If you have “hayfever” (an allergy to ragweed pollen), you know how bad the symptoms can be: Runny eyes. Frozen lungs. Throbbing sinuses.
What causes these unpleasant physical symptoms? Not the ragweed! Like other allergies, hayfever is the the result of a big miscommunication between your immune system and reality.
Your Basic Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Allergic reactions are often triggered by things that aren’t really dangerous, such as peanuts. Pollen. Wool. Dust mites.
Billions of people eat, breathe, or wear these substances with no problem whatsoever.
But sometimes your immune system decides to go on red alert over these not-inherently-dangerous substances — and then you’ve got a problem.
Your body goes into full-out battle mode. It sends out armies of white blood cells, floods your sinuses and lungs with mucus, raises your heart rate, kicks up adrenalin. This violent assault on an imagined invader is what actually makes you sick.
(In William Gibson’s great novel Pattern Recognition, the heroine is allergic to brand logos; but that’s another story!)
Fear of Public Speaking is the Same
Public speaking situations may provoke anxiety, but they are not actually dangerous.
I’ve coached hundreds of people, and while they haven’t all adored their time at the podium, none of them have been torn apart by a rabid, drooling wolf-pack of vicious audience members.
That’s because the vast majority of audiences are on your side. They may not agree with everything you say, but they want you to speak well. They want you to succeed.
Try telling that to your amygdala, though!
Your amygdala is the pre-verbal part of your brain that mediates fear and triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response that allows you to escape from danger.
Like your immune system, the amygdala exists to protect you.
And, like your immune system, it can get things completely wrong and over-react in ways that are totally unnecessary.
The Eyes Have It
While it may not always feel this way, the reality is that your audience is no more dangerous to you than… ragweed pollen!
This is why it’s so important to make eye contact with your audience!
If you really look at the people you’re speaking to, and let yourself observe where they’re coming from, you’ll see things that disprove the “I’m in mortal danger!” theory.
You’ll see people smiling. Listening carefully. Perhaps even nodding their heads.
And while fear of public speaking is nothing to sneeze at, I’m betting that even a brief reality check will calm you down by reminding you that your audience isn’t dangerous.
They’re just people, and they’re on your side!