Picture this: you’re standing in front of a sea of expectant faces, your heart pounding like a tribal drum, and your palms slippery with nervous sweat. Public speaking—the mere thought of it can send shivers down our spines.But have you ever wondered why this seemingly innocuous act can trigger such intense anxiety? It’s not like we’re doing anything that is inherently physically dangerous — so why do we feel so paralyzed and fearful when public speaking?It may surprise you to know that the fear of public speaking is deeply ingrained within our brains, and while the severity varies from person to person, even experienced speakers struggle with at least some level of public speaking anxiety. It’s incredibly common to feel nervous before a speech, but I’m here to tell you the best part: it can be managed. Managing anxiety is a skill that benefits us not only in our speeches, but in our entire careers.And I’m here to tell you that you already have the tools necessary to develop this skill! No matter if you’re booked for the biggest speaking engagement of your life, or speaking to a small group of familiar clients, I guarantee you after you learn more about how public speaking anxiety works, your entire perspective will shift dramatically.This series of blog posts have been dedicated towards unraveling the mystery surrounding one of the most common fears almost everyone will deal with at some point in their lives. Today, we want to look at the very real, scientific reasons for all the self doubt, nervous energy, and performance anxiety right before giving a speech.In this blog post, let’s delve into the depths of our fears and unravel the underlying reasons why public speaking often causes anxiety. And fear not, for I’ll also share insights and strategies to help you navigate this storm with confidence.
The Prevalence of Fear of Public Speaking
Anxiety is one of the most isolating experiences we deal with. It come sometimes feel like no one understands just how severely the thought of social situations and public speaking affects us.So it’s heartening to know that you’re not alone:over 15 million people live with some form of public speaking anxiety, and many speakers have difficulty navigating this, sometimes on a daily basis. Many folks from the general population suffer from this debilitating form of social anxiety, and you’re not alone. Negative experiences with public speaking may be to blame for just how widespread this fear has become.Think back to your school days, where perhaps you received an assignment like a required oral presentation; these childhood memories of giving speeches under mandatory conditions can sometimes sour our feelings about speaking in public later in life.I understand how easy it may be to look at a seasoned professional, or someone where it seems like their gift for public speaking comes naturally, and feel like you’re measuring up short. But the surprising fact of the matter is that only 10% of people report being completely comfortable speaking in public.Public speaking anxiety stems from a complex interplay of factors—fear of judgment, self-consciousness, performance pressure, lack of experience, and the dread of forgetting. Acknowledging these reasons is the first step towards understanding our anxiety. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey.
Public speaking anxiety is rooted in your nervous system
Understanding the science behind our anxiety when speaking in public can empower us in ways we may not even realize. Our brains react strongly in certain situations, sometimes unexpectedly, and this reaction is due to a heightened response to threat that reverberates throughout the nervous system. Public speaking anxiety is especially common, and you can probably relate to a time where even your body appeared to be out of your control: this is the power that your mind has over your physicality.Anxiety disorders arise when this heightened arousal state impairs our ability to act in situations that are not inherently dangerous, sometimes manifesting as social phobia or other mental disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. In extreme cases, professional help is required.
At the core of public speaking anxiety lies the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in ourbrain’s limbic system responsible for processing emotions, including fear. When we step onto the stage, the amygdala perceives the situation as a threat, triggering a cascade of physiological and psychological responses. The fear of public speaking is as real to our brains as any other rational fear in life!
Without getting into the weeds too much, once our amygdala is engaged, this cascade activates a series of structures simultaneously such as those found in the midbrain and spinal cord. This promotes the fight-or-flight response, and once it is activated, our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, preparing us to confront or escape the perceived danger.Stage fright has very real physical symptoms such as freezing, shaking, or sweating, and they are all outside of our conscious control. The midbrain directs how our bodies physiologically respond to threat, and it’s automatic. While the amygdala is developed due in part to learned behavior we have internalized throughout our lives, the midbrain’s signals are very automatic and almost instinctual.The degree to which the nervous system gets switched on all depends on the individual; some people have very little to no anxiety during public speaking, while others experience panic attacks! But no matter what end of the spectrum you may lie on, psychological interventions that incorporate mindfulness can allow you to reclaim your foundation, and deliver a successful speech no matter how severe your fear of public speaking is.
The power of neuroplasticity
The good news is that our brains are remarkably adaptable, capable of change and growth. Through repeated exposure and practice, we can rewire our neural pathways, shifting from anxiety to confidence. By gradually exposing ourselves to public speaking situations and experiencing positive outcomes, we can activate neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself—and forge new connections that associate public speaking with success rather than fear.Think about it — everything you need to rewire your fear of public speaking lies within your brain, and it can be changed! You have the ability to tap into your brain’s natural tendency to change in order to address speaking anxiety effectively.Effective treatments for public speaking anxiety will use a combination of physical exercises and mindfulness techniques to maximize the brain’s inherent ability to reorganize itself.
Practice your talk as much as you need, without regard for form or delivery just yet. Simply getting the words out should be the foundation that you build the rest of your speech from.
Highlight where you can take deep breaths. Public speaking requires total ease with how your body moves and feels, and deep, diaphragmatic breathing will keep you centered before and during a presentation. This step helps retrain your brain’s initial reaction to stress — rather than tensing up and losing our breath, this step aids in delivering oxygen to your system. Poor breathing habits hinder public speaking confidence.
Gradually expose yourself to similar conditions as your talk. Oftentimes we learn to avoid situations where we think we will encounter stress, and people struggling with public speaking anxiety may avoid situations like group presentations, or speaking up at work. I implore you to try the opposite! To overcome your initial negative response to threat, try talking to small groups of people first, before gradually adding in more elements of your actual speech (ex: add a timer if there is a time limit, incorporate visual aids into your slides). The process of simply building a stronger, more confident speech can be empowering in and of itself!
Practice mindfulness and cognitive restructuring. Mindfulness and cognitive strategies offer powerful tools to reframe our thoughts and manage speech anxiety. Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and present-moment awareness, help regulate the amygdala’s response, promoting a state of calm. Cognitive techniques, like reframing negative thoughts and practicing self-compassion, allow us to challenge our anxious beliefs and cultivate a more positive and empowering mindset. A negative perspective undermines public speaking confidence, but positive feedback that reframes our perceptions boosts that confidence!
Stage fright, performance anxiety, no matter what you call it, public speaking anxiety can be debilitating. My blog series on practical strategies to conquer public speaking anxiety are all meant to unveil the power within you to rise above your fears and deliver impactful presentations. Never forget that your energy is powerful, and your voice deserves to be heard.Stay tuned and embrace the challenge with an open heart.
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