Last week, I got a call back for the National Tour of Mamma Mia! I was ecstatic. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, however my love of Abba runs deep and so Mamma Mia is up there on my list of dream jobs. There was just one catch, for this call back I was going to have to sing…
Now, I’ve taken singing lessons before, but we’re talking 5 years ago. Since that time, my singing experience has been limited to karaoke nights where my song choices tend towards ridiculousness rather than artistic merit. That being said, I was excited and prepared as best I could. I dusted off my old vocal CDs, and rehearsed diligently that night and the morning of the audition. The next day, as I turned the knob to enter the audition room, I was confident that I would do my best.
But then something happened, I walked into the room and my body began to tremble all over. As I handed my sheet music to the accompanist, I was shaking like a leaf. My throat got coarse and my chest got tight. I got through my 16 bars, but the audition did not go as planned. What struck me afterwards was the way my nerves managed to creep up on me when I had felt confident and prepared right up to the last second.
This experience prompted me to do some research into what are commonly called nerves. By nerves, I mean feelings of nervousness and discomfort when confronted with a particular task. Well, it turns out, nerves, as most people refer to them, aren’t really a thing. Instead, the collection of physiological responses we refer to as nerves are just part of the body’s response to adrenaline.
The production of adrenaline is a function of the autonomic nervous system. This system operates in two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is charged with the production of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. The these chemicals charge the body for action in high stress situations. The parasympathetic nervous system works in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, releasing chemicals that calm the body. Most of the time, these nervous systems work together to create a balance within our bodies. Nerves, as I described them above, occur when the sympathetic nervous system is working on over-drive.
The sympathetic nervous system kick’s into high-gear in situations where one feels threatened. We’ve all heard of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Well, the production of adrenaline caused by the sympathetic nervous system is what enables us to engage this mechanism in threatening situations. In our society, most of us don’t experience physical threats on a regular basis, however even giving a presentation in front of pears, or finding oneself in an awkward situation is enough to to set off our sympathetic nervous system.
The effects of adrenaline can vary. In general it causes increased blood flow and oxygen intake allowing the individual to process information and utilizing actions at a fast rate. Side effects of this process can include increased heart rate and breathing, butterflies, dizziness, dry mouth, sweating, tremors and shakes, and slurred speech. These side effects are a result of the increased blood flow and oxygen intake caused by adrenaline. For example, the sensation of butterflies in one’s stomach is the result of blood being diverted away from the digestive system depriving it of oxygen. Shakes and tremors are caused by diversion of blood from finer motor muscles to major muscles and organs. Sweating is caused by increased blood flow which produces heat.
As I looked over my research, I was fascinated that the nervous reaction I had experienced during my audition was caused by adrenaline, a bodily function commonly attributed to acts of heroism or high-performance. It was strange at first, to consider that two opposing reactions, decreased performance due to nerves , and the improved performance we usually attribute to adrenaline, could actually be side effects of the same function. When I considered these reactions in light of the fight or flight mechanism, things began to make more sense.
In a simplified model of the fight or flight mechanism, one could imagine the negative effects of adrenaline as part of the body’s flight reflex, and the positive effects of adrenaline as part of the bodies fight reflex. Nerves tend to occur in situations where our discomfort with a particular situation causes the body to desire to flee from its current situation. In contrast, the high-performance results of adrenaline tend occur in situations where the body finds itself in fight mode. Looking at things this way, we are then left with the question of how to help control our bodies response to adrenaline so as to maximize our fight or flight responses in appropriate situations.
Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut strategies for mastering our fight or flight mechanism. One can aim to control anxiety and stress (other products of adrenaline) by healthy living habits such as good sleeping patterns, healthy eating, and meditation. In particularly stressful situations, there are breathing exercises and mantras that can be used to help calm the body`s physiological response to adrenaline (specific examples of these exercises can be found in the following article on pyschcentral.com). However, there is no handy switch with which to calibrate our fight or flight mechanism.
In researching and writing this post, that the biological process that sometimes paralyzes me with shakes and fear is the same one that often pushes me to go above and beyond. Now, I know this is an oversimplification of the effects of adrenaline, and I’m sure there are situations in which it is preferable to find oneself shaky and hesitant rather than balls-to-the-wall. However in the context introduced at the beginning of this post, I imagine that had I understood the physiological cause for my nerves, I would have been comforted knowing that somewhere in that process lay the potential for useful adrenaline.