Have stage fright? Blame your nerves!

Kristina Durham
3 February 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/Lpstudio

Did you know? Stage fright can boost your immune system. It’s that time of year again, when you find yourself in front of your classmates preparing to give a speech. “I’m so nervous” says a voice inside your head. Your heart is pounding and your palms are getting sweaty. Does this sound familiar? Have you ever felt nervous giving a speech to your class or some other sort of public presentation?

For many people, public speaking is no easy task. In fact, Jerry Seinfeld once joked about a survey that showed people feared public speaking more than death: "In other words, at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy." So what makes it such a nerve wracking experience that you begin to shake and sweat, and you’re tempted to just run away?

The underlying cause is literally your nerves! In most cases, stage fright is triggered by a fear of failing, by a fear of being judged, or by too much self-consciousness. Being nervous or even panicked when speaking publicly activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. When you face a threatening situation, you rely on your autonomic nervous for protection.

Did you know? The autonomic nervous system is always active, not just when you are feeling nervous.The nervous system has many different branches. The peripheral nervous system sends information to and from your central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The autonomic nervous system, which is controlled subconsciously, forms part of the peripheral nervous system. It has two divisions that have opposite effects on your body: the parasympathetic division and the sympathetic division.

Say you’re relaxing on a dock by the lake. This is when your parasympathetic nervous system is active, allowing for digestion and helping to maintain a normal blood pressure and heart rate. Suddenly, you hear a growl and spot a gigantic bear running your way. Instantly, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear by releasing norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that increases your heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes you to sweat.

Did you know? The fight or flight response has been around since the caveman! It was very important for priming our ancestors’ bodies to fight or flee from wild animals.These changes brought on by the sympathetic nervous system prime your body to either fight the bear or run from the bear—a decision-making process known as the fight or flight response. Unless you live in the heart of bear country, your fight or flight response is less likely to be caused by wild animals than by everyday activities that cause fear or panic, such as public speaking.

There are some things you can do to calm yourself when you feel your sympathetic nervous system revving up as you prepare to give a speech. For example, you can breathe deeply and remind yourself that there isn’t a physical threat. One recent study even suggests that allowing yourself to feel excited before public speaking can actually help calm your nerves and improve your performance. Above all, be prepared! Practising ahead of time and knowing your material before you present will help you feel confident during your presentation.

Learn more!

Online resources

How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking and Give a Great Presentation (2014)
Eric Baker, Time

List of six ways to reduce the stress associated with public speaking.

Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement (2014)
Alison Wood Brooks, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, 1144–1158.

Article suggesting that you should treat pre-speech or pre-meeting nervousness as excitement, rather than trying to calm yourself down.

Environmental stress, adaptation and evolution: an overview (2005)
R. Bijlsma, & V. Loeschcke, Journal of Evolutionary Biology 18, 744-749.

Overview of research into relationship between evolution and stress.

Other resources

S. C. Segerstrom & G. E. Miller.(2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin 130(4), 601-630. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601

Meta-analysis of more than 300 articles on the relationship between psychological stress and the immune system. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website. A subscription is required to view the full text.

S. P. Jansen, X. V. Nguyen, V. Karpitskiy, T. C. Mettenleiter & A. D. Loewy. 1995. Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science 270, 644-646.

Article on the role of the sympathetic nervous system in reacting to stress and in triggering the fight-or-flight response. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website. A subscription is required to view the full text.

K. Buxman & C. Lemons. (1991). Fighting the fear of public speaking. Nursing 21,108, 110, 112 passim.

Kristina Durham

I am a PhD candidate studying how good cholesterol can protect our heart against disease.  I love learning about cardiovascular physiology, and how how the body works! I also enjoy dancing, cooking, and cycling. 

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