Public speaking scares people silly. In fact, a Gallup poll of Americans found glossophobia - fear of public speaking - to be the 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, which include sweaty palms, tense muscles, jumpiness, feeling faint, breathing problems, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, stomachaches and nausea, can be overwhelming.

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 an especially crabby Simon Cowell. 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 Simon's acid tongue, 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 also 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.

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.