Conquering the Stage

(Feature picture courtesy of Hotel de France)

By Isabella Panse (’18)

For many people, performing on a stage is a nightmare. Just the mere mention of being in front of a crowd causes hearts to race, palms to sweat, and hands to quiver. Whether you are giving a speech, playing an instrument, or acting in a theatrical production, performing on stage can be a frightening and nerve wracking experience. In fact, when asked to describe stage fright, IA Junior Ana Sahu replied, “It feels like Christmas is tomorrow, but you are also about to jump off a cliff”.

Stage fright is characterized by a range of symptoms such as rapid breathing, a dry mouth and tight throat, nausea, and an uneasy feeling in your stomach, or “butterflies”. Our body is designed to warn us of danger so that we can defend ourselves. Many of these symptoms would be necessary in a scenario in which we would have to either fight or escape a threat. However, our body cannot differentiate between actual and perceived danger, resulting in the activation of its “fight-or-flight” mechanism.

Your body’s “fight-or-flight” response is triggered by two hormones secreted by the adrenal medulla: epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, and norephedrine, or noradrenaline. The main role of these hormones is to increase the amount of chemical energy available for immediate use by accelerating the rate of glycogen breakdown in the liver and skeletal muscles, promoting glucose release by liver cells, and stimulating the release of fatty acids from fat cells. Also, both increase the heart rate and dilate the bronchioles in the lungs in order to increase the rate of oxygen delivery to body cells. These hormones also alter blood flow in order to redirect your blood from your skin, digestive organs, and kidneys to your heart, brain, and skeletal muscles.

By putting ourselves on a stage, we expose ourselves to the scrutiny of others, which our brains often misinterpret as life-threatening danger. Nevertheless, while we cannot control this entirely normal reaction to performing, there are ways to minimize the symptoms.

The following techniques and suggestions are adapted from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s counseling department website.

Step 1: Self-Assessment:

  • Before performing, ask yourself:
    • What are your personal motives for performing?
    • What are your capabilities and limitations as a performer?
    • “What am I really afraid of?” Worst-case scenario—you run off the stage and everyone laughs hysterically. That’s unlikely, and might give you perspective into the realities of what it is you are really afraid of.
  • Some advice from IA Junior Nicole Kallsen:
    • “When backstage, in order to calm yourself, think about all of the hard work and effort you have put in. Also, imagine that you are no longer yourself, but are the character. When you are not yourself, you have no need to worry!”

Step 2: Gradual Exposure and Preparation

  • Look for opportunities for exposure to mild to moderate levels of stress that challenge but do not overwhelm. For example, performing for a small group of people you trust (i.e. close friends or family members)
  • Be thoroughly prepared. If you are comfortable with the content of your presentation, then you only have to focus on the presentation.
  • Practice controlled breathing, meditation, and other strategies to help you relax and redirect your negative thoughts into positive ones.

Step 3: During the Performance

  • Try seeing the audience as people who are there to support you.
    • If you are performing a piece of music you can also try to just tune out the audience and focus on the music.
    • However, if you are giving a presentation it is better to connect with your audience so that you do not feel completely alone on stage.
  • Remember, even professionals like Grammy-award Adele can get nervous.
    • “”I’m scared of audiences… one show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it.”
  • Act calmly, even if you feel nervous. The more you focus on your anxious feelings, the more you are likely to remain preoccupied with them.
  • Do not focus on little mistakes, as the audience only cares about the overall impression and probably will not even notice your mistakes.
  • Consider performing as an opportunity by becoming immersed in the musical experience.
  • Enjoy what you’ve accomplished and be proud of it!

Step 4: After the Performance

  • When reflecting upon your performance look at both your strengths and weaknesses
    • Make a list of things to improve for next time and of things to continue doing.
    • Record what strategies helped calm you down and which did not, so that next time you know what works best for you.  

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