First, the good news: It’s not true that most people fear public speaking more than death. (Two University of Nebraska communications professors recently confirmed through their research that public speaking is a common fear, not the worst fear.)
The bad news is that plenty of people do suffer when it comes to public speaking.
Charles diCagno — Director of Public Speaking Center of NY and an expert in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety disorders — estimates that 20% of us have “high anxiety” about public speaking, with 10% more being “phobic.”
(The rest of us, I like to joke, are merely scared.)
Public Speaking Phobia Isn’t the Same Thing as Public Speaking Fear
The National Institutes of Health consider fear of public speaking a form of “social anxiety,” the fear of being scrutinized or judged by others.
You can blame this fear on your amygdala—the pre-verbal, prehistoric part of our brains that controls the fight-flight-or-freeze response. But how do you know when your fear tips over into something much less tractable?
To help you answer that question, Public Speaking Center of NY provides a brief Phobia Quiz on its website. The quiz asks whether you agree with these six statements:
- I avoid public speaking opportunities because of high anxiety.
- I obsess about upcoming speaking engagements.
- I plan my career around the amount of speaking required.
- I experience anxiety levels above 8 speaking in public. (0 = zero anxiety; 10 = panic).
- My fear of public speaking contributes to unusually high stress levels and/or depression.
- I self-medicate to mask anxiety in speaking situations.
If you agree with four or more items, the problem is severe.
But then, you knew that already.
You Can’t Argue with Public Speaking Phobia
In a showdown between your amygdala (the pre-verbal fear center in your brain) and your rational self, the amygdala will win, because it doesn’t argue; it just takes over.
For example, I’m a mild-to-middling claustrophobe. I can handle small elevators, as long as I’m not touching the walls; and I did well on a recent tour inside the Hoover Dam because I wasn’t personally confined.
But several years ago, I decided (for reasons that now escape me) to try out a “relaxation tank” — a small, coffin-shaped enclosure where you float in buoyant water, cut off from all outside stimulation, and… relax.
For me, this was not a relaxing experience. I remember lying down in the tank. I remember the lid being gently lowered. And then I was fully upright, dripping salt water, my heart slamming frantically.
I don’t remember shoving the lid open, or standing. That’s how fast it happened; how quickly I jumped to obey my amygdala.
Clearly, if your fear of public speaking is at this level, you can’t subdue it by just developing skills. Skills are important, and will ultimately give you confidence. But first, you must confront and reduce the fear itself.
What are some of the ways to do that?
Things To Try for Public Speaking Phobia
This is a good time to note that I’m neither a scientist nor a doctor. So consider these suggestions carefully, and do some research on the resources in your area.
That said, here are some approaches that seem to reduce the iron grip of public speaking phobias:
DESENSITIZATION — The Public Speaking Center of NY describes its program of gradual exposure like this:
Gradual Exposure is behavioral therapy which allows you to face your fear in manageable steps, at your own pace, in a supportive environment. Each step is challenging, but you are never required to attempt anything you cannot handle.
And while your city or town may not offer a supportive group setting for creating manageable, step-by-step exposure, it’s likely that you can find a qualified cognitive therapist to work with you individually, or even to create such a group.
HYPNOSIS — An hypnotic trance is not the zombie-like state we’ve seen in 1950s B-movies. It’s more akin to mentally letting you guard down, so that messages can sink deeper into your subconscious. (Think about how much more open you are to ideas just before you fall asleep, or as you wake.)
If you’re open to trying this, the trick is to find a qualified practitioner who understands your predicament and can gently pry away some of your phobia-induced terror.
MEDICATIONS — Some of my clients tell me they have used beta-blockers and found them to be effective. But while this may help with the crisis of a speech, it’s probably less useful for countering your chronic fear. (Maybe there’s an herbal or holistic remedy that addresses chronic phobias.)
If you’re thinking about using medication, discuss it with a qualified doctor or nurse practitioner. But whatever you do, don’t use alcohol or street drugs to counter public speaking anxiety. They don’t work, and you’ll have less physical coordination to get you through the mechanics of standing up to speak.
Have You Fought with Public Speaking Phobia?
If you’ve had public speaking phobia, what techniques helped you overcome it?
And what would you suggest that other people try?