Why We Get Stage Fright When We Turn on the Camera

August 24, 2017

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Jordan Wellin


Your knees lock. Your palms get sweaty. Suddenly, you can’t remember how to speak anymore.

No, you’re not about to jet off into space (though you might wish you were). Instead, you’re getting ready to deliver a line to the camera, yet you’re paralyzed by stage fright. It’s something everyone experiences, but when a camera is involved and you don’t know who your audience might be, it can get even worse.

While it may feel like your body is shutting down on you, take comfort in the fact that it’s just a perfectly normal neural mechanism for any fearful situation — the fight or flight response.

This is how your body reacts when it perceives it’s in danger. Of course you aren’t in any real danger — at least we certainly hope not — but when you’re staring into a camera lens, not knowing who will be watching your video (or what they’ll think of you), the vulnerable exposure you’re feeling is enough to trigger a fight or flight response.

The anxiety felt in front of a camera is one of the most common reasons people don’t want to use video in their business: they’re simply too afraid. So we decided to break down where this fear comes from and give a few tips on how to deliver your best performance.

The science of fight or flight

If you really want to conquer your stage fright, it helps to start by understanding what exactly is going through your body in those tense moments. The fight or flight response is a primitive reaction to stress. In the past it was meant to protect us from getting eaten by bears or other life-threatening dangers. And while you likely won’t be facing any bears when recording a video, your body perceives other potential sources of danger.

As social creatures, we’re hardwired to worry about our reputation and how others perceive us. The decision our brain makes to determine whether or not a situation is stressful is made by sensory input and processing, and for most people the danger of blowing their lines is enough to trigger a fight or flight. But what exactly happens when fight or flight is triggered?

“As social creatures, we’re hardwired to worry about our reputation and how others perceive us.”

Let’s hear it for biology! Your hypothalamus triggers your pituitary gland to secrete the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

Source: medschoolminutes

The ACTH is sent to your adrenal medulla, which then sends adrenaline to your blood. That’s when the party starts. This adrenaline causes a cascade of reactions that can take many forms:

  • Your neck and back tense up and you slouch.
  • Your muscles prepare for attack and your legs and hands shake.
  • Your blood pressure jumps.
  • Your digestion shuts off to maximize delivery of nutrients to muscles and vital organs, causing butterflies.
  • Your pupils dilate, so it’s difficult to read anything up close.

All of these reactions may seem familiar to you if you’ve ever experienced stage fright, so rest assured that they’re perfectly normal responses to stressful situations.

Performance anxiety in the modern world

Fight or flight responses have been researched by scientists going all the way back to Charles Darwin in the 1870s, when he discovered that will and reason hold no sway over the primitive reactions we have to fear. But what does more recent research have to say about why we feel performance anxiety?

According to a study published in Science, at moments of peak pressure we find it hard to recall facts and focus on what we’re doing. In this experiment, researchers tested the responses of 80 adults who were shown extremely violent fight scenes and monitored their physical and hormonal stress responses. They found that when viewing the violent scenes, emotional distress was evident and the participants’ levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, spiked. The parts of the brain associated with fight or flight were the most active, while parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in thought and reasoning began to shut down.

What does this mean for performing in front of the camera? When you feel anxiety, regardless of whether or not there’s potential for you to be physically harmed, your cortisol spikes, in turn sharpening your senses and memories of stressful experiences. At the same time, your higher level cognitive processes shut down, and your capacity for slow deliberation deteriorates.

So when you’re standing in front of a camera and start to feel anxious or get stage fright, you’re not just forgetting the words — you can’t even think of the words. But this doesn’t mean you’re hardwired to freeze up in front of a camera forever. In fact, just as your brain can be tricked into tensing up during stressful situations, you can also trick your brain into feeling more confident.

“You’re not just forgetting the words — you can’t even think of the words.”

How to overcome your stage fright

Stage fright is perfectly normal, and many people experience it, so you’re in good company. But there are 3 steps you can take to overcome it.

Step 1: Practice, practice, practice

The key to overcoming stage fright is positive reinforcement. A few weeks, or even months, before the next time you have to record a video, implement cognitive reappraisal. This strategy changes the trajectory of an emotional response by reinterpreting how you react to an emotional stimulus. Got all that? In other words, if you practice your presentation with friends or family who support you, you’ll associate those good feelings with your presentation.

The benefits of practice are twofold. Not only does it help you associate the experience with positive emotions, but also it increases your familiarity with the task. A study of pool players showed that the best ones performed better when people were watching them than when they were alone. Yet pool players who weren’t as skilled played worse when people watched, but better by themselves. For the more skilled players, they had already spent hours practicing and had faith in their skills. But for the less skilled players, the opposite was true. The same goes for how you approach and feel about your performance.

Step 2: Trick your brain with breathing

Now that you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time practicing, it’s time to record your video. We all know the most nerve-wracking part of a presentation is those 5–10 gut-wrenching minutes leading up to it. So when all your brain wants to do is freak out, take a moment to trick it into relaxing.

Here’s something to try before the camera turns on: stretch your arms up as you breathe deeply. This triggers a relaxation response in your body and will slow your breathing. This technique was tested in trained musicians, and the results of the study found that just one session of slow breathing helped control physiological arousal, especially for musicians with high levels of anxiety.

Take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand. Then step in front of that camera and crush it like the superstar you are. Hugh Grant has nothing on you!

Step 3: Do it again

Once you’ve finished recording, reward yourself by taking a moment to celebrate. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Before you can psych yourself out again, sign up for another recording session or speaking event. Getting in front of the camera over and over again is the best way to get more comfortable with being yourself on screen.

Understand your fear and conquer it

Feeling nervous before giving a speech or recording a video? Hopefully you’re more convinced than ever that it’s a perfectly normal reaction. The best speakers and performers deal with stage fright, so there’s nothing wrong with it. What makes them stand out is how they deal with the pressure.

Now that you have the tips and tactics you need to take control of your fear, you can turn in one great performance after another.

Jordan Wellin


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