The Very Real Science Behind your Fear of Public Speaking

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The Very Real Science Behind your Fear of Public Speaking

fear-617132_1280The sometimes debilitating fear of public speaking, technically called “glossophobia”, affects a large portion of the population. It is known in medical communities as a type of social anxiety, similar to “stage fright”. This includes symptoms of: a feeling of impending doom, obsessive thoughts of failure and worry, trembling and shaking, dizziness, accelerated heart rate, sweating, and nausea. You might also find that your mouth dries and your voice weakens and cracks.

When you get up to the podium, notes shaking in hand, feet nervously fidgeting, it seems like all the information you know well and rehearsed, delivering has just gone whirling away with your confidence. At that moment, staring at your anticipating audience, all you really want to do is flee. However, this reaction is a response to your brain’s necessary “fight or flight phenomenon”, the physiological response to a threatening situation.

For our ancient ancestors, the fight or flight response transpired from a standoff with a wooly mammoth. In the presence of this threat, the caveman’s body and mind would be stimulated in order to determine if he should fight the beast or run for his life. The limbic system in our brain regulates this flight or fight response. Though our evolved brains are intelligent, our limbic system sees not just wooly mammoths, but other risks like dark alleys and public speaking as equally dangerous threats. And thus, the amygdala response is thus activated.

When thrust into a threatening situation, the limbic system activates two responses. It notifies your pituitary gland to secrete the stress hormone (along with 30 others), initiating the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones are responsible for the energized feeling and heightened sense of awareness you experience when anxious. While these hormones are released, your brain also triggers a response by the sympathetic nervous system, causing your muscles to tense, pupils to dilate, heart rate to increase, breathing volume to increase. Your blood vessels also dilate, causing that creeping red blush that encases your neck, ears, and face as you try to coax the words for the presentation. All of these responses and symptoms allow you to either attack your foe or run from it; you can fight that wooly mammoth, or stand shaking at the podium hoping to not pass out. Left unaddressed, these very real physical symptoms clog your brain’s ability to guide your rational thought and your steady body movements.

Here’s the good news! The amygdala and your rational brain centers are opposing systems. Meaning that, once you engage your rational frontal cortex, the amygdala shuts off and the “fight or flight” responses are calmed. Simply saying “My fight or flight has kicked in. Let’s stop that.” Really does shut it down because you have chosen to engage your rational brain. So recognize it when it’s happening, choose to do something about it, and then use our 4-part process to convert that anxiety to useful, good energy for your best speech ever.

About the Author:

Ellen Dunnigan founded Accent On Business in 2001 specializing in public speaking, communication skills, and executive presence for leaders in business. She has 25 years of experience with professional and nonprofessional speakers in healthcare, media, politics, engineering, sports, and other industries. Ellen’s coaching in speaking skills gives established and emerging leaders greater confidence and credibility. Her leadership programs in accountability, alignment, difficult conversations, and organizational communication have helped leaders expand their influence. Ellen is known for her practical “how to” style.
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