What can I do when nerves render me speechless?
Your brain releases two hormones into your bloodstream to warn you of danger. These are adrenalin and cortisol.
We associate adrenalin with ‘fight, flight of freeze’. It is a warning signal from your brain to your body to get ready to react to ‘danger’. Adrenalin also gives ypu an additional burst of energy so you can make good our escape!
Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’. It too gives you a burst of energy but the feelings associated with a burst of cortisol are less pleasant (some describe them as feelings of ‘anxiety’).
A warning system from the past
Public speaking doesn’t put you in mortal danger so why does your brain tell your body to release additional adrenalin and cortisol when you don’t need them?
Some neuroscientists and psychologists believe that this reaction is a throwback to your ancestors’ hunter/gatherer days. In ancient times you faced mortal danger if you became isolated from your social group. You might be attacked by an animal or a member of a rival group, you could die from exposure or starvation. So your brain developed a mechanism to warn you of the very real danger of separating yourself from your social group. A burst of stress hormones is your brain’s message to your body to retreat to a place of safety (ideally), to fight the enemy or to ‘freeze’ until the danger has passed.
As a public speaker you separate yourself from other people, stand alone away from your group and you are the only person who speaks. So it may be that your brain mistakes this situation for being dangerous and releases a burst of adrenalin and cortisol to warn you of the perceived danger.
It is a warning system that served you well many generations ago but is not always so useful now!
As you can’t really run away or fight anyone on stage the more usual (and most appropriate) response from public speakers is ‘freeze’ (we sometimes call this ‘stage fright’).
How to make your hormones work for you, not against you
Now that you understand why your brain may be producing these hormones when you don’t really need them (although the burst of energy can be helpful to a degree), what can you do to prevent adrenalin and cortisol from stopping you from giving a great performance?
It’s important to understand that ignoring your body’s warning signals is not an option. If you ignore your brain’s urgent warning all it will do is make the warning LOUDER by releasing even more unwanted adrenalin and cortisol into your bloodstream.
Your brain wants you to take action in response to its warning and if you ignore it then it will make the message louder and louder until you heed its advice!
Time to ‘fight’?
Your brain wants a reaction from you. It wants to be reassured that you have heard and responded to its warning.
The best way to appease your brain is by choosing one of the three Fs (fight, flight, freeze) and incorporating it into your performance.
Fleeing and freezing are not appropriate. This only leaves one option: FIGHT!
Rather than attack a member of the audience (never a good idea) the kind of ‘fight’ you are going to engage in is the fight for a great performance.
Put as much energy as you can into your presentation and make it as engaging and powerful as possible. This does not mean you need to run around the stage whooping (though I’ve seen it happen!). Instead, give your presentation everything you’ve got with powerful gestures, powerful language and a powerful stance.
When you ‘fight’ in this way, your brain will get the message. Satisfied that you have reacted to the burst of hormones it sent you it will stop producing them in such large quantities. You will notice the unpleasant sensations of too much adrenalin and cortisol subside.
If you are not used to ‘listening’ to your body, you may find the relaxation practice known as ‘mindfulness meditation’ helpful. It’s a great idea to be more aware of what is happening inside your body when you speak. Notice how it moves and be aware of the signals your body receives from your brain. If you feel surges of adrenalin and cortisol when you don’t want them you know what to do: take it as a cue to up your performance!
Learn more with this video…