It’s an attack of nerves that not just newcomers but even seasoned actors experience. Geeta Padmanabhan explains what stage fright is and offers suggestions to overcome it

Cold hands, clammy palms, dry mouth, fast pulse, nausea, nervous tics, shaky hands and knees…. Your face and neck sweat, your legs become leaden, your stomach tight and your mind is empty. In extreme cases, you get panic attacks and sleepless nights. Familiar symptoms when asked to speak or sing in public?

Stage fright — it rarely spares anyone. “I'm scared of audiences. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I've thrown up a couple of times. I suffer anxiety attacks a lot,” said Adele, winner of Grammy and Oscar awards. Before she sang “Skyfall” divinely at the Oscar awards night, she reportedly visited a hypnotherapist for relief from stage fright. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer had it. So did Elvis Presley, Meryl Streep, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Barbara Streisand took anxiety medication and didn't perform live for decades after forgetting the lyrics in a concert. Now a teleprompter goes on stage before she does.

A medley of reasons has been offered to explain why the brain goes into freeze mode with the thought of speaking in public. You are anxious in social situations because of your genes. Even after a thousand performances, some stage performers can't help throwing up before climbing up the stage steps. You lack preparation, are not sure of the content and the sequence. You fear loss of reputation — the bigger the audience, the greater the loss of face. You wonder: Will my show be sabotaged? Will I be able to repeat my best performance? Am I good enough? Will my social status suffer? Will the audience boo me? Self-esteem plummets; paralysis sets in. Stage fright is the response to the fear of being ridiculed, said Charles Darwin, after his experiment with a poisonous snake. “My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced,” he wrote. He named it the “fight or flight” syndrome, a natural process to protect ourselves.

Blame it on the adrenalin released in defence at the first hint of fear. In what looks like a warning, you take quick, shallow breaths, your heart rate increases, you tremble with jittery nerves and your alertness level spikes. The sharp reaction may be necessary for survival in the face of a valid threat, but it is not useful in your work on stage. The nervous system can’t distinguish between a real and imaginary threat. And you end up with a bout of on-stage jitters. Keep saying, “Oh, I'm scared!” and you open the sluice gates for more adrenalin, stage fright escalates and the chances of a dud performance increase.

Managing the problem

Two approaches to treatment, say counsellors. Find the causes and cure the condition, or overcome the symptoms. A popular treatment is the Sarnoff Squeeze. Developed by Dorothy Sarnoff (she saw Yul Brynner do it), it suggests a series of exercises and “square breathing” routines — inhale, hold, exhale and hold. Other suggestions include rehearsing in front of a friend, thorough preparation (keep slides ready, sing the songs hundreds of times, memorise the lyrics, and deliver the speech repeatedly till the words flow without hesitation). Your speech should have a format — “point-example-point”? While practising, use the same equipment that will go with you on stage. Record and play to knock out the chinks. In the last few minutes, breathe deeply, stretch and repeat the first few lines. On-stage jitters are the strongest in the lead-up to the presentation, not during. Grab opportunities to get on to the stage for performances. More is better. You go “ums” and “ahs”? Try chunking: deliver a short burst of words, take a break and then go for another short burst of words.

Butterfly Man (butterflies in belly before performance) Robert Nelson mentally picks a person in the audience and performs exclusively for the “designated receiver.” A common way to cope with performance anxiety is to pop a pill or take a swig of a strong drink. Are these effective? Can’t say. Do consult a doctor before taking a depressant, a beta-blocker. Relaxation techniques such as hypnosis, biofeedback, diet, drinking water, practice and talking to mentors are useful to distract you from anxiety and fear. Adopt one that is a good match for you.

The good news: stage fright isn't all darkness. Performers will tell you that a little bit of it actually acts like a stimulus to deliver a superlative presentation. Mmm...

Fight your fears

- Learn to accept yourself; you don't have to prove yourself all the time.

- Shift focus from fear to purpose — giving value to your audience.

- Focus on calming and reassuring thoughts and images.

- Relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation help.

- Make connections, smile and greet people. Think “I know it, they don't”.

- Adopt a confident posture. Remain warm and open and make eye contact.

- It's okay to make mistakes!

The facts

- When you think about negative consequences, a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, activates and triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH.

- It stimulates the adrenal glands which results in the release of adrenaline into your blood.

- Your neck and back muscles contract (forcing your head down and your spine to curve) moving your posture into a slouch. Your body tries to force itself into the foetal position:

- You try to pull your shoulders back, lift your head. Your legs and hands shake as the muscles prepare for an impending attack.

- Your BP increases, and your digestive system shuts down to maximise efficient delivery of even more nutrients and oxygen to your vital organs. So your mouth goes dry.

- Sometimes the pupils dilate, making it hard to read anything up close, but improves long range visibility. You become aware of your audience’s facial expressions.