A racing heart. A dry mouth. You cannot get the words out. You feel the ground shake beneath your rattling knees, and the ruminative thoughts that you try to push away only come back with a vengeance. You thought you had done enough practice, but the speech simply won’t come.If this sounds familiar to you, you’ve come to the right place.Public speaking anxiety is one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome, whether you’re starting a new career, building your brand, or seeking new opportunities to network and expand your professional circle. It’s for that very reason that I’ve dedicated this series of blogs to putting a hard light on the factors that cause people to develop speech anxiety, as well as practical tips for reducing public speaking anxiety.Let’s not sugarcoat things: stage fright is an awful feeling, and it interferes not only with our ability to communicate effectively, but it can also prevent us from reaching our professional goals. Among anxiety disorders, it is the most commonly reported fear.Approximately75% of employers rank communication skills as the most important quality for a new hire to master. Public speaking proficiency can skyrocket our progress in every aspect of our lives.Given how important public speaking skills are, it should come as no surprise that we’ve amassed decades of communication research reports and methods to measure, examine, and develop strategies for treating public speaking anxiety. Qualitative research methods have grown in their sophistication and precision, and today, I’m here to give you the quick rundown on the latest and greatest in mental health research, and how you can apply the newest knowledge to your own personal journey of developing powerful public speaking skills.
How is public speaking anxiety measured?
Public speaking anxiety is a psychological phenomenon, and it’s for that reason that it’s somewhat tricky to measure experimentally. Thedevelopment of reliable scales themselves are an area of ongoing research, mainly because of how complex the human mind operates. Measurements need to be able to isolate a very specific construct in order to have any sort of applicability and validity.Lucky for us (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it!) anxiety disorders have practically centuries of information and previous research to build upon.Physicians and philosophers from as early as the period of Hippocrates have acknowledged the devastating impact uncontrolled fear responses have on everyday happiness and well being!We don’t have to time travel to reap the benefits of this powerful interest in solving public speaking anxiety, though. Modern science has lead to the creation of useful psychometric tools for measuring stage fright and anxiety surrounding communication skills, specifically, including:
Personal Report of Communication Apprehension, Public Speaking Subscale (PRCA-PS): the PRCA-PS consists of a series of statements that individuals rate based on their level of agreement or disagreement, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The PRCA-PS provides valuable information about an individual’s apprehension specifically related to public speaking situations. It assesses factors such as fear of evaluation, physical symptoms, and avoidance tendencies. Researchers and practitioners utilize the PRCA-PS to measure public speaking anxiety and track changes over time in response to interventions or training programs.
Social Performance Scale Self-Reported Version (SPS-SR): the SPS-SR is a self-assessment tool commonly used to measure social anxiety, including public speaking anxiety. It focuses on the fear of negative evaluation and performance in social situations. The SPS-SR measures subjective experiences of anxiety while speaking in front of others.
Prevalence and Impact of Public Speaking Anxiety
Beyond the havoc uncontrolled and unfocused speaking anxiety can wreak on our careers, research studies have consistently highlighted the widespread personal impact of public speaking anxiety on well being in our daily lives.The fear of speaking in front of others affects individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Studies of undergraduate students in particular have highlighted this trend, as public speaking anxiety appears to be most noticeable during this period of time,with over 95% of students in this present study reporting severe fears of speaking in front of others. Add in the transitional anxiety most students face when moving on to higher education, and you have a recipe for a full-blown anxiety disorder.University students are a particularly useful subpopulation to study, as they come from all walks of life and cultures, are typically placed in social situations more frequently than a national average, and must speak socially throughout a variety of contexts during college years. These include speaking in front of a classroom, or socializing with other students outside of class, situations that come up far more for students than for many older adults on a day to day basis.Findings of further research indicate that public speaking anxiety can have significant emotional, cognitive, and physiological impacts,including increased stress levels, decreased performance, and avoidance of speaking opportunities. Student mental health is of particular importance when examining anxiety disorders in general, as they are under significant pressure for a long period of time. Undergraduate students remain the most at-risk for developing anxious tendencies, and research is highly-focused on developing tools that alleviate anxiety, determining the differences in how social anxiety disorder presents itself between female and male students, and how to develop resources for anxious students to utilize while experiencing social phobia in higher education.Understanding the prevalence and impact of public speaking anxiety underscores the importance of addressing this issue and developing effective strategies to support individuals, no matter if they are undergraduate students or working professionals, in overcoming their fears
Neurological and physiological mechanisms underlying speech anxiety
Neuroscientific research has revealed fascinating insights into the brain’s response to public speaking anxiety. Studies using brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have identified regions of the brain associated with fear, stress, and self-consciousness that become activated during public speaking.fMRI works by measuring the difference in blood flow and oxygenated vs. deoxygenated blood recruitment (also known as the BOLD response) across different brain areas at discrete moments in time. Since neurons recruit additional blood while active, this response works to isolate where in the brain more neurons are “switched on” during exposure to a stimulus.Using fMRI, when comparing individuals suffering from PTSD, social phobia, or specific phobia, a recent open access article distributed through the esteemedAmerican Journal of Psychiatry found:“Patients with any of the three disorders consistently showed greater activity than matched comparison subjects in the amygdala and insula, structures linked to negative emotional responses. A similar pattern was observed during fear conditioning in healthy subjects. Hyperactivation in the amygdala and insula were, of interest, more frequently observed in social anxiety disorder and specific phobia…”This meta-analysis is only one of countless examples highlighting an important principle: social anxiety is not a result of internal weakness or incompetence, but rather, the body’s natural response to a cascade of neural signals outside of our control. Having social anxiety does not make someone less capable or less strong; it is our biology.Additionally, psychological research has explored cognitive processes, such as negative self-evaluation, perfectionism, and social comparison, that contribute to public speaking anxiety. Findings published in the international journalAtlantis Press found that an individual’s subjective view of their self efficacy (aka, how “effective” they view themselves in social situations) correlates with their degree of experienced anxiety. These thought processes are highly dependent on the underlying biology, and a combination of research examining the biological and psychological processes contributing to public speaking anxiety are critical. Understanding these mechanisms allows for targeted interventions that address specific cognitive and emotional aspects of public speaking anxiety.
Evidence supports cognitive-behavioral interventions for public speaking anxiety
Cognitive-behavioral interventions have shown promise in helping individuals manage and overcome public speaking anxiety. Research studies have examined the effectiveness of techniques such as:
These interventions focus on challenging negative thoughts, gradually exposing individuals to speaking situations, and developing coping strategies to regulate anxiety responsesI talk about each of these techniques in some capacity throughout this blog series, so I won’t go into too much detail here. However, it’s a great reminder to us all that treating public speaking anxiety is an ongoing practice that demands continued learning, education, and acknowledgement of our fear of public speaking.Research indicates thatcognitive-behavioral interventions can lead to significant reductions in public speaking anxiety and improvements in speaking performance. While you do not have to practice every single one of these principles while managing your own performance anxiety, adapting the tools they use is advised. The science is clear: public speaking anxiety can be managed using your own mind, your own power, and your own process.
Public speaking anxiety is a commonly reported fear that many people from all walks of life struggle with, whether we’re talking about university students, working professionals, or seasoned public speakers.The exciting fields of neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral therapy are only just now beginning to unravel the complex internal dynamics that contribute to speech anxiety and its treatments.Future directions for managing public speaking anxiety must include larger sample sizes, greater demographic spread of participants from different social and cultural backgrounds, and greater acknowledgment of communication education in building tools for public speaking. Public speaking anxiety is a complicated disorder, but it can be beaten.I’m certain that future research will only continue to confirm that which I have always known to be true: public speaking anxiety, in all of its forms, can be managed using the tools most people already have inside of them.
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