We all know the feeling of cold, clammy hands and shivers up the spine right before we step out onstage, take a test, or make a speech. Some people find this sensation so difficult to handle that they avoid it as much as possible. They might not try out for a play, even though they love acting, because they hate the jitters so much. More people, however, will try out for that play anyway, resigning themselves to suffering through the anxiety. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if there was a way to manage those butterflies, bringing them down to a level where they aren’t as bad?
The worst part of being head of choir is the solo, Anna recounts. I love to sing. I love to compose melodies and lyrics, and I love to teach songs. But I hate being onstage. I get so nervous; I sweat and my stomach is jumping. But what can I do? The Choir Head always sing one of the theme songs of the play. There’s no way I can get out of doing the solo, unless I give up being choir head, and that’s the job I always wanted!
Anna is not alone. Researchers compiled a list of the top ten human fears. Number two on the list is public speaking. People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying (that’s number six on the list).
The first thing Anna needs to do is acknowledge the fear. Simply admitting an emotion out loud helps to lower it to a manageable level. Saying “I’m afraid” will help cut the problem down to size a bit.
* Simply admitting an emotion out loud helps to lower it to a manageable level. *
Next. Anna needs to separate the physical sensation of the emotion from the thoughts she is thinking. Emotions actually start in the body and end in the head. As surprising as this sounds, we don’t think, “Oh, no, I have to get on stage!” and then feel jittery. Our body starts to have specific symptoms and we say, “Oh, no, I feel jittery; it’s because I have to get on stage.”
Think about it this way – most people experience fear as their heart pounding, a fluttery feeling in the stomach, and perhaps coldness in their fingers and toes. How does excitement feel – when you hear that your best friend got engaged or you just won a trip to Eretz Yisrael in a Chinese Auction? It usually feels like your heart is pounding and your stomach is fluttering. Aren’t those the same physical sensations? They are. We first feel the sensation, and then label the emotion afterward, based on what’s going on in our lives.
* We first feel the sensation, and then label the emotion afterward, based on what’s going on in our lives. *
The physical sensations of anxiety — the heart pounding, the stomach fluttering, the coldness – are due to adrenaline coursing through the bloodstream. Adrenaline is the hormone that helps your brain get your body ready for action. In the case of anxiety, the action would be to run away or to fight that danger. In the case of excitement, the action would be to jump up and down with joy.
One of the ways that adrenaline prepares your body for action is that it directs the blood in your body into areas critical for movement and divers the bloom from the less crucial areas. If you’re going to run away from danger. You need your heart beating fast. You need blood in your muscles. Do you need to be digesting food? No. that can happen at a more leisurely time. Those butterflies in your stomach? That’s blood being diverted away from your stomach and into your muscles. Some people feel clenching or a heaviness in their stomach. That’s undigested food sitting there. It’s helpful to know what these sensations are, so that you can correctly interpret them.
There are a few techniques to control those sensations. Deep breathing helps because it slows the heart rate and somewhat counteracts the effects of adrenaline. It only helps if you breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold the breath for four, and then blow out. It doesn’t help if you keep thinking frantically. “Help, I’m scared!” because that’s going to cause your brain to secrete more adrenaline. Thinking “I’m afraid, so I will breathe and these annoying sensations will calm down a bit” is more useful.
Don’t eat heavy food right before the performance, speech, test, or interview. Sip a smoothie or have soup. Go for foods that are nourishing but easily digested. That will cut down on the heavy feeling in your stomach.
Coldness is easily remedied by warmth. As weird as it sounds, bring gloves; sip hot cocoa – whatever it takes to warm you up. As your body stops experiencing the physical sensations of fear, the emotion should be reduced even further.
- Take deep breaths
- Eat light
- Stay warm
- Think positive thoughts
Now that we’ve gotten a handle on the emotion, and reduced it to a level where it’s manageable, we can transform that fear so that it works for us. A little adrenaline is a good thing. It makes us alert, focused, and energetic. If we can channel that into the task at hand, we can do really well.
* A little adrenaline is a good thing. It makes us alert, focused, and energetic. *
Once the physical sensation of the emotion is dealt with, we have to work on our thoughts, Anna is telling herself all sorts of things — that she might mess up, she will be so embarrassed, that having people stare at her is scary — and this just creates new anxiety.
Anna needs to send herself a new message. She needs to tell herself things like “I’ll do fine. Everyone tells me how much they enjoy my singing. I love to sing. Even if I mess up, nothing terrible will happen. I will be embarrassed for a while, but then it will go away and become just an unpleasant memory.”
When you’re thinking of your own upcoming performance — speeches, solos, dance parts, acting in a play — follow the same method. First, name the emotion. Second, understand that your symptoms are due to adrenaline and not really dangerous. Finally, change the “lyrics” of your song. Tell yourself reassuring things. The anxiety will not entirely go away, but it will be manageable.