Stage fright understood using Cognitive Mediational Theory
Unfolding what happens when you experience stage fright
Do your palms sweat and shiver before you step on stage to deliver a speech in front of hundreds of people? Do you know somebody who dreads speaking in front of an audience? “There is this intense buildup you experience, like a dam of apprehension and anxiety waiting to burst open — you are suddenly very self-conscious, every fiber of yourself wanting to give its best. It is perhaps the rush of adrenaline that helps you do things on stage that would have been very difficult for you to do otherwise,” says Venkat, pursuing Integrated Master of Arts in Economics.
Whether it’s a speech at school, a wedding toast, or an office presentation, sweaty palms, unstable knees, and dizziness are common when speaking or performing in front of a group of people. Many experience extreme physiological distress just by the thought of speaking in public. For some, it is stressful, days or weeks in advance.
“Watching the crowd looking at me sends chills down my spine. I would’ve practiced the same 4 lines for hours and the moment I step on the stage everything starts fading away or gets jumbled up. Once during my school assembly I said “childraan cunt” Instead of “children can’t”. I am trying to overcome my stage fright by participating in competitions and doing presentations. Coming up with a brand new content on the spot on the stage is still a deadly nightmare to me,” says Rama.
They may feel anxious, lightheaded, or fidgety. Their heart rate may increase, hands and voice may tremble and may feel dizzy at the mere thought of addressing an audience. “All those unceremonious eyes looking dead straight into your eyes as if you were an escaped felon or something is enough to make me unsteady. My heart starts to race every second before my part on stage and when it’s onstage I tremble,” says Karthikram, pursuing Bachelors in Business Administration. This is performance anxiety or stage fright.
A large portion of the population has stage fright. Experts suggest that around 75% of the general population suffers from a fear of speaking in public. However, according to a Gallup study (2001), 40% are afraid of public speaking.
Is it because we are afraid of being judged by people or is there a mechanism that causes these physiological reactions when we think about speaking or performing in public?
“I guess you have stage fright if you judge people when they are on stage. And when your turn comes you’ll be afraid that someone might judge you,” says Manalan. Well, that’s one perspective.
In the 1960s, American psychologist, Magda Arnold developed the idea that emotion is a result of an appraisal of a situation that triggers a physiological response and emotional experience.
Later, Richard Lazarus built on this idea and proposed the Cognitive Mediational Theory in 1984. His theory suggests that the way a person judges or thinks about a situation affects how they feel about it.
The theory illustrates how stress, cognition, and emotion are related to each other. It highlights the role of appraisal to cause emotional experiences. An appraisal is not only an evaluation of what the situation is (primary appraisal) but also what it means to you (secondary appraisal).
When you recognize a stimulus, what you think about it is what determines physical and emotional responses such as fear.
Stage fright is something we perceive and let it get into our heads. Preparation and positivity are instrumental to overcome stage fright. According to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology movement, positive emotions can give you the strength to tackle challenging circumstances and inculcate a creative and constructive thought process.
So next time you experience sweaty palms or cold feet before speaking in public, think about how you will celebrate the success of your speech.