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How to turn adrenaline into your super-power

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By Daniel Kingsley

Adrenaline jumping
Image by Matthieu Pétiard on Unsplash.com

 

Fear is excitement without the breath.

Fritz Pearls

 

Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.

Hunter S Thompson

 

It’s alright to have butterflies in your stomach.  Just get them to fly in formation.

Rob Gilbert

 

 

As a leadership and public speaking coach, most of my clients tell me that they really need help managing adrenaline.  And quite a few of them are actively scared of the adrenaline rush that comes from standing up in public, being the centre of attention and needing to speak.

And if you don’t know how to properly manage adrenaline, there is good reason to be scared of it.  It can generate uncomfortable physical symptoms – fast heart rate, dry mouth, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, a turbulent tummy and a blank mind.  And on a bad day that can escalate, making it very difficult to speak.  In the very worst case scenario, it could become a full-on panic attack.

 

Adrenaline as a potential ally

And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kristin Ulmer is a former professional extreme skier.  She’s now a fear and anxiety expert.  She describes adrenaline as a potential super-power.  She remembers how adrenaline helped her win gold medals. Lots of them. She points out that it generates additional focus, strength and even clarity – provided it doesn’t get out of hand.  She suggests that one of the keys to managing adrenaline, so it becomes our ally and not our enemy, is reframing our relationship with adrenaline.  I completely agree.

I love the quote above about getting the butterflies in our stomach’s to fly in formation.  When we speak in public, experiencing some adrenaline is not optional.  Our response to it is.

If you’d like to learn how to make those butterflies fly in formation, read on…

 

Changing your story about adrenaline

The first step to mastering adrenaline is to change our story about it.  You may well have had experiences in the past of adrenaline getting out of hand and leading to “car crash” experiences.  In those circumstances, it would be no wonder if you don’t have a very positive relationship with this particular hormone.

So let’s have a look at adrenaline and seek to understand it a little better.

Adrenaline is a hormone in the body secreted by the adrenal glands.  It is designed to put your body in a fight or flight mode when you are in a potentially dangerous situation.  The idea is that it will give you extra focus, strength and speed to fight the lion that has just appeared in front of you, or to run away from it.  Once the danger is over, the adrenaline gets flushed out of your system and your heart rate returns to normal.

The first thing to realise is that the mechanism getting triggered here when you stand up in front of an audience is pretty-much exactly the same one that would be triggered if you were facing an actual life-threatening event, even though your life is in no-way under threat.  This is something of an over-reaction of our mind and body…and yet it’s completely normal.  (The Amygdala in our brain processes all this sort of data, and it has a tendency to view anything unknown or uncertain as a potentially serious threat).

Everyone gets this initial rush of adrenaline to a greater or lesser extent when they stand in front of an audience.  The difference between people who have a difficulty with adrenaline and those that manage it well and can even enjoy it is primarily one of relationship.  The latter group no longer fear the adrenaline.

People often have the idea that if they were confident, they wouldn’t be experiencing this adrenaline standing in front of an audience.  They think that this “should not be happening”.  Confident speakers know the truth.  It’s absolutely normal, and given the design of our brains, in fact, it “should” be happening.

We get adrenaline when we stand up in front of an audience any time that the outcome matters to us.

So, the first thing we can do when we experience the adrenaline is to say to ourselves – “Great! I’ve got a shot of adrenaline because I’m doing something that matters to me”.

The next thing we can add to ourselves in our heads is “…and provided I manage it right, it’s not going to get out of hand – it can even be my ally”.

This will allow you to start to shift your attitude to adrenaline and will start to calm the part of your brain that wants to go into full on panic mode.

So now we know how to start shifting our attitude to adrenaline, let’s see how it often goes wrong and then find out how we can make it go right.

 

Oh. My. God!

As I said above, everyone gets an initial rush of adrenaline standing in front of an audience.  It’s what happens next that matters.

If you don’t mess with the shot of adrenaline it will usually pass through the body in 2-3 minutes, your heart rate will return to normal and all the other symptoms will subside.  But most of us do mess with it.

We get the symptoms of adrenaline and then a part of our brain starts to freak out about them. It might sound something like “Oh my god…my heart’s beating really fast and my mouth is dry.  My mind’s gone a bit blank.  I can remember last time this happened…it was really horrible.  And it’s happening again.  Oh my god!”.

Can you guess what all that freaking out in your brain causes to happen in your body?

Yup.  Another shot of adrenaline.

This is the start of a vicious circle that ends in a panic attack (on a bad day) and a horrible speaking experience (on a good day).

 

Here’s a big secret

One of the biggest secrets to managing adrenaline is knowing that that initial level of adrenaline is actually completely manageable for everybody. What becomes unmanageable are there much higher levels of adrenaline caused by our brain having continuous and repeated freak-outs about the adrenaline and its symptoms.

I was a pretty successful trial lawyer in a former lifetime.  It was an amazing breakthrough for me, in my work, when I realised for the first time that I could be nervous throughout a case (and quite adrenalised), and still win it!

I realised then, that confidence doesn’t mean not having nerves, it simply means being okay with the nerves.

Even if the adrenaline doesn’t come down from this initial level, your mind will clear, your heart rate will stabilise (albeit at a higher than usual level), you will be able to think and speak clearly.

 

They can’t see what you feel

Here’s another huge secret. The audience can’t see what you feel!

Of course, if you were to start shaking like a leaf and go beetroot red, the audience would probably notice that. But the truth is that the symptoms that you are experiencing on the inside or 20 times more visible to you than they are to the audience.  And usually, even if you are experiencing things which are quite unpleasant, they are either completely invisible or almost invisible to those watching.

The truth is that the audience is much more interested in what you’ve got to say than whether you appear to be slightly nervous whilst you’re saying it. Provided your nerves don’t get massively out of hand, they are not going to bother the audience.

 

They can see how you feel about what you feel

Whilst we’re on the subject of secrets, here’s another key one from the wonderful Stage Performance Coach, Livingston Taylor. The audience doesn’t respond to what you are feeling. The audience responds to how you feel about what you are feeling.

In other words, if you are not okay with your nerves, your audience will not be okay with the fact that you feel nervous. If you are okay with being nervous, then your audience will be absolutely fine with the fact you are nervous.

The veteran broadcaster, Chris Evans when re-launching the hit TV series Top Gear a decade ago stood on live television and said to everybody watching, “I’m bricking myself right now”. Was he nervous? Of course, he actually told us so! Was he okay with his nerves? Yes, he was so okay with his nerves he was willing to tell us about them in a way which made it seem very clear that they weren’t a problem for him.

Once again, we see that it’s possible to be nervous and confident at the same time through shifting our attitude.

 

Take a breath

In those first few seconds in front of an audience (or before you stand up to speak) it really helps to breathe effectively.  And if you do it correctly, it will actually help down-regulate the adrenaline.

The first one or two breaths you take should be 4-8 breaths.  That is breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8.  It really helps if you breathe down into your diaphragm so your belly expands.  It doesn’t need to be a lot of breath it just needs to be deep enough so you can feel it in your belly.  It’s usually good to breathe in the nose and out through the mouth for this.   I usually make my mouth into a little slit so the breath comes out more slowly.  As you breathe out, feel your feet on the floor and feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins, along with your elevated heart rate and anything else you can feel.

You can take anywhere between 1 and 4 of these sort of breaths.  (Don’t go over 8 as that can be counterproductive).  You should already feel the adrenaline stabilise after just 1 or 2.  Once you’ve done that you can let your breathing take care of itself as normal and go onto the next step.

 

The big shift

Here’s my last big secret for you as to how to shift your attitude.  The part of your brain that is freaking out about the symptoms of adrenaline and worrying about how this might all play out is functioning as if it’s a scared child.  It needs to be treated as if it’s a scared child.  It needs to be listened to, acknowledged with kindness and then reassured.  I’ve written about this in detail in a previous article if you’d like to read more.

Here’s how to do it.

We tell the part of our brain that is freaking out – “I know you’re worried about all these adrenaline symptoms, and they are pretty uncomfortable, but they’re not going to kill us.  They may be unpleasant but actually they are OK.  And we are OK.  And by the way if we don’t freak about about them they will normalise”.  This is an attitude of warm, reassuring acceptance towards these sensations that we don’t like.

The short version of this attitude is the phrase “…and it’s OK” or “…and that’s OK” (said to ourselves with warmth and compassion).

So, we’d say in our heads something like: “My heart’s beating quickly…and that’s OK”.  “My mouth’s a bit dry…and that’s OK”.  “My mind’s gone blank for a moment…and that’s OK…it will almost certainly clear very soon”.  (Note that this warm positive reassurance is likely to be a self-fulling prophecy).

This is how to make the shift from fighting the sensations and feelings of adrenaline to accepting them and even perhaps making friends with them.  We still don’t have to like them, but we can reach a place of genuine okay-ness with them.  This will be enough to guarantee that the adrenaline doesn’t get out of hand and doesn’t stop you from doing what you need or want to do.

And every time you successfully do this, you are creating new memories of you successfully riding the wave of adrenaline, and it passing through with no harm done.  This will substantially reduce your level of apprehension speaking in the future.

As I say to my students, adrenaline arises like waves on the sea.  You can’t stop the waves but you can learn how to surf.  What we are learning here is how to become skilful surfers.

 

Embracing the fear

With practice you may even be able to embrace these sensations, feeling them in your body and (perhaps) imagining that you are a skier with adrenaline coursing through their veins, successfully negotiating a tricky downhill run.

When you get to this level of practice, you may even find that you can enjoy the adrenaline and the extra focus, drive and energy it gives you.  We start to make the shift from “…and that’s OK” to “…and that’s wonderful!“.

It may sound unbelievable to you right now, but most of my coaching clients get to this stage after a surprisingly short period time.  It works for me, it works for them, and I feel confident it will work for you.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on by email or in the comments below.

Good luck and happy skiing!

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If you’d like to experience these methods first hand, being coached by me, do sign up for one of our Foundation Public Speaking Courses in London, or alternatively get in touch about being coached by me 1-2-1 online over Skype or Zoom. 

Daniel Kingsley
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