you increase the dopamine in your system, you will reduce your feelings of self-doubt. Think of dopamine as the “Yes You Can!” hormone.
Serotonin increases in your system when you feel important or significant and it makes you feel more important and significant. To produce more serotonin all you have to do is think about past achievements that made you feel, you guessed it, important or significant. It turns out our brains don’t differentiate very well between in-the-moment achievement and re-living past achievements. Think of serotonin as your mom in hormone form. Yes, you are wonderful and important! Thanks Mom. Love you too. The other thing that helps us pump more serotonin is sunshine. Wear sunscreen, but get outdoors and grab a little sunlight. You will feel better.
In the end, the way you feel in front of the room has a lot to do with the balance between the Visigoth hormones: adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine leading the charge because your brain thinks it sees Visigoths, and The Advocate hormones: endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin—that make you feel like you are Mr. or Ms. I can do this!
It’s a little like a three-on-three basketball game. Visigoths vs. Advocates. The team with the most hormones in your body wins and you either feel hunched over waiting for that saber-tooth cat to eat you alive or you stand tall ready to shine and conquer the room.
Up until now, the Visigoths have been killing it, winning with one shut out after another. It’s not even a rivalry. It’s a route. But the time has arrived for you to even the score and let The Advocates win. When you do that something amazing will happen: adrenaline—team captain for The Visigoths—switches sides and becomes a key player on The Advocates. Adrenaline starts to help you think on your feet, have powerful body language, project your voice, and energize your audience. When that happens, it’s game over. The Advocates win in lopsided fashion, a total blow out. You start feeling more important and significant—serotonin, incoming! Your sense of stress vanishes—open floodgate number one and let all those endorphins in! And you start to stretch yourself both in the moment and into the future because you realize you can do this, and you can do even more—hello, anyone home? Dopamine delivery. No signature needed.
Now that you know and understand the key players in the starting lineups of the Visigoths and the Advocates, it’s time to fully understand the rules of the game:
- You can’t control—and shouldn’t even try to control—the release of the Visigoth’s hormones. Blame your ancestors if you like, but this bunch is beyond your control.
- You can—and should—control the release of the Advocates. The more you release, the better you feel. Pretty simple.
- Your emotions will tell you who is winning at any given time. Feeling confident? Advantage Advocates. Pretty sure you suck? Visigoths starting to run away with the day.
- Visigoths strike with instant and overwhelming power; Advocates work more slowly. Be patient. Life is a long game.
- Everyone responds differently to behaviors designed to release the Advocate hormones. You have to find the one or the ones that work for you. And there is always at least one that will work for you.
So now that you understand how the game works and the rules of the game, you only have one thing left to do: learn how to play the game so the Advocates always win and you perform better under pressure and always shine in the face of performance anxiety. To do that, download my free cheat sheet: Get my Free Report, Stage Fright: Simple Strategies to Overcome It and Perform Better Under Pressure