by Craig Harrison

   Performance anxiety, also known as "stage fright", "the butterflies", or, for some of us, sheer terror affects everyone at one time or another. From small children to the most accomplished performer, we all have felt the pounding heart, clammy palms and shaking legs of nerves. What we experience as performance anxiety is actually our body's healthy and natural response to a real or perceived danger. It is a part of the "fight or flight" response. It enables us to respond instantly to danger by readying the body for action. As adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, we become hyper-aware. All of our senses are in a state of alert and sharpened perception. The adrenaline causes a surge of energy and power: we can lift heavier objects, run faster, respond to stimuli quicker. In times of danger, we need this defense mechanism to protect ourselves. The problem occurs when the body cannot distinguish between real or imagined threats. So, while it's healthy to have this response if we are being physically threatened, it is not always helpful when "danger" becomes a sales presentation, job interview, or board meeting. In these situations the "fight or flight" response can make us feel out of control and ineffective.
   Fear has two faces - it has the power to energize and to destroy. Most successful performers and athletes have learned that fear can be a powerful tool in sharpening a performance. If we can learn to harness the energy of fear, it will help us to perform better. Pre-performance adrenaline can make you look and sound more dynamic and focused. Try to think of fear as your ally. If you do experience performance anxiety, try to accept it as helpful rather than deny or fight it. Do not attempt to push it away. Do not allow yourself to feel foolish or guilty or inferior because of it � this will only make you more nervous. Remember that everyone experiences it. Try to welcome fear as a form of energy that can motivate you and make you a more exciting speaker. Tell yourself "If I get nervous, I will accept it and stay in control. My fear is a good thing, I can make it serve me." Focus on your task at hand and on the person or people you are speaking to. Concentrate on the present rather tha n what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Remember that you are there to express rather than impress. When we are nervous about our performance, our attention turns inward, on ourselves. Changing anxiety to excitement turns the energy outward and focuses on giving.

   A few tips for managing nerves:

Change your self-talk

   We can think ourselves into a feeling. Turn your 'self-critic' into a positive voice. Practice changing phrases like, "I am going to make a mess of this" into "This is a challenge, but I am well prepared and up to it."

Remember people want you to do well

   They want you to be the answer to their job search, to give them valuable information, etc.

Focus on what you are doing, what you are saying and to whom you are speaking

   Take your attention off yourself and whether or not you are succeeding. Save analyzing your performance for later.


   If you experience very little breath in the lower part of your lungs and your abdomen moves inward when you breathe in, you are breathing in a way that can actually increase your anxiety. Practice allowing the lower part of your lungs and your abdomen to expand with the inhalation. Keep the breath low, centered and practice techniques for slowing down the rhythm.

Get moving to release some of the adrenaline

   Run vigorously in place as fast as you can. Push against a wall or push your hands together as tightly as you can. If your knees shake, do some high stepping. If you can't do anything so vigorous, progressively tighten and release muscle groups.

Accept the emotion

   Don't try to fight it or deny it, but use it to your advantage. Focus and harness its energy with your thoughts and breath.

Be prepared

   Ask a friend to "practice interview" you. Anticipate both difficult and easy questions. Try your presentation out on a group of supportive colleagues or friends.

Listen to music

   Find music that makes you feel relaxed.

Be aware of your environment

   Notice sights, sounds, smells and textures. Find one thing you really like about the person you are speaking to.

Don't arrive too early or too late

   Arriving too early can give you extra time to worry, but arriving too late can make you feel panicked. Find how much of a cushion of time is comfortable for you. Most people find arriving 10-15 minutes early works best for them.

Take a brisk walk around the block

   If you are early and have time, do something active to release some energy.

Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and tranquilizers

   Caffeine and nicotine can increase the "shakes". Alcohol and tranquilizers dull your senses, leaving you ill equipped to deal with surprises.

Make eye contact

   Try to connect with whomever you are talking to and create rapport.

   Remember that it takes time and practice to overcome performance anxiety. However, practice harnessing the positive energy of 'nerves' and you will discover a powerful ally in creating dynamic, successful presentations. As Helen Hayes said, "I used to get nervous until I learned to make the butterflies fly in formation."