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Adrenaline attack! What happens to your body in a stressful situation like giving a presentation

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EVERYONE feels nervous from time to time when they present or speak in public. It's the most natural thing in the world. In fact if you don't at least feel butterflies in your stomach, I think you are doing your audience a disservice: you are taking their approval for granted.

It still happens to me. Only I use that feeling to pump adrenaline into my system to hype myself up for a great, show-stopping performance.

Nervousness, fear and anxiety are all caused by a flood of the hormone adrenaline into your system at 100 mph, and an understanding of the mechanics of how and why this happens is the first step to bringing them under control.

Tens of thousands of years ago, rushes of adrenaline through the system were an everyday occurrence for primitive man. But in today's civilised society, many people can go their whole lives without truly experiencing one. So when it happens, it comes as a shock. If you're not expecting it or don't understand what's happening to you, an adrenaline attack can literally freeze you with fear. Panic is usually caused by ignorance of what is happening inside your body.

The Adrenalin Attack

When your body produces adrenaline, you can deal with it in two ways. Scientists call it the fight or flight syndrome.This is a throwback from primitive times when the appearance of a sabre-tooted tiger was basically met by one of two choices – shall I fight it or run away? As running away from your audience isn't really a viable option, it's probably more accurate to call it ‘freeze or breeze' when talking about public speaking.

Using adrenaline positively produces increased power and strength, added speed, increased awareness and anaesthesia to pain. Obviously you don't need these during public speaking but your body is unable to differentiate between different types of threat, and acts the same way it would if you were threatened by actual physical danger.

Physical Symptoms of Adrenalin

“This is where it's at, this moment before engagement when the adrenaline, the fear, reached its pinnacle and felt like hell, gathering in the cavity of your chest like a burning fireball of negative emotion that makes you feel like breaking down in a crying quivering heap of jellied shit. It rises from your chest to your nasal passage like toxic gas, gnawing away at you like caustic, tempting you to crack, …. Questioning your ability to ‘handle it', telling you to flee, to run, to hide, to GO! GO! GO!” - Geoff Thompson, ‘Watch My Back'

Using adrenaline negatively produces panic and a whole range of all too-familiar physiological symptoms.

•  You may feel nauseous or feel your bowels loosen and want to visit the toilet as the body tries to get rid of undigested food (unnecessary dead weight if you're going to outrun that sabre tooth!) - the cause of the ubiquitous saying “I absolutely #*^# myself.” This is an automatic and natural bodily reaction, not a sign of cowardice, so don't worry about it.

•  Your mouth becomes dry and your voice acquires a sudden tremor and maybe rises in pitch. Some people even lose the ability to speak. Again, this is because blood is drawn from non-essential parts of your brain and pumped to the major muscle groups. The ability to talk to a sabre-toothed tiger was pretty irrelevant, so the body basically cuts off your ability to speak (a bit of a disadvantage in public speaking, I think you'll agree!). This is why people go 'white with fear' and actors get stage fright and forget their lines, or students' minds go blank in the exam room.

•  Your hands and legs can start to shake uncontrollably as the blood taken from the head is pumped to those parts needed for fighting or running (whether to choose to fight or flee, you're gong to use your limbs!). Ever heard someone say ‘my legs were shaking with fear' or 'my hands were trembling'? It wasn't fear; it was adrenaline.

•  The palms of your hands become sweaty.In reality, the whole of your body begins to sweat; you just notice it more on those parts that are exposed to the air. People's arms sometimes spread out as if they were a gunfighter in a western to allow the sweat glands to open.

•  You brain goes blank, and you can't remember what you were going to say. Actors call it 'stage fright.' This is because thinking isn't high on the list of priorities when you're fighting or running away from that sabre-toothed tiger, so your body drains blood away from your brain to the bits that really need it, like your arms and legs.

•  Maybe you even start to see things as if you are in a dream, or become robotic as if on autopilot. This is why many people can't remember significant details of life-threatening events. Occasionally people even view them as if they were experiencing an out-of-body experience.

So if you experience any of these symptoms when you're about to get on your feet and speak, the first thing to remember is that they are not caused by fear. They're caused by adrenaline!

Once you recognise this, all you have to do is use adrenaline's potential to make you stronger, faster, sharper in a positive way so that it actually helps you! Your mind is neutral in all of this. It's as if it is saying, 'Here is a bucket load of adrenaline; what you do with it is up to you. Freeze or breeze, I don't really mind. Your choice.'

So you can choose 'freeze' and allow the adrenaline to incapacitate you with fear, or 'breeze' and use it to deliver a powerful, confident presentation. It really is your choice!

When you feel the first symptoms of the adrenaline attack, do 3 things:

1. Don't panic and think, 'Oh my God, here's that fear I always feel whenever I get on my feet!' Just stay calm. Recognize that it's adrenaline, not terror.

2. Pause for a moment and consciously feel the sensations running through your body. Feel the blood coursing through your veins, and the butterflies in your stomach. Recognize them as being similar to the feelings you experience when you are really excited about something. Waiting to go and see your favorite band in concert, or a first date, or how you feel at the top of a black slope on a skiing holiday. Because this. Is. Not. Fear. It's adrenaline.

3. Consciously say to yourself: 'Great ..... here it comes. Here's the adrenaline. I was wondering when it was going to kick in.'

Remember: Adrenaline is your friend

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