Like a looming storm, it’s impossible to ignore the nearly obsessive manner in which I would circumvent any and all situations that required performing in front of other people. Regret over lost opportunities and “missing 100% of the shots I didn’t take” came second to tiptoeing with my eyes glued to thunderclouds above my head, praying that the storm would hold out for a little longer. Perhaps it would have been worth auditioning for the choir solo, dance team, or simply asking a question in class. But at least I didn’t have to hear my own voice uncontrollably wavering from nerves diminish into a whisper and bear incessant nit-picky thoughts through the rest of the day: Why did I do that in front of everyone? What must they be thinking? It would have been better to not have tried at all. In my mind, regretting what I did do was much worse than regretting what I did not.
Stage fright or fear of public speaking/performance impacts an astonishingly greater amount of people than you may think. While the intensity varies from person to person, stage fright is quite a universal human experience. There are a multitude of reasons why someone might experience their particular fear: fear of humiliation, making a mistake, embarrassment, unfamiliarity, or low confidence and self-esteem. Whatever it may be, such fear is enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response in our nervous system and bring an onset of physiological responses like sweating, increased heart rate, or tremors. It is a scientifically natural response that has proven lifesaving to our ancient ancestors and now, tries to tell you when you’re in danger. In other words, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you, just as there is nothing wrong with me, for experiencing stage fright. It is valid to feel frustrated and trapped in your fear — I certainly have: Does anyone else hear a deafening buzzing in their ear? Why is it just me that feels like this? — but everyone is capable of working at it, if not through it.
Previously, running away from avoidable situations and over-rehearsing for the necessary ones was the extent of “work” I felt possible. But Anwesha Banerjee, a neuroscientist at the Emory School of Medicine, suggests otherwise. In her TEDx Talk about conquering stage fright, she explains that avoidance and over-practicing only accomplishes to reinforce your fear, when the more effective strategy is to face it head on. The idea behind making a habit of public performance is to habituate your brain into experiencing stage fright so that its intensity will decline over time. In other words, the best way to cope with stage fright is to get used to it.
If you’re anything like me and even pretending to perform results in sudden vertigo, pursuing a habit of public performance is pretty much the most mortifying thing that could ever happen to you. But I’ve learned that it’s less about what you’re doing and more about who is supporting you. Start letting the people you trust know that stage fright is a serious concern — You will find those who want to see you push through and hold your hand through the process. From my friend, I can expect no less than twenty minutes worth of texts encouraging me to finally ask the question I’ve been wanting to ask for ages in class. Next time, it will only take fifteen minutes and I will recover enough to feel proud of myself even before my friend texts the same sentiment. Progress is progress no matter the speed, and risks are hard to take. But the storm isn’t yours to bear alone. Take a look around and you’ll find ample shelter with those around until you build up your own. Just like anything, the storm will pass and so will the next one, and the next one too. In the meantime, remember that we are all humans, so don’t worry if you have stage fright, because I have it too.