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How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking

October 11, 2019

 

Overview

 

To overcome and get over the fear of public speaking, also known as Glossophobia and stage fright, you will begin before the speech by monitoring your "If then" thinking, during the speech you will lower your self-preoccupation, and after the speech you will focus on what you did well.

 

Although, fear of public speak, or stage fright for some, is one of the most common fears, there are no clear statistics of how prevalent this fear actually is.

 

Some blogs on the internet suggest that 73% to 75% of the population experience this fear but there are no sources of research to back up those claims.

 

Fear of public speaking (Glossophobia) is actually a form of Social Anxiety Disorder.

 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports an estimated 12.1% of U.S. adults experience social anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. 

 

With social anxiety disorder (aka social phobia) people experience fear and anxiety about one or more social situations where they could be observed and judged by others. 

 

Meeting new people, having conversations, being observed by others, eating or drinking around others, and performing or giving a speech are some of the situations that someone struggling with social anxiety would likely want to avoid. 

 

Even writing and signing your name in front of others could cause anxiety.

 

Fear of public speaking affects approximately 73% of the population. It is one of the more common anxieties that people experience.

 

 

What is Fear of Public Speaking?

 

Performance and Evaluation Anxiety

 

“What if my speech doesn’t measure up to people’s expectations? They will think that I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

 

You may become all-consumed with doing everything “Perfectly.”

 

You may worry about other people seeing you in a negative way or making negative judgements about you as a person based on your performance. 

 

You worry that people will poorly rate your knowledge or ability to communicate. You may also rate your own ability poorly and then expect that others will too.

 

People worry that they will be “found out” to be deficient or ineffective while giving a speech. These worries, thoughts, and expectations all cause symptoms of anxiety. 

 

The symptoms of anxiety will then have a tendency to interfere with speaking performance.

 

 

What are the Symptoms of Fear of Public Speaking?

 

Symptoms of Anxiety

 

People who become fearful before giving a speech may blush, sweat, tremble, have their mind go blank, and experience a rapid heart rate. 

 

They may then fear that others will see them blush or sweat and then know that they are anxious.

 

Other symptoms include:

 

  • Difficulty speaking and word-finding

 

  • Having a stiff, rigid body posture and making poor eye contact

 

  • Feeling self-conscious

 

  • Fearful of being judged and criticized

 

  • Feeling embarrassed and awkward around others

 

  • Upset stomach or nausea

 

  • Trouble catching your breath

 

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

 

  • Muscle tension

 

  • Panic attacks

 

 

What are the Causes of Fear of Public Speaking?

 

Vulnerability

 

Public speaking means that all eyes are on you. Everyone will see the clothing that you chose to wear and how you physically appear. They will witness any mistakes you make. 

 

Having the attention of an audience focused on your every word and every move, leaves you vulnerable to the impressions of the audience and their collective and/or individual behavior (i.e. do they laugh, yawn, or clap).

 

Your fear may be that the audience will “Discover” your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. 

 

This will cause you to continually self-monitor and you will monitor the audience for any sign of negative impressions, such as yawning, walking out, or laughing when you did not intend to be funny.

 

 

Excessive Self-Preoccupation

 

People who fear public speaking tend to be more preoccupied with their worries, their personal limitations, and how other people will react to them. 

 

Their thoughts are centered on themselves rather than on their surroundings or on other people. 

 

These thoughts are usually negative and involve expectations that other people will disapprove of them.

 

 

Strong Need for Approval

 

As human animals, we have a strong need to belong and to be accepted by others. So we naturally care about how our behavior may affect others. 

 

But caring too much about one’s own behavior can lead to excessive self-preoccupation and anxiety.

 

Some people define their self-worth and their identity based other people’s impressions of them. 

 

This is great if the impressions are favorable but bad if the impressions are poor.

 

When it comes to speaking to a group of people, it will be very difficult to constantly manage all of those impressions and meet everyone’s expectations.

 

 

Negative Fearful Thoughts

 

  • “What if I forget what to say?”

 

  • “I will freeze up.”

 

  • “What if people ask questions that I can’t answer?”

 

  • “What if someone in the audience knows more than I do on the topic?”

 

  • “People will think I’m stupid and boring.”

 

  • “People will see how nervous I am.”

 

 

Negative Beliefs

 

You have developed beliefs about yourself, other people, and the world. Your current beliefs influence how you think, how you behave, and how you feel. 

 

If you believe that the world is basically a dangerous place, then your thoughts, behavior, and feelings will follow. 

 

If you believe that you are defective and not a capable person, then your thoughts, behavior, and feelings will reflect those beliefs. 

 

Early experiences such as freezing up during an oral presentation in school for example, and any other unsettling experience while speaking in front of others could have created negative beliefs about your public speaking abilities.  

 

 

 

How is Fear of Public Speaking Treated?

 

If you believe you could have a fear of public speaking or social anxiety it will be helpful and important to seek consultation with a mental health professional to first verify the diagnosis and then receive appropriate treatment.

 

Fear of public speaking can be successfully treated with psychotherapy, medication, and public speaking workshops.

 

 

Psychotherapy

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-researched and highly effective form of talk therapy that focuses on learning more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. 

 

You learn ways of improving your communication skills and different ways of responding to social situations and to your feelings of anxiety. 

 

CBT helps challenge and change your unhelpful beliefs that cause the anxiety.

 

After you learn to master the anxiety, you will be encouraged to approach more public speaking situations that trigger the anxiety. 

 

This is where you apply your new CBT skills within a feared situation and have the experience of feeling less anxious and more confident.  This is when your beliefs really begin to change and the fear of public speaking becomes non-existent. 

 

 

Medication

 

Please consult with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist regarding the use of medication.

 

Medication can help reduce the physical symptoms anxiety that are experienced during public speaking. 

 

Commonly prescribe medications include benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, and beta blockers. 

 

 

Benzodiazepines

 

Benzodiazepines are quick acting sedatives that are generally safe and effective for short term use. 

 

However, the long term use of benzodiazepines is associated with the risk of developing tolerance, dependence, and possible other adverse effects. 

 

Also since benzodiazepines are a sedative, they may interfere with performance.

 

Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are:

 

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)

 

  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

 

  • Diazepam (Valium)

 

  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)

 

 

Anti-Depressants

 

Anti-depressant medications are also effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety on a daily basis. This helps dampen the physical and emotional effects of anxiety and increases a person’s capacity to cope with stressful situations. 

 

Anti-depressants will not affect a person’s performance.

 

Commonly prescribed anti-depressants are:

 

  • Citalopram (Celexa)

 

  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)

 

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

 

  • Paroxetine (Paxil)

 

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)

 

 

Beta Blockers

 

Beta Blockers are used to treat high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and migraines. 

 

They are also prescribed for off-label use by physicians to help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety. 

 

Beta blockers have the ability to control rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing in response to anxiety.

 

Beta blockers do not interfere with cognitive performance and are by far my favorite for removing the jitters before a speech.

 

Commonly prescribed Beta Blockers:

 

  • Propranolol (Inderal)

 

  • Atenolol (Tenormin)

 

  • Acebutolol (Sectral)

 

  • Bisoprolol (Zebeta)

 

  • Metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol-XL)

 

  • Nadolol (Corgard)

 

  • Nebivolol (Bystolic)

 

 

Public Speaking Workshops

 

Public speaking workshops teach the basic skills of public speaking and how to;

 

  • Stay calm

 

  • Connect with the audience

 

  • Respond to questions

 

  • Communicate your message clearly

 

  • You also get to practice in front of others who most likely also has a fear of public speaking

 

 

 

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (Glossophobia/Stage Fright)

 

 

1. Prior to the Speech

 

Monitor your “If Then” Thinking

 

Most of the anxiety occurs before a speech and at the very intro to the speech. This is when you can prepare your mind to reduce anxiety and nervousness by identifying your unhelpful “If Then” thinking.

 

If your “If Then” thinking is focused on anxiety, then you will experience anxiety. 

 

If your “If Then” thinking is focused on a desired outcome or what you want, then you will feel less anxious. 

 

Example:  “If I stumble on my words and blush, then people will think I’m stupid and I will be embarrassed” vs. “If I blush, then people will see that as an endearing sign of being human and not perfect like everyone else.”  

 

If you constantly focus on the possibility of danger, then your brain and body will prepare you for that danger. That means experiencing anxiety.

 

Begin identifying the positive outcome and experiences you want to have and deserve to have.

 

 

Label your Feelings

 

Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel nervous. 

 

Don’t try to not feel nervous or to get rid of your anxiety. 

 

The harder you try to stop the anxiety, the more anxious you will feel.

 

So instead allow yourself to feel nervous and then label your nervous feeling as “Excitement!” 

 

Excitement means that you are energized and your brain and body will respond with energy and excitement.

 

Know that when you start speaking and connecting with the audience, your brain shifts out of the worry and fear cycle, causing you to feel less anxious. 

 

This is because you begin using other parts of your brain for speaking and observing your audience. This is often why most people feel less nervous a few minutes after starting their speech.

 

Brain imaging studies show that, when we worry, our left prefrontal cortex and amygdala are activated. 

 

This can become a vicious cycle because your thoughts are focused on danger, your amygdala then triggers the anxiety alarm, causing you to have more thoughts of danger, and causing your amygdala to keep sounding the alarm.

 

These same studies discovered that labeling the anxiety or fear with “feeling words” caused a decrease in the amygdala and an increase in the right prefrontal cortex.

 

So your brain can also shift out of the worry and fear cycle simply by labeling how you feel. 

 

This may be the reason why some people feel less nervous after “confessing” to the audience that they are nervous.

 

 

Practice

 

Obviously, the more practiced you are with your speech, the more confident you will feel.

 

 

Special Diet?

 

Forget about the special diet! 

 

Drink your coffee if that’s what you normally do. 

 

Eat your comfort foods. 

 

Please don’t torture yourself by abstaining from pleasurable foods.

 

Just make sure that you do eat something and drink plenty of water.

 

 

2. During the Speech

 

Lower Your Self-Preoccupation 

 

If you are socially anxious, then you may also be highly self-focused on how you are appearing and presenting to other people. 

 

This self-focused worry only serves to increase anxiety and fear.

 

To lower your self-preoccupation:

 

  • Focus on the topic of your speech

 

  • Feel passionate about your topic

 

  • Direct your focus outward

 

  • Focus on other people

 

  • Smile and make eye contact with the people who are smiling and nodding their heads at you

 

 

Be Vulnerable

 

Tell the audience a little bit about yourself first.  Confess to the audience that you are not sure if you are nervous or just really excited.

 

Allow the audience to see that you are an imperfect human just like them.

 

If you freeze up and can’t remember your speech just say something like, “Wow I completely forgot what I was going to say, don’t you hate that?” 

 

Then quickly look at your outline to get back on track.  Your audience will be able to identify with you.

 

 

Mistakes can be part of the show:  The Pratfall Effect

 

The Pratfall Effect was first studied by social psychologist Elliot Aronson in 1966. Aronson found that people who others considered “superior” would become more likeable after they committed some type of pratfall or clumsy mistake.

 

When people make clumsy mistakes, they appear more human, and more genuine.

 

Deliberately create and make a clumsy mistake that you are in control of such as a fumble or a trip. Then smile and laugh it off. 

 

This will actually endear people to you and make you more likeable as a real person who is vulnerable, not perfect, and can laugh at themselves.

 

This will also allow you to get “that mistake” out of the way.  It takes the pressure off making more mistakes.

 

 

Audience Questions and Comments

 

If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them that you don’t have the answer, thank them for that great question, and ask for their contact info so you can follow up with an answer later. 

 

It may be helpful to have a sign in sheet or a way to collect emails. Then you can email all attendees with the answer.

 

If someone is very knowledgeable in the audience, don’t be intimidated. 

 

Remember, someone may know a few things that you don’t know about your topic and others may know more than you know about your topic.

 

If this happens, use them as a valuable resource and confidently refer back to them if there is a question you can not answer. 

 

The audience will respect you for being able to facilitate a dialogue to find the answers they seek.

 

 

3. After the Speech

 

Be Proud of Yourself

 

Be proud of yourself and give yourself a treat for completing the speech even though you may have been really nervous or very anxious.

 

Focus on the things you did well at and don’t over-focus on any mistakes you may have made.

 

Write down some note on what went well and any ideas for future improvement.

 

 

Managing Anxiety

 

Feeling confident in your ability to manage the symptoms of anxiety will help with your fear of embarrassment and fear of panic attacks while giving a speech.

 

Learn to manage anxiety and panic attacks 

 

Turn on Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

 

The parasympathetic nervous system is also called the “Rest and Digest” system.  It produces a calm and relaxed feeling by:

 

  • Decreasing the heart rate

 

  • Dilating the blood vessels

 

  • Increasing salivation

 

  • Stimulating tear production

 

  • Stimulating the digestive system

 

  • Increasing a feeling of calm

 

  • Improves sexual arousal

 

The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by stimulating something called the vagus nerve. This nerve is very long and it runs from the hypothalamus in the brain to the chest, diaphragm, and intestines. 

 

The vagus nerve can therefore be stimulated through diaphragmatic breathing, humming, and singing.

 

You can also turn on your parasympathetic nervous system with progressive muscle relaxation and by exposing yourself to cold temperatures.

 

 

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

 

   1. Inhale through your nose slowly by expanding from your belly first

       then fill your upper lungs for a count of 5.

 

   2. Hold your breath for a count of 2.

 

   3. Exhale slowly and forcefully through pursed lips for a count of 10.

 

   4. Repeat this 5 to 10 times or do it for at least 1 minute.

 

 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

 

   1. From a seated position begin by tensing your legs and buttocks

       for a count of 5, then relax.

 

   2. Tense your abdomen for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5.

 

   3. Tense your arms for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5.

 

   4. Shrug your shoulders to your ears and tense for a count of 5, then

       relax for a count of 5.

 

   5. Press your tongue to the roof of your mount for a count of 5, then

       relax for a count of 5.

 

Tips:  Let all of the tension release and flow out or your muscles. Exhale as you release the tension and relax. You should feel the muscles become loose and limp. 

 

Focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation as this is the most important part of the exercise.

 

 

Exposure to Cold

 

Research indicates that your sympathetic (fight or flight) system slows down and your parasympathetic system increases when your body adjusts to cold temperatures (Makinen et. al. 2008). 

 

It appears that any kind of cold exposure works such as drinking cold water, running hands under cold water, and splashing cold water on your face.

 

 

Take care of your physical health

 

  • Get regular exercise or physical activity to flush the stress hormones out of your body.

 

  • Get adequate sleep.

 

  • Eat a healthy diet and be mindful of your caffeine and alcohol intake.

 

 

 

For more information:

 

Please purchase my book “Attacking Panic:  The Power to Be Calm” for more in depth information on how to stop panic attacks quickly and how to treat the root cause (Amygdala/Sympathetic Nervous System). 

 

The book shows you how to go beyond just giving up control and allowing yourself to experience a panic attack.  

 

The book has more powerful strategies that will short-circuit your fight or flight system, stop a panic attack very quickly, and even prevent a panic attack from occurring. 

 

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Russell Hunter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

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