When you feel anxious about public speaking, you may show it physically. And that makes you feel worse. Here's how to break the cycle and lift your self-image.
Of the types of social anxiety, the most prevalent is fear of public speaking. Millions of people around the world suffer from the symptoms of nervousness, self-consciousness, and feelings of self-doubt and exposure that glossophobia entails.
A large part of my practice as a speech coach and trainer involves helping people overcome their speech anxiety. Given the complex and personal responses that take place during stage fright, it's worthwhile to address the problem from a number of directions. That's the approach I take in my textbook on overcoming speaking fear, Fearless Speaking.
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One of the most powerful and productive ways to face this problem, is to understand the close connection between mind and body in speech anxiety. For the fact is, what you perceive is immediately reflected in your physical response.
Let's look at how you can effectively head off an over-the-top reaction that undermines both your comfort level and performance. We'll start by examining the mechanism of speaking fear.
What Happens when You Experience Stage Fright
The overwhelming response that is fear of public speaking starts with the perception of danger. It's a deep-seated reaction that's hard-wired in all of us. And no wonder! To suddenly confront a group of people who are often strangers—to face a crowd staring intently and expectently at us—is to invite a spike in our sense of exposure and vulnerability.
When this happens, our body immediately kicks in the flight-or-flight response. The surge of adrenalin, redistribution of blood to the muscles, enlargement of the pupils, increased breathing rate, rise in blood sugar, and all the rest, are reactions geared toward one overriding goal: survival. If you respond like this, here are 10 fast and effective ways to overcome stage fright.
Is Public Speaking Really a Dangerous Activity?
A moment's thought, of course, makes you realize there isn't really any danger present—it's just a public speaking situation, after all. But your cognitive response comes too late for the overwhelming physical reaction you're now experiencing. It takes time for your body to return to its normal state of homeostasis. In the meantime, you're literally feeling physically stressed while in the grip of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
You're probably also acutely aware that you're demonstrating this anxiety in physical terms: by breathing rapidly (or forgetting to breathe), sweating, speaking with a shaky voice, experiencing extreme dry mouth, or other responses. If that's what you experience, here is a 5-minute technique to calm your fear of public speaking. Physical responses like this can give way to the painful thought that others are noticing your symptoms of social anxiety.
How to Avoid the Speech Anxiety Panic Button
When you're in the state described above, you may reach for the panic button. The idea that others are noticing your awkwardness (because it's so evident) is tremendously difficult to overcome in the moment. That is, when it's happening, it feels like a downward spiral that's impossible to break out of.
This obsession with your performance is the same whether you're involved in speaking publicly, mingling at a cocktail party, or other situations where you feel that your discomfort is perfectly obvious. (If the worse occurs and you feel you need to flee the situation, here are 3 escape hatches if you're suffering a panic attack.)
In fact, your concern with revealing your anxiety physically may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, or if not that, a conviction on your part that your anxiety is clearly showing itself. That's why I advocate a buffer between the thoughts that give rise to your physical reaction, and the throwing-up-your-hands response: "Well, everyone can see it now!"
From Negative Self-Talk to Positive Statements
You can create that buffer by learning how to turn negative self-talk into positive thinking. This technique works particuarly well if you habitually say things to yourself that undermine your self-confidence, i.e., if you have a "favorites" menu of negative self-talk.
If that's the case, pair each instance of negative thinking with a positive statement instead. For example, "They're going to see I'm nervous" (an ever-popular fear of people who have speech anxiety), becomes "Most nervousness doesn't show," or "Everyone will see how energized I am about this topic!" (Interestingly, the physical activation you experience through nervousness is similar to the body's response during states of excitement or sexual arousal.)
Social anxiety that manifests itself in non-public speaking situations will benefit from the same technique. "I hate parties!" isn't a terribly productive response to keep repeating to yourself. "I'll learn something tonight from someone here," on the other hand, actually presupposes something interesting happening.
Using The Mind-Body Connection Successfully
The benefit to the approach I'm advocating above is, I believe, twofold: First, it teaches you that an anxiety reaction is a close interplay of cognition and physical response. Knowing this can arm you for dealing with your symptoms by activating both systems, mental and physical, so that strengthening one also activates and boosts the other.
Second, realizing that you can "head off" the overwhelming physical response with positive self-talk will help you avoid that panic button. Your body's response can be overwhelming and feel like a tip-off to others that you're anxious. By marshaling a positive mental response beforehand, your body's response can be lessened. And then, of course, your anxiety will be much less evident.
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