Why We Experience Performance Anxiety

February 13, 2017

One of the most prevalent fears people has is getting up in front of people to speak.  Many people experience anxiety that is so overwhelming, they do everything possible to avoid anything remotely resembling speaking in front of an audience. However in today's competitive marketplace, surveys indicate that communication skills are one of the top "soft" skills  employers are looking for when interviewing new hires.  Even if you aren't required in your current position or life to do presentations, it's very likely that you will find yourself needing public speaking skills at some point.  Although it may seem hard to believe, especially if the mere thought of standing in front of a crowd, makes your heart pound, mastering presentation skills is one of the most rewarding and affirming experiences you can give yourself in life.


That being said, the first thing that most people need to deal with is the not-so-subtle elephant in the room - anxiety or as it is commonly called "Stage Fright."  The truth is, the term "Stage Fright" is a bit of a misnomer.  I'll go so far as to call it a myth.  


Don't get me wrong. I know all too well the uncomfortable sensations that "stage fright" causes. Just the other day I had to make a phone call that had my heart practically jumping out of my chest.  However, what we commonly call "stage fright," is actually part of one of the many complex systems the human body uses to protect and help us. 


So let's unravel what I'm calling "The Myth of Stagefright."  What we are really talking about is the biology of adrenaline.  


Let’s discover what happens behind the scenes in our bodies when we are experiencing "stage fright." When we have something important or life changing about to happen, a primitive part of our brain, the hypothalmus gets to work. This part of the brain does not distinguish a high stakes presentation or interview from a life-threatening event. The hypothalmus is in charge of the Sympathetic Nerve System.  I prefer to call it the "SuperHero" system.  I call it the "Superhero System" because it literally makes us better presenters, if we understand how to use it to our advantage.


 Here's how it works - when we have a major task that is very important to us, our brain processes it as a "survival" event. This triggers our "fight or flight" process, a very ancient instinct dating back to when we had to avoid predators in the days of the caveman.  This stimulates the production of several hormones, including Adrenaline, Cortisol and Noradrenaline.  Once those Hormones are delivered here's what happens:


• Your breathing rate quickens, your lungs become more efficient and you get more oxygen into your body


• Any blood that is in your digestive system gets redirected to you muscles and makes you much stronger!!


• The pupils in your eyes dilate so you can see better and be more aware.


• Your reflexes and impulses sharpen, and your perception of pain goes away.


• Even your immune system improves!!!! Are you starting to see why I call it the Super Hero System??


 It's amazing what adrenaline does to our bodies!  


 Along with the effects of adrenaline come many potential side effects, which are quite uncomfortable.  It is these side effects that comprise the feeling we typically refer to as "Stage Fright," or "Nerves," or even "Anxiety."  


Although these side effects can be pretty uncomfortable, they are a vital part of this "superhero system."   They serve as a form of communication between the body and the brain.  When we feel the side effects, our brain knows that the hormones were delivered and received.  The body experiences different SIDE EFFECTS. These SIDE EFFECTS let the brain know that the different parts of the body have received the delivery of the "Superhero Cocktail" of hormones which temporarily make your body stronger, faster, smarter and more efficient, very useful things when you are about to deliver a major speech, or an interview!  


 You probably recognize some of these side effects! They could include any or all of:

• Sweaty Palms

• Dry Mouth

• Shaky Knees or Legs

• Butterflies in Your Stomach

• Jittery Feeling

• Restlessness







Now that you know what the superhero hormones are for, and that side effects are the body’s way of letting the brain know it has received the adrenaline it needs to succeed, what do you do with these uncomfortable side effects?  Stay tuned for the next blog post to find out! 



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