Why is the stage so scary?

Before you read through this particular piece of writing, it is imperative to understand that this is not an article which explains the kinds of stage fear, or tips on how to tackle the same. This article is intended for you to understand the science behind it.

FEAR

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution brought about a whole new spectrum into the study of physiology and emotions. Our emotions, and its consequent physiological manifestations, have evolved substantially over the course of several generations. For example, raising eyebrows served the purpose of increasing the field of vision. If you introspect, you will understand that when you are on stage and have forgotten something, you raise your eyebrows as if to “see” what you are trying to remember. These emotions and expressions have evolved with social communication and the increased contact of humans with other humans.

The one emotion which has prevailed since our pre-mammal ancestors has been fear. The hunters and gatherers from the initial times of homo-sapiens understood fear, and till date, so do we. It is just that fear has now taken different manifestations.

The manifestations can vary from being scared of failure, to the fear of death. The interesting thing is that fear is not just unique to humans; all animals feel fear. But, their fears are more intricately related to survival. Human fears are more related to judgement, consequences, loss, survival, and the list goes on.

THE SCIENCE

When you are scared, the adrenal gland in your body secretes cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones are both part of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone group, which induces certain physiological changes in your body. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone, and is secreted under circumstances of high stress — such as public speaking. When cortisol is secreted into your blood stream, the sympathetic part of your brain is switched on, while the parasympathetic part of your brain — which comprises of the pre-frontal cortex, majorly responsible for your ability to think straight and take calculated action — is switched off. A tangible result of the secretion of cortisol is increased heart rate and shutting down of the digestive system. Yes, now you know why you get the “butterflies” in your stomach!

Adrenalin is also secreted by the adrenal gland under circumstances of high stress, and is designed to help you cope with it. When secreted, the hormone boosts the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain, thereby increasing your physical performance for a short period of time. It also allows your pupils to dilate, so that you can see a lot more clearly. This is the reason you feel so aware of everything when you are on stage, and, in some cases, more powerful.

THE FEAR ON STAGE

Fear can make you respond in a positive manner, or a negative manner. We could phrase it as fight or flight. When you are afraid to go on stage and talk, you could either fight your fear, or take flight.

When you are on stage, you are undoubtedly the centre of attention. Being the centre of attention makes us hyper vigilant for certain types of faces in the audience, particularly those who betray a certain undercurrent of malicious thoughts. This is in line with a basic survival instinct of being aware of our predators. In this case, the predator is not one who intends to eat you, but is one who is continuously judging you.

Fear on stage, and the ability to respond to it, is based on the level of confidence one has. When I was young, a wise woman once told me “consider fear as a raging fire, and your confidence as water; the more water you have, the easier it is to put out the fire”.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
 Rage, Rage against that dying of the light”

–Dylan Thomas, 2010