The science behind stage fright

A diagram of the location of the pituitary, hypothalamus and adrenal glands. These are the parts that stimulate the symptoms of stage fright.

Mind blank, palms sweating, heart pounding? No, you’re not having a heart attack–you’re experiencing the common symptoms of stage fright. Almost everyone has experienced the gut wrenching feeling of fumbling for words and shutting down slowly as staring eyes surround them.

Some students, like Dillon Cooper, enjoy the chance to talk in front of their classmates. “It gives me a chance to voice my opinion in front of a large group of people,” said Cooper.

Other students get sick at the thought of public speaking. “I get up in front of the class and just start shaking,” said Kierra Angell.

In my case, I am more like Kierra than Dillon.

I am a victim of public speaking. My first experience of stage fright was last year during a speech in English class. This speech had to be performed without note cards, and I was second to go. I started out strong and confident, but then all at once I stopped talking. I paced around the room with my hands on my head and could hear my classmates whispering. My thoughts had left and did not return so I sat back at my desk, utterly embarrassed.

Of course the whole thing was recorded on video, and after my performance my teacher let the rest of the students go with note cards to avoid what had just happened. Since I realized I am not going to get through high school by avoiding my fear of public speaking, I decided to understand why this happens and what is really is.

So what causes stage fright? Well, the human brain has specific parts that control your reaction to threats, making these reactions very hard to control. When you start having these thoughts of failure, the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, triggers the pituitary gland and releases the hormone ACTH. From there, it stimulates the Adrenal Gland. This rush of adrenaline is what causes the symptoms of stage fright. First, your neck and back muscles contract, resulting in the shaking of your legs and hands when you try to straighten up. Blood pressure increases and the digestive tract shuts down as it tries to get oxygen and more nutrients to the vital organs. The pupils also dilate, causing up close vision to be blurred, but the far away faces of your audience to be very clear.

Anxiety is the main contributor of causing your body to react to stage fright. More specifically, psychologists classify this as performance anxiety. Two factors must be present in order for someone to have stage fright. They must have a concern that they will not be able to perform in front of a certain audience and/or they are concerned the performance will be seen in a negative way. In some scenarios, stage fright can actually help a performance. A little bit of extra adrenaline is needed to be emotionally charged and can prevent your performance from being flat.

Stage fright can be helped by these simple things: pushing on a building, practicing square breathing, taking a depressant, or by simply distracting yourself from the situation.

Almost everyone will be affected by stage fright at least once in their life. Following these simple things will help you overcome it!


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