Stage frightened?

Public speaking scares people silly. In fact, a Gallup poll of Americans found glossophobia – fear of public speaking – to be the second most common phobia, beating out other bogeymen like needles, heights, thunderstorms, spiders, and flying.

Performance anxiety, or stage fright, strikes at the worst possible times, and it can happen to anyone – students, CEOs, fathers-of-the-bride, American Idol contestants. It's natural to be nervous. We've all had butterflies before an important event, such as a job interview or making a presentation in class. For some people, however, the anxiety and its accompanying physical symptoms can be overwhelming. These symptoms include sweaty palms, jumpiness, feeling faint, breathing problems, increased blood pressure, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, stiffening of neck and upper back muscles, dry mouth, stomach aches, and nausea.

Fear factor

What causes this upsetting (and inconvenient) physical response? Our reaction to stress actually serves a useful purpose – it's nature's way of helping us deal with immediate danger.

Let's say you've accidentally knocked over a wasps' nest, or you're about to sing for some especially crabby judges. The sudden "fight or flight" response that takes over your body is triggered by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions including the heartbeat, digestion, breathing, and sweating. When you're under stress, the autonomic nervous system goes on high alert, flooding your system with stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure rise and you feel a rush of energy. At the same time, less energy is spent on functions you don't need right away, such as digestion and reproduction. Once you safely get away from the horde of angry wasps or the judges acid tongues, the stress hormone levels drop, your heart rate slows, and you start to feel normal again.

Speaking up

If you'd rather eat a bushel of habanero peppers than stand up and speak or sing in front of a crowd, you're not alone. Luckily, there are steps you can take to untie your tongue and gain confidence.

The most important thing is to ease your anxiety and become more comfortable in front of a group of people. Prepare yourself as best you can. If you're giving a speech, whether it's for a roomful of stockholders or your wedding guests, rehearse out loud, and try it in front of a few supportive friends. Practice with your cue cards, a microphone, and any visual aids you plan to include so that you'll feel at ease with the setup. Picture yourself giving the speech successfully, and imagine the roar of applause you'll get.

If you want to feel more comfortable singing in front of people, take your act from the shower to a karaoke bar or join an amateur choir – no one expects you to sound like Andrea Bocelli, so just relax and have fun with it.

Simple relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation (tensing each group of muscles for a few seconds, then releasing), can help. Meditation, practiced regularly, can alleviate tension and calm the mind. Visualization exercises are helpful – you've probably heard the suggestion to imagine the audience in their birthday suits, but you can also spend a few minutes envisioning a quiet place where you feel serene and at peace. You can also walk or run off your nervous energy by getting some exercise to clear your head and giving yourself a pep talk. Try eating a nutritious meal a couple of hours before your presentation, instead of eating it just before or skipping it altogether.

To boost your public speaking prowess, sign up for a course at a college, community center or library. Join Toastmasters ( – there are thousands of chapters around the world. (See? We told you you're not alone.) You can work with a vocal or acting coach to improve your stage presence, or try hypnosis to get past your pre-performance jitters. Regular exercise can also help you battle the effects of stress and tension.

You can also try medication. Beta-blockers, such as propranolol, are drugs used to treat heart conditions and high blood pressure, and they can be taken before a stressful situation, such as making a speech or giving a performance. Talk to your doctor (keep in mind that beta blockers have potential side effects).

Stress that sticks around

If you often feel very stressed or are in a prolonged state of anxiety, you may be suffering from something more serious than stage fright, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and phobias. An underlying medical problem, such as a thyroid disorder, could also be to blame.

Prolonged stress can interfere with daily life and lead to physical health issues, such as heart disease, weight gain, depression, and digestive problems, so talk to your doctor about treatment options and positive lifestyle changes as soon as possible. Avoid using alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs, or food to deal with negative feelings.

Are you the next Beyoncé? Says who?

Every new season of Canadian Idol and American Idol, we eagerly flip on our TVs to see who can sing the... worst! The Idol series are all about finding and showcasing the best, of course, but everyone loves the show before the show: the audition episodes. As the audition panel steamrolls across the country in search of fresh talent, TV viewers are treated to the best and worst of the bunch – and, of course, it's the latter we love to watch, the wannabes whose stunning lack of talent leaves us gaping at the TV or rolling with laughter.

Very often, these contestants are shocked and furious when the judges say they should stick to singing in the shower. Despite not hitting a single note, they honestly think they're hot stuff, and no judge is going to tell them otherwise, thank you very much. What gives?

Aside from obvious delusions of grandeur, a lot of these would-be stars may have a problem shared by 1 in 25 people: the inability to distinguish one note from another. People who have tone deafness, or amusia, may also have trouble recognizing music and grasping rhythm. (Intelligence, memory, and the ability to process language are not affected.) While this isn't a disability that interferes with daily activities, it prevents people with amusia from enjoying music the way other people can, and it can be demoralizing for people who believe their lack of musical talent is the result of not working hard enough.

Amusia has been a mystery since it was first recognized as a disorder in 1878. One theory is that a congenital anomaly (birth defect) affects neural networks in the brain dedicated to processing music. Another is that the brains of tone-deaf people react differently when they hear notes. Canadian and Finnish researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to see which brain cells responded to musical tones of different pitches, and found that, depending on the variation in pitch, the brains of tone-deaf people either overreacted or underreacted. And, in a study published in the journal Brain, researchers in Montreal, Canada, stated that there are structural differences in the brains of tone-deaf people. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brains of people with tone deafness to others with normal musical ability, and found that the white matter concentration in the right frontal areas of the brains of tone-deaf people is lower. Amusia can also be caused by injury to the parietal lobe of the brain.

So, if the research is to be believed, a lot of lousy singers are born that way. But is everyone who sings badly or otherwise lacks musical prowess a victim of amusia? Experts say no – most people who believe they are tone-deaf aren't (these are "false amusics"). They may have trouble staying in tune or keeping time, but they're neurologically normal. That's actually good news for many hapless American Idol hopefuls, because it means they can improve with coaching and practice. The other option is to invest in software that tweaks the voice or a pitch-correcting karaoke machine. Pop stars do it, so why not?