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A Powerful Way to Control Your Fear of Public Speaking

A Powerful Way to Control Your Fear of Public Speaking

Want a fast, reliable way to gain confidence as a presenter? Here's a powerful way to control your fear of public speaking. 

The moment your plane is in a tailspin is the wrong time to learn how to fly.

The same is true when it comes to controlling your fear of public speaking.

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What's happening to you in that moment of distress (or is it panic?) has two main components: your cognitive response, and your physical one. Of the two, the physical is more immediate. And it's always strong.

Once it's started, it's too late to turn off the hormones flooding your bloodstream. You need to get ahead of this response, and arm yourself to manage the symptoms, and even better, lessen them. That's what I want to talk about here.

What Happens When You Experience Speaking Fear

The reason you have such an immediate, overpowering physical response to speech anxiety, is because your body is trying to get you out of danger. The moment your mind senses that you're in a dangerous situation, your body takes over.

In an instantaneous response, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive (its nickname, in fact, is the "fight or flight system"). Your blood flow is redistributed to your limbs, hands, etc., so you can fight or run away. Less essential systems at the moment, such as digestion and peristalsis (the movement of waste products through your intestines) cease. Your pupils dilate. Stress hormones suddenly have you in their grip, and for a very good reason: the prime directive is to get you out of danger so you can live to fight another day.

So, imagine you've just stood up before the audience—or joined the virtual meeting—and all of this hits. Do you think you'll be able to tell yourself to start managing this out-of-control process? Not likely, is it? (Here's how to recover if you have an actual brain freeze.) Wouldn't a more effective strategy be to prepare yourself beforehand to be ready for the tsunami of physical responses that are coming your way?

How to breathe to control your fear of public speaking.

The Science of Controlled Breathing

Here's a powerful way to control your fear of public speaking by making greater physical control a habit. Specifically, I'm talking about controlled breathing.

Of the physical responses you have in the moment of high anxiety/panic, two are the most rapid and powerful: (1) rapid heart rate, and (2) faster and more shallow breathing. Together, they compound the feeling of being at the mercy of the dangerous situation, and quickly losing your grip. By learning how to master your breathing, you regain a sense of control. 

There's something equally important that happens in this scenario: you allow your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. That's the one nicknamed the "rest and digest system." You can achieve this result by simply slowing your breathing, and extending the duration of the exhaled breath. Doing this activates your vagus nerve, which is responsible for slowing down your heart rate. Immediately, then, you're countering those two bugaboos of the chaotic anxiety response: you're (A) slowing your heart rate, and (B) countering your rapid and shallow breathing.

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Two Steps to Gaining Confidence and Control

It's as easy as practicing two steps: First, consciously slow down and deepen your breathing. Then breathe in the following pattern, in terms of a silent count you do in your head: 4-4-6-2. That represents a silent count of 4 while inhaling, pausing for another count of 4, exhaling to a count of 6 (notice that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, allowing the vagus nerve maximum activation to slow down the heart), then stopping for a two-count before you resume the process.

Remember: you should practice controlling breathing this way before you're facing an anxiety provoking situation. Once you get in the habit, you'll be more likely to breathe more consciously and slowly even when you're not thinking about it. That's a big advantage when you're about to speak, since you have other things on your mind. 

The result of developing a controlled breathing habit is that this becomes the new you. So that when stress and other negative stimuli come your way, you're much calmer and more centered to meet it. Kind of like allowing a big wave to break around you on the beach, rather than being completed swamped.

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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching worldwide. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.


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