Imagine this: You’ve been asked by your company to do a fifteen-minute presentation on something vital your department has been working on at the next general meeting of investors in New York City. Whether you were on an award winning debate team in college, or the two lines you were forced to speak in the fifth-grade play has had you in therapy for years, you’re probably feeling quite a bit of stress over this upcoming engagement.
Lets say you do everything “right”. You work day and night, create an incredibly professional, inspirational and possibly even charming presentation. You buy a new suit. You even hire a speaking coach for two sessions to help you on the finer points. The night before the general meeting you do a bang up job to the bathroom mirror in your hotel room and are feeling a bit nervous, but still confident and prepared.
However, the moment you step up to the mic in the hotel meeting room, your heart begins to beat in your ears. You’re palms begin to sweat and your mouth goes dry. You suddenly don’t know what to do with your hands and wonder how you’ve gotten to the age you are without really knowing anything about how your appendages work. It feels as if you’ve nearly forgotten how to walk. You blindly stumble through your amazing presentation, your tongue slow, your voice cracking every sentence or two. How did this happen? WHY did this happen?
You can blame the Fight/Flight/Freeze response—commonly referred to as stress or stage-fright. So lets take a look at the mechanics of this bodily response. According to Neil F. Neimark, M.D and his website Body/Soul Connection, when our fight-or-flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight.
When we experience stage-fright, we are experiencing the Fight/Flight/Freeze response, but we are also using our higher brain functions to prevent us from acting on this response–when we’re up on that stage we don’t really have the option to run or to fight and so we are short-circuiting our natural response to the situation. As I said in part I of this series, we’ve basically pulled up the parking break on our whole neuro-muscular system. No wonder walking and talking suddenly seem so challenging!
For those of us who suffer from debilitating stage-fright (and there are many professional actors, musicians and dancers in this category by the way), the Fight/Flight/Freeze response can be detrimental to a budding career. Maybe you’ve even lost out on an acceptance to a great university or lost out on a promotion at your job due to the nerves you felt at the big interview. And the worst part is, the strategies we are given to regain control of ourselves are less than helpful. We’re led to believe that stage-fright is something we need to conquer. “Picture the crowd naked!” has never worked for me. Has it for you? Yoga, meditation, walks in nature, and most enjoyable exercise regimes do wonders for relieving the remnants of everyday stress, but unfortunately they are not very helpful when faced with a presentation, a job interview, or even a vital decision that needs to be made in the moment.
So how do you find clear-headedness and confidence in the moment you need it most? There is actually a way to use the Fight/Flight/Freeze response to your advantage. Here’s what most people don’t know: Fight/Flight/Freeze is a healthy and natural reflex designed to protect you from harm. You don’t want to eradicate this response, you want to allow it to work for you, not against you. Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh that guy is AMAZING in a crisis”? This reflex–if we let it–can give us bursts of energy that allows us to act in the most effective manner no matter what the stakes. How? The trick is to recognize the physical and thought patterns that are unhelpful in the moment, and then to let them go so that the extra bursts of energy you experience allows you to be the most authentic, confident, clear-headed, and energized boss/ co-worker/ parent/ partner / performer / athlete YOU you can be.
The first step to truly overcoming stage-fright or stress is knowing that this response is normal and that there is nothing you are lacking as a human being.
Second, gaining an understanding of what is physically happening muscularly when you “lock up” is imperative. It is important to know that the first tightening that occurs in your body once the Fight/Flight/Freeze response is triggered, is right where your skull meets your spine-the very very top of your neck. This place is actually higher and deeper in than you might think. To find it, take your fingers and gently place them in the soft spot behind your ears. If you could extent your fingers into your neck and have them meet, you’d find the place where your head meets your spine. In the realm of balance and coordination, this is where the interfering pattern begins. Become aware of this tightening which pulls your head back and down into your spine (causing a ton of extra pressure, stress, and imbalance throughout the body, not to mention a tightening of the muscles around the lungs which restricts breathing). Ask youself: where are the other places you might be tightening up?
Third – Stop. Once this reflex takes hold we want to react in a panic or shut down completely! Give yourself some space in this moment to not react right then. This isn’t a denial of your emotional state or a squelching of your instincts, it is only meant to be a pause. In the space you are giving yourself (and this space can be as short at a few seconds) become aware of what is happening in your thinking without judgment. What sort of things are you saying to yourself?
Finally, see how much of that head-neck tightening you can let go of. Not only will your mind clear, but you’ll breathe easier and feel more balanced on your feet. AND by putting your attention on the “letting go” you’ll have less time and energy for negative thoughts. In other words, instead of thinking: I suck, I’m terrible at this! I’m failing miserably here! or even trying to talk your way out of the panic, you’ll be thinking: hmm my neck is getting really tense. I’m going to let that go a bit, now can I unclench my jaw? Allow yourself soften and expand. Rather than take a deep breath, simply allow the breath to come and go as it wants. Come back to yourself. Again, with practice all of this can be done in a second or two. Now respond. Did you notice I didn’t say “react”? Because you no longer are reacting. You are making a choice on how to proceed.
Most importantly, this work takes practice. Don’t be discouraged if in the moment things didn’t go the way you’d hoped they would. Be patient with yourself. After all, you’ve been dealing with stress and stage-fright in the same manner all of your life. Changing patterns that have been ingrained over a lifetime is no small task. One sure way to help yourself deal more efficiently with stress and stage-fright is to seek lessons with a qualified Alexander Teacher. To find a teacher in your area, visit http://www.alexandertechnique.com/teacher
Have you found this series helpful? Have questions? Leave a comment and let me know how you deal with stress and stage-fright in your life.
Neil F. Neimark, M.D’s website: http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html