It started the moment my alarm began its song and dance routine, vibrating on the table next to the bed. A spike of instantaneous, high-voltage adrenaline and I shot out of bed and across the room in full panic mode, my fight-or-flight instincts going ballistic.
It was day one of the tournament, and I was there to debate.
Debate. The bane of my existence. The slayer of my soul. The Gollum of my Middle Earth.
It was nothing specific that terrified me—I hadn’t been traumatized by forgetting to include the mandates of our case, or accidentally arguing against my own position. Instead, it was a deep, unreasoning, uncontrollable fear.
And my response? I ignored it like an unwanted friend request on Facebook. I pretended it didn’t happen. I muscled through it. And I certainly didn’t call it by its traditional name: stage fright.
Never admitting to myself that I had stage fright caused a lot of unnecessary pain for me throughout my debate career. It’s not something that people like to talk about. But the fact remains that, for most speakers, performance anxiety never really goes away–despite years of experience or efforts to ignore it. Instead of trying to power through a speech or debate round with stage fright, we ought to actively combat it before it even becomes an issue.
We’ve all heard the common symptoms—sweaty palms, dry mouth, accelerated pulse—but each person experiences fear in different ways. My palms are never sweaty. I just get cold. Rigid. Locked up. Walking into a debate round grinning through clenched teeth is never a good start, and I was frustrated because it seemed irrational. “So unreasonable,” I told myself. “Just think logically and rationally and it will all go away.”
My problem was twofold: first, all those symptoms are a physical response. They won’t go away just by thinking about it. And second, they actually are highly logical—at least from your body’s point of view. You can thank your Autonomic Nervous System for that.
As you probably know, your Central Nervous System is split into a variety of branches that control different functions in the body. The Somatic Nervous System is in charge of your voluntary movement. It conducts impulses from the central system to your muscles, allowing you to consciously govern your movements (like walking and picking up objects). On the other side of things, your Autonomic Nervous System oversees involuntary functions, like your heartbeat or breathing, or (drumroll, please) the fight or flight response.
Fight or flight is in charge of mobilizing your defense mechanisms when a threat is detected. Just like your heartbeat, you also cannot control fight or flight. It’s preparing you for imminent danger, and it doesn’t differentiate between a perceived physical threat and the perceived emotional trauma of a debate round. It just immediately begins equipping you to react.
Ever wondered why you react the way you do to fear? Here are three common traits of stage fright, and the reasons why they happen:
- Chills. You’re about to be running for your life, or fighting for your life, right? To prep for that, your body’s temperature drops to prevent overheating. It also begins redirecting blood from your extremities to your core, to fuel and protect the most important functions, so hands and feet can become chilled.
- Tension. The classic safety pose is the fetal position. When threatened, curling up like this feels ‘safe’. Of course, you can’t drop to the floor in the middle of a debate round (unfortunately), so you resist this impulse. As your shoulders curl forward, you fight it. This creates tension through your shoulders, back, and core.
- Unsteady voice. The Vagus nerve is the nerve that supplies most of the muscles in your throat—especially the ones involved in swallowing and speaking. Interestingly, it’s a Parasympathetic function, which usually involves rest or digestion. When it gets the message that you’re panicking, the Vagus nerve tries frantically to calm you down, sometimes resulting in overstimulation. This can cause your throat muscles to spasm as you speak, leading to an embarrassing quiver in your voice.
Of course, this is all really helpful when you are about to be assaulted. But in front of a crowd, it’s just a nuisance. So why does your body think a debate round is going to be so life threatening? You get the same rush of adrenaline when on a roller coaster, but you have learned to associate it with excitement instead of fear. What’s the difference? What is it about public speaking?
Sounding stupid, having nothing to say, being disliked by an audience, comparing yourself to others, or being dissatisfied with your own performance…You could stumble and stutter as you respond to the Negative team’s solvency point; you could forget to address their Value. You could make an embarrassing admission in Cross Ex and then watch helplessly as your opponents use it to obliterate you and wipe the floor with your body. You could be seen as an incompetent debater, as an unskilled communicator; everyone in the room might think you’re no good. You could lose. The justifications for nervousness are endless, but they all come back to one thing: people’s opinions.
Sure, part of the reason we do debate is to learn how to win people over, and we ought to be aware of the impact our words have on our audience. Fear is good. It’s good to fear an erupting volcano. Or a dragon. But when the source of your fear isn’t life threatening, you have a choice to reprogram that fear. Chances are good that you will NOT die on that roller coaster. Chances are even better that you will not die in that debate round.
That said, nerves can’t always be vanquished with an easy mental shrug. There are psychological principles at play (as with anything), but the physical realm is an often overlooked area where a lot of heavy lifting takes place. You may do a great job of mentally convincing yourself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but your nervous system is already in panic mode. As Charles Darwin wrote when faced with a venomous snake–even one safely behind glass–“My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.”
And so, instead of recounting various mind games you can play with yourself, here are twelve physical tactics you can use to combat stage fright.
- Be on time. You don’t need any extra pressure at the start of a round. Do yourself a favor, and get there early.
- Make friends with the room. Use that extra time you have to get to know the space in which you’ll be speaking. Walk around its perimeter. Check the windows. Sit at the judge’s table. Talk out loud to hear how the sound is carrying. You will be much more comfortable once you start speaking if you’re at home in the presentation room.
- Stretch. In panic mode, your muscles automatically tense in preparation for a dangerous situation. Stretching releases that tension.
- Exercise. Your body has a lot of excess energy when fight or flight is in play. Using that energy is crucial. People say ‘channel that nervous energy into your presentation’, but a debate round can only handle so much. Exercise provides the perfect outlet, as well as getting your blood circulating and mind active.
- Yawn. Olympians often yawn to get extra oxygen into their lungs, which reduces stress and increases brain function. Just don’t do it during the round.
- Hum. It loosens up your vocal chords. Just don’t do it during the round.
- Chew gum. It relaxes your jaw. But maybe you shouldn’t do it during the round.
- Read a piece of evidence. Hearing your voice, getting into the subject matter, and shifting your thinking into debate mode, will all help your transition into the round.
- Math. Is this just a weird thing that I do? Maybe. Regardless, I’ve found it helpful in situations where my illogical emotions are rampant. Doing simple math switches me into left-brained, rational thinking.
- Citrus juice. Several studies have found that drinking citrus juice increases blood flow to the brain and reduces blood pressure, reducing your stress level.
- Firm gestures. Make sure that each gesture is placed intentionally. It will impose control on your nervous energy, and hopefully, allay any suspicions your audience was harboring about your jitters.
- Breathing. Everyone’s heard the admonition, ‘Just take a deep breath and try to relax.’ But breathing more deeply can actually give you too much oxygen, in a type of hyperventilation. Instead, just breathe more slowly. Make sure you take solid breaths from your diaphragm.
There is no silver bullet for stage fright. For some, all it takes is a little effort. For others, it’s a years-long endeavor. But I have yet to meet someone who can honestly claim they’ve never known that touch of trepidation, that brief flutter of instinctive adrenaline. Intentionally making war on stage fright is a habit from which we all can benefit.
To this day, my heart rate spikes at the sound of that alarm—the alarm that woke me up to prepare for a debate round.
It’s not a battle that any speaker should have to fight unprepared.