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 just 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. Because fight-flight-or-freeze evolved millions of years ago to protect us from physical danger, it’s useless against social anxiety (and paradoxically makes us feel more afraid).
Most of the time, we can handle that — but what if you can’t? How do you know if your fear is something more than fear?
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, your problem with pubic speaking is severe.
But then, you knew that already.
You Can’t Argue with a 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 the phobia 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 make your own decision about these suggestions, based on what seems right for you, and the resources available in your part of the world.
That said, here are some approaches that have helped my clients 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 — Hypnotic trance is not the zombie-like state we’ve seen in 1950s B-movies. It’s more akin to mentally letting your guard down so that messages can sink deeper into your unconscious mind. (Think about how much more open you are to ideas just before you fall asleep, or as you wake up in the morning.)
If you’re open to trying this, the trick is to find a qualified practitioner who understands what you need and can gently pry away some of your phobia-induced terror.
MEDICATIONS — Beta blockers are a proven and safe way to reduce social anxiety, with minimal side effects. If you’re considering them, talk with a qualified doctor or nurse practitioner. Then, experiment before your speech or high-stakes meeting to find the right dose and to understand how the drug effects your mind and body. You want to understand how soon before your talk you should take the beta blocker (one of my clients takes it the night before he speaks, with a smaller dose an hour before his talk), how long that dose will last, how quickly it will wear off, what side effects you may experience (dry mouth is common), etc.
But whatever you do, don’t use alcohol or street drugs to counter public speaking anxiety. Alcohol reduces your physical coordination and your social inhibitions, which is why so many people give deplorable wedding toasts; street drugs can have unpredictable effects that you really don’t want to have to deal with onstage!
Have You Conquered Public Speaking Phobia?
If you’ve wrestled with public speaking phobia, what techniques helped you overcome it?
And what would you suggest that other people try?