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6 Ways to Overcome "Stage Fright"

If you have performance anxiety, making a presentation can feel no less frightening than singing Aida in Lincoln Center. Your palms start to sweat, your heart races, and you fear your mind might go blank midway through. But experts say you can overcome stage fright and even learn to enjoy public speaking.

I tried Toastmasters, but you don't have to take a public speaking course to get over it. "People with stage fright are able to become really good public speakers," says Davis K. Brimberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "They get to the point where they actually look forward to it," says Brimberg, who was a dancer before becoming a psychologist. Here are some tips from the experts, and if all else fails, a "stage fright" medication you can try (step 6).

  1. Practice, practice practice. Just as a performer practices his instrument or song, you need to practice your presentation, says Brimberg. Speak it out loud as if you were presenting to a group. "This not only helps familiarize you with the material, but you get used to hearing the presentation coming out of your mouth," she says. When you rehearse, imagine questions the audience might ask and practice your answers.
  2. Relax your body. "It's impossible to be relaxed and anxious simultaneously," says Brimberg. Before your presentation, focus on your breathing, taking full slow deep breaths. As your heart rate slows, your mind will begin to relax as well.
  3. Jump right in. Starting is the hardest part. Once you begin speaking, your mental muscle memory will take over--especially if you've practiced a lot.
  4. The audience is routing for you. Those people around the table want you to do well. There's nothing more uncomfortable for an audience than to watch someone do poorly. Remind yourself that you're the expert on the topic you're presenting and your job is to teach the listeners.
  5. If you do go blank in the moment, try not to panic. Focus on relaxing the body, breathe deeply, while referring to your script or PowerPoint presentation and you should recover.
  6. If you've tried many tactics but they're not helping, talk to your doctor about taking the prescription drug propranolol (brand name Inderal). It's a beta blocker, a treatment for heart disease, but it is used in low doses off-label to quell stage fright (it's a well kept secret of the classical music world). It blocks the action of adrenaline, tamping down the sympathetic nervous system, which produces the fear response--the racing heart rate, the sweaty palms and the mind freeze--but it's not an anti-anxiety drug so it doesn't make you feel groggy. Some people say it makes them more lucid.
What do you do to talk yourself down from stage fright?

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of flickr user novocortex
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