Dealing with Fear and Stage Fright

If you're dealing with fear of public speaking, also known as stage fright, it can be a major obstacle to your acting success.

So many actors suffer from stagefright on every opening night. Their heart rate skyrockets, and there's a pounding in their chest. But along the way, actors learn to deal with it, and you can too.

You're Not Alone

Learning to overcome your stagefright at auditions and performances is a challenge every actor must face. Did you know that Dame Judi Dench, one of the most celebrated actresses in Great Britain, suffers from severe stage fright even after 50 years of acting? And Dustin Hoffman has admitted the same problem.

So if you're embarassed because you thought you were the only one, just remember this: The more personal, the more universal. If you're suffering the emotion of fear, everyone else is too. Even the biggest movie stars in the world.

Dealing with Fear

How Fear Works

Part of learning to control your stage fright is knowing what fear is and how it works.

Believe it or not, the emotion of fear is healthy. It's a series of chemicals (adrenaline mostly) released into your bloodstream. They give you super speed and super strength. They improve your hearing, vision, sense of smell, even speed of thought. Lasting for about 30 seconds.

This uncontrollable reflex is known as your fight or flight response. Almost all animals have one, including humans. It's programmed into our DNA. Fight or flight helped us to outrun and outwit those lions, tigers, and bears while we were evolving.

In other words, fear helps us to stay alive.

The Symptoms of Stage Fright

  • Muscles contract throughout the body.
    The head is pulled down, the shoulders pulled up. The hips move forward and spine curves inward. This is to protect your vital organs from harm.

    If you try to resist this and stand up straight, your diaphragm and vocal cords become tight, which makes your breathing shallow and your voice thin. It reduces bloodflow to the brain which may induce a headache or cause you to pass out.

  • Breathing becomes shallow and rapid.
    Because the body requires an even flow of oxygen for the muscles, it resorts to quick and superficial breaths.

  • Heart rate and blood pressure intensify.
    The oxygen, adrenaline, and glucose needs to be distributed evenly throughout your muscles, and fast. This also helps to produce sweat, which will help prevent overheating.

  • The digestive system shuts down.
    During fight or flight, digestion is not a high priority. Stomach acid and saliva stop being produced. This leads to stomach butterflies and dry mouth.

  • Brain wave frequency increases.
    And because you're thinking faster, time becomes distorted, turning a minute into an eternity.

Dealing with Fear by Using These 6 Tips

Whether you're on stage, on a roller coaster, getting married, or being held at gunpoint, the symptoms of fight or flight are the same. Don't try to get rid of them. Instead, make them work for you by channeling them into a focused and energized performance. Here's how:

  • Warm up.
    Breathing and vocal exercises are great for focusing your nervous energy into something useful. Before every performance, you should warm up physically and vocally for 45 minutes. It does wonders.

    Start by reading Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater or Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg. But if you truly want a solid warm up routine (and a life-changing experience), take a class.

  • Watch your diet.

    Avoid protein, fat, and dairy. They take too long to digest. So when your fight or flight kicks in, the food just sits in your stomach, creating cramps and nausea.

    Instead, eat complex carbohydrates a few hours before performance. This will digest quickly and increase your seratonin (a "feel good" hormone). For example: breads, pastas, beans, potatoes, bran, rice, and cereals.

    Finally, stay away from caffiene, alcohol, and nicotine. All three will increase symptoms of stress. (But if you are a smoker, this isn't the time to kick the habit.)

  • Sleep.
    This one is easy. Make sure you're getting 7 to 8 hours a night. It can and will affect your performance.

  • Take vitamins.
    Specifically vitamins B and C, calcium, and magnesium, which act as natural tranquilizers.

  • Exercise.
    Hit the gym to release endorphins and relax those larger muscle groups. Even if you don't exercise on a regular basis, jogging or swimming the night before is extremely helpful.

  • Be prepared.
    Maybe the best method of dealing with fear and stage fright is to know your performance, inside and out. If you know what you're doing, you'll be relaxed and focused and ready to go.

Stage fright is normal and healthy. And if you're dealing with fear in a healthy way, you can use it to boost your performance and get better results in your acting.

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