The Science of Stage Fright


According to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, fear of public speaking is the biggest fear of man. Research indicates that 95 percent of the population experiences some degree of “glossophobia” – the fear of public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quoted another survey that ranked public speaking as number-one fear while death came in second. This means, he pointed out, that at a funeral, the most people would rather be comfortable lying in the casket than delivering the eulogy. Once a keynote speaker said “I don’t experience fear before a public speaking engagement. “Fear” is too timid a word. “Terror” comes closer to the excruciating experience.” He said my tongue had somehow become glued to the roof of my mouth which was as dry as a sheet of sandpaper. There were other disturbing symptoms. I was perspiring profusely and my knees were vibrating. Breathing became extremely difficult and I felt even if I could begin to speak, it would be drowned out by the loud beating of my heart. So that’s how stage fright detrimentally affect us?

Public Speaking remains the #1 phobia.


The genesis of the problem is rooted in the ‘fight or flight response’ first postulated by Charles Darwin. He tested this when he visited snakes in the London Zoo; Darwin tried to stay calm while putting his face close to a venomous snake ready to strike. Yet, whenever the snake struck, Darwin involuntarily and instinctively jumped back. He wrote in his diary: My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced. This process is natural, and has been an evolutionary advantage for humans. But when it comes to public speaking, “Glossophobia” impedes presenter from delivering stupendous performance. Psychologists are of the view that this evolutionary fear is deeply entrenched in our psyche and manifests itself during childhood years. The intensity of the fear is contingent upon the factors like personality traits, emotional intelligence and level of task mastery. To get over the fear of public speaking, first one must understand science behind crippling stage fright that torments us more often than not.


Unfortunately, human brains are hardwired in this fashion. So we can’t exactly control these impulses, including the fight or flight response towards fear. This is similar to what happens with stage fright- our reputation is at stake when we are engaged in public speaking, so when we’re in anticipation for a presentation or a speech, the fight or flight response kicks in.


To produce the fight or flight syndrome, our brain activates two systems located in the hypothalamus – the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. These two systems working in conjunction produce the fight or flight response. Our sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal gland to release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. These hormones cause changes in bodily functions such as increasing the heart rate and blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system also sends impulses to glands and smooth muscles, to help become alert.


Simultaneously the adrenal-cortical system gets activated. When you think about negative consequences, a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, activates and triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). This hormone stimulates the Adrenal Glands in your kidneys and results in the release of adrenaline into your blood. This stimulates your neck and back muscles to contract moving the posture into a slouch. This is known as a ‘Low-Power position’ as the body pushes downwards. As a result the pupils get dilated, the digestive system slows down to deliver more nutrients and oxygen to body- this is the feeling of ‘butterflies in your stomach’.


Emotional Intelligence: Fear is irrational, it’s just an emotional response from primitive part of the brain. Developing emotional intelligence and emotional competence about these extreme emotions can really help you to overcome this debilitating fear. Approaching stage fright like a “Rational Economic Man” rather than “Irrational Emotional Man” can give you semblance of self-control in demanding situation.

Practice: Practicing in an environment similar to the actual venue can increase familiarity with the task can reduce the feelings of anxiety and fear dramatically. Vince Lombardi once said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” This holds true for public speaking as well. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is regarded as the most powerful orator of the twentieth century and his mastery can be attributed to relentless preparation. Churchill would devote one hour of rehearsal for every one minute of his speech.

Relaxation: Breathe deeply before going onstage: This ‘tricks’ your hypothalamus into feelings of relaxation. This helps you to overcome immediate spiral of negative emotions and boosts your performance.

Improving self-image: You can feel more confident and build strong foundation for success by creating positive self-image through vivid visualization, reaffirming empowering beliefs, grooming yourself, acceptance and avoiding trap of negative self-talk

Re-branding stage fear: New studies at Harvard University found that by interpreting the negative emotional sensations as “excitement” instead of “performance anxiety” or “stage fright”, people performed better in many stressful situations. “Getting excited about how things can go well will give you confidence and energy and increase the likelihood that the positive outcomes you imagine will actually happen,” says Alison Wood Brooks, Harvard Professor.

Pep Talk: Before stage performance, a powerful Pep Talk to yourself will put you in right frame of mind. An enthusiastic, self-motivating Pep Talk can allay all your fears and elevate your spirits to whole new level. The short and precise message appeals to the rational part of the brain instantly and permeates deep into the emotional component of the brain as well putting you in the state of readiness. Pep Talk can be viewed as the most important addition to your verbal repertoire.

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