We’ve been on a roll these past few weeks breaking down everything you need to know about public speaking anxiety, including why it happens, how it feels, and different strategies for managing it in your own presentations.But like many things in life, it’s not so simple — while public speaking anxiety is very common, it can manifest in various ways. For example, there are some people who just happen to experience greater anxiety in all contexts, while others only feel nervous on a stage, in front of an audience.It’s important to also keep in mind that anxiety disorder itself is extremely common; the National Institute of Mental Health reports that at least 31.1% of U.S adults willexperience any anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Public speaking anxiety, specifically, is classified by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-V) as a type of social anxiety disorder.Understanding the different types of public speaking anxiety empowers us to address our fears with clarity and develop targeted strategies for growth. While I stand by every single piece of knowledge my blog series has delivered over the last few weeks, understanding which form of public speaking anxiety you tend to experience the most is critical towards developing your unique game plan for addressing stage fright.Because at the end of the day, my philosophy for helping you unlock your power cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all approach!In this blog post, we will explore the spectrum of public speaking anxiety, from generalized anxiety to specific triggers. By shedding light on these different manifestations, we can navigate our speaking engagements with self-awareness, compassion, and a greater sense of control.The 5 types of public speaking anxiety we’ll be talking about include:
Generalized Speaking Anxiety
It’s important to keep in mind that your unique experience is, well, unique! You could experience only one of these types of public speaking anxiety, or multiple. As you read, I encourage you to think about which type applies most to your own situation, and consider checking out my previous blog posts on mindfulness, self-compassion, speaking techniques, and anxiety management.Without further delay, let’s get started!
Generalized Speaking Anxiety
Generalized public speaking anxiety (also known as general communication apprehension) refers to a pervasive fear of public speaking, and a general discomfort surrounding speaking in public across different situations. In many ways, it is synonymous with social phobia. Individuals with this type of anxiety experience a constant sense of communication apprehension, regardless of the specific context or audience. In short, simply the act of communicating provokes strong stress responses.For example, a person with generalized speaking anxiety may freeze up in front of audience members numbering in the hundreds the same way they would if there were only a few people watching.Professor of communication studies Dr. James C. McCroskey argues that generalized speaking anxiety or communication apprehension have pronounced effects on a person’s life, where they may change their habits to avoid or reduce anxiety by limiting their time communicating altogether. The three strategieshe addressed in his research include:
Avoidance: the individual will flat-out avoid situations where communicating in public is necessary or expected (i.e. not going to parties, declining to speak at a keynote, taking jobs where speaking on the phone is not necessary).
Withdrawal: the individual cannot avoid communication, so they take steps to reduce the amount of speaking they need to do (i.e. giving short replies, standing far away from others, avoiding eye contact).
Disruption: the individual tries to communicate but their discomfort interferes with normal speech (i.e. stuttering when they usually do not, freezing, giving nonsensical answers).
It may stem from underlying self-doubt, fear of judgment, or a lack of confidence in one’s speaking abilities. Overcoming generalized public speaking anxiety often requires a comprehensive approach that addresses underlying beliefs and provides tools for building confidence. If this anxiety disorder becomes severe enough to warrant medical intervention, a physician may prescribe medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or antidepressants.
Performance anxiety is characterized by intense fear and nervousness specifically related to the act of performing in front of an audience. This type of anxiety often arises from the pressure to meet high expectations, fear of making mistakes, or concerns about being evaluated. Many factors contribute to the development of stage fright, such as memories of a previous bad performance or public speech, lack of practice or preparation, and lack of experience.The average person tends to experience performance anxiety at least a few times in their life, whether during a class presentation in elementary school, a big work meeting, or community theatre.Individuals with performance anxiety may experience physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, or a racing mind. Strategies for managing performance anxiety include relaxation techniques, positive self-talk, and rehearsing presentations thoroughly.In some cases, short term medications like beta blockers may be useful if performances are not a common part of your job, though this is a discussion to have with your licensed physician.
Trait anxiety refers to the general level of anxiety a person has that forms part of their personality. In other words, this is the baseline amount of anxiety a person experiences on a daily basis, and it varies across individuals.It’s different from having anxiety disorder because trait anxiety must bestable and persistent, and generally does not cause symptoms associated with anxiety disorder like restlessness, irritability, or panic.Just as there are a wide array of personality types in the world, so to are there different degrees of trait anxiety. A person with high trait anxiety may perceive threat or be fearful in situations that most people would not.Having high trait anxiety isn’t a disorder, and its causes are hard to identify; some research suggests a strong genetic component. Many researchers are currently trying to understand whether trait anxiety itself is innate, the result of early childhood environment, or a combination of both. Current strategies for successful treatment include allowing the individual to address these feelings through mindfulness, self-soothing, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Topic-specific anxiety revolves around anxiety triggered by specific subject matters or areas of expertise. Individuals may feel confident speaking on certain topics but experience heightened anxiety when faced with unfamiliar or challenging subjects.Even experienced speakers can experience this kind of anxiety when speaking on a topic they are not as comfortable or familiar with. When writing a speech, it is crucial to have sufficient background knowledge and practice with answering questions as an expert.This anxiety may stem from a fear of not having sufficient knowledge, being unable to answer questions, or feeling out of depth. Researching and thoroughly preparing on the topic, seeking feedback from experts, and embracing a growth mindset can help mitigate topic-specific anxiety.
Context-dependent anxiety refers to anxiety that arises in particular speaking contexts or settings. For example, individuals may feel more comfortable speaking in small groups or informal settings but experience heightened anxiety when presenting in formal or high-stakes situations.Managing anxiety in specific contexts can be tricky, since we often don’t know which contexts provoke our fear response until we are in them. However, monitoring how we feel when engaging in a group discussion, or in intimate conversations with trusted friends can help us identify which contexts are most stressful.Addressing context-dependent anxiety involves gradually exposing oneself to different speaking environments and public speaking situations, doing a practice run in simulated scenarios, and focusing on building resilience and adaptability.
The fear of public speaking is something many of us struggle with on a consistent basis. By understanding the different types of public speaking anxiety, we can tailor our strategies and develop effective treatments accordingly.Remember, public speaking anxiety is a common and conquerable hurdle, and it is normal to worry about how we give a speech in different situations.Embrace self-awareness, seek support, and develop targeted approaches to gradually build confidence and master the art of public speaking. With persistence and a growth mindset, you can transform public speaking anxiety into a catalyst for personal growth and captivating presentations.
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