Thursday, March 2, 2017

Stage Fright - Banish it Now

(Ed. note: Not really. Banish it, that is. "Stage fright" is just the human adrenal response. Happens when you perceive some level of stress - which in this case, just means you care.
The idea is NEVER to get rid of the fright, but to mitigate the negative effects and to use the adrenal response to your advantage.

You're about to walk on stage, for a talk, a musical or theatrical performance, or similar. And suddenly....

Stage fright has famously effected many people, including Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Megan Fox, Rhianna,Andre 3000, Katy Perry, Carly Simon, Barbera Streisand, Olympia Dukakis, Maya Angelou, Hugh Grant, Adele, and many others.

Some just suffer through it, struggling their entire careers with it. Some resort, quite famously, to drugs or alcohol or other unhealthy (and only temporarily effective) approaches.

I've seen all manner of articles on conquering stage fright. They offer all manner of advice, from "just get out there more often and you'll get used to it" to "imagine the audience naked" to "you have to address your negative thoughts and realize they aren't realistic" to "imagine positive images" to "visualize success" and many more.

While somewhat helpful, these are all woefully inadequate, ultimately, because they address psychology and ignore physiology.

The stress response (and it doesn't matter whether the trigger is walking onto a stage or turning the corner of the hiking trail to see a hungry bear) is a PHYSICAL event. As such, we need to address the effects and find a viable counter to them.

So...what's happening?

A stressor presents itself, and your body's reaction is to pump adrenaline into your system.

This speeds your heart rate and can cause any of the following: shortness of breath, muscle constriction (tenseness), loss of peripheral vision, loss of fine motor control, urge to urinate or defecate, nausea, shaking (especially the hands, but can be the entire body), dry mouth, dizziness, stuttering, dilated pupils, loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, shaky voice, blushing or flushing, "butterflies" (as the digestive system shuts down), hyperventilating, and more.

Sooo...what to do about it?

1) Be aware of all these potential effects.

2) Place yourself in a stress situation to illicit the stress response, and make your personal list of how these are prioritized for you. For example, some people notice sweating hands and shortness of breath the most, while others a dry mouth and loss of memory (of lyrics, speaking notes, etc).

3) Once you arrange the effects to your personal experience, you need a strategy to deal with the top few on your list (as you reduce these effects, the others will follow).

The most effective physical approaches start with deep breathing.

Blow all the air out of your lungs, hold it for a few seconds, and breath deeply in (hold), and out (hold), and in (hold), and out again. Control the depth and speed of your breathing, slowing everything down.

As you do this, also roll your head and shoulders, forcing your neck and shoulder muscles to relax.

Calming the breath and relaxing will have almost immediate positive impact on your heart rate, shallow breath, and constriction of upper body muscles. At this point, you'll begin to regain calm and can employ strategies for mitigating additional symptoms.

Additional strategies: 

Perform small low-pressure gigs a LOT while applying the other advice in this article. You might start with busking once or twice a week, if you're a musician. A couple dozen performances in, you should feel like a pro! 

Align lyrics or notes with the mic (loss of peripheral vision makes you effectively blind to anything not directly in front of you. If your note/lyrics are off-axis with the microphone, you'll be forced to constantly turn your head, negatively impacting your performance, which will then lead to increase, rather than decrease, of the stress response).

If performing something that requires fine motor skill, begin with something easier that minimizes the fine motor demands (since fine motor control is among the first things you lose under stress).

Have water on stage and easily accessible in case of dry mouth.

Have a towel to wipe your hands (and face) free of sweat.

Remember to BREATHE.

These strategies should allow you to minimize the negative impact of stress and allow you to ride that adrenal wave instead of being crushed by it.

Personally, I turn many of these into a pre-show ritual. I warm up my hands & voice, breathe deeply, stretch my entire body...and when I hit the stage, a breathe again, remind myself not to "death-grip" my guitar, to play lighter and slower than I'm inclined to do.

Once the physical effects are under control, we can then look to the psychology addressed in many other articles available, with all their wonderful suggestions.

If you have any suggestions or want to share experiences with the effectiveness of this article on your performances or want to share your pre-show rituals, please leave a comment in the section below.

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  1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being kind enough to share this super helpful information 🤠