“There are only two types of speakers in the world; the nervous and liars”

~ Mark Twain ~

Mark Twain wouldn’t recognise the world that we live in now, but research has shown that his quote hasn’t

changed quite as much as we might imagine.

Does the thought of speaking in public fill you with dread? You’re not alone. Studies reveal that 85% of people report feeling a state of high anxiety before and during public speaking and the other 15% would likely fall in to the category of a stirring anxiety/nervous anticipation, which the ego might feel a reluctance to admit hence Mr Twain’s description of the ‘liars’!

Glossophobia is the technical term for the fear of public speaking and can range from slight nervousness to a crippling fear, panic and brain freeze. It’s reported that some people rate the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death! I’m not embarrassed to admit that I fall in to the 15% category for sure. How many of us would admit to not hearing what the person sat next to us at a networking event are speaking about as our minds turn inwards, rushing through the pitch we’ve rehearsed, knowing that ‘we are next’? Accepting the role of best man at a friend’s wedding is a huge honour but can create an equally huge level of anxiety. Attending a job interview these days can mean giving a presentation in front of an interview panel and the thought of this for many can create a similar fear of coming face to face with a wild animal.

The Reward Mechanism

Feeling confident when speaking in front of an audience takes practice and for us to achieve success and reach our full potential, we must face what might be holding us back so that we can overcome the associative fear of public speaking and embrace our opportunity to shine. So, why are many of us held hostage to such a debilitating fear of speaking in front of an audience and where does it come from?

To understand this we need to go back to the days of the primitive man; the evolution of the human species where it really was survival of the fittest, existing between feast and famine, dodging the slings and arrows of wild tribesmen and looking fear in the face of the wildebeest, where fight or flight was quite literally down to luck more than judgement. Chest thumping, pulse racing and a surge of the fight or flight hormones flooding the bloodstream as he fought for his life in his efforts to survive and return to his tribe with food.

Hunting, gathering and successfully supporting their tribe brought with it a status for the tribesman; a sense of empowerment, masculinity and reward that far exceeded a belly full of food. Scientists have studied this reward mechanism in early man and acknowledged this as a feeling of bravery, motivation and a confidence that had far reaching benefits, creating a ripple effect within their tribe, inviting a feeling of security within the shelter provided. The tribe felt that they could cope better with fear and uncertainty which comforted them and enhanced their mood. What they didn’t realise though was that this reward wasn’t just down to the prowess of their leader or the satiation of their appetite, it was down to a chemical release in their brain creating various neurotransmitters that act as catalysts for this mentally healthy behaviour and the neurotransmitter that is most commonly talked about because it is the most important is serotonin. When a consistent flow of serotonin is generated it produces a natural ability to cope better with fear and to feel brave and confident. Thankfully we don’t have to go out and hunt and gather like early man but we do have to operate within the parameters of positive interaction and positive thought if we want to enjoy good mental health.

Finding the connection

Fast forward to the current day and we will be able to relate to the coping mechanisms of our primal ancestors. We can appreciate that we are better as a ‘tribe’ than we are when we stand alone. The primal instinct has been carried through evolution to this very day and when we feel connected, e.g., being part of a network, whether that is family, friends, colleagues or business/social groups, it provides us with a feeling of inclusivity, offering us a sense of safety and security. We feel supported and better able to cope with any the challenges that life brings.

What has this got to do with a fear of Public Speaking?

Fear has been hardwired into us through evolution and our ancestral heritage. Although, unlike primitive man, we don’t have to go out and hunt, forage and slay wild animals to feed our families, we are still faced with threats in the modern world, some of which are real and some perceived but nonetheless can evoke a similar stress response as that of the primitive man. Neuroscience has proven that every negative thought, feeling or experience we have is accumulated and stored in the emotional, limbic part of the brain and, as this accumulates our stress, fear and anxiety levels increase and when this has reached a tipping point it can make it very difficult to think logically and rationally. Annoyingly, if we experience a feeling of dread, fear or worry on our very first experience of public speaking, the chances are that we will feel the same symptoms when in that situation again and, as we revisit this environment our mind pattern matches back to the original behaviour experience and by default we establish an unwanted ‘habit’.

However, when we think with logic and reason we will know that speaking in front of an audience is not going to threaten our lives nor is it going to sabotage our future, but, even though we know this, it still doesn’t stop us from experiencing the same thumping heartbeat, racing pulse and stomach churning as that of early man in fight or flight mode when we are about to speak in public and, because our minds cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, the emotional and physiological changes taking place in our body and mind are alerting the safety mechanism in our brain (the Amygdala) to prepare for fight or flight, flooding our veins with adrenaline and plunging us in to the primitive part of our brain.. but where’s the danger?

Turning the jitters into jazz hands!

Feeling nervous before speaking in front of an audience is not a bad thing. It’s a natural and healthy response and one that can make for a great presentation. A small amount of nervousness provides just enough adrenaline to increase alertness and focus. People that really enjoy public speaking are also feeding off adrenaline because anxiety and excitement are, physiologically, the same emotion.

Whether you are feeling anxious or excited your body responds in the same way - the fluttering of butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate and an elevation in adrenaline. The big difference as to whether you feel excitement or anxiety is all down to what you are thinking. It’s up to your mind to interpret the body signals with a positive spin/ excitement, or a negative spin/ anxiety. The physical line between anxiety and excitement is wafer thin. We will all be familiar with the phrase ‘a rollercoaster ride of emotions’ and that is a great way to describe the fine veil of anxiety vs excitement. Many of us choose to put ourselves on to a rollercoaster at a theme park and we will know that rush of adrenalin, fuelled with anxiety and excitement, but could you differentiate between the two when you’re being flung around at a ridiculous speed? I know I couldn’t!

There are many strategies you can use to encourage confidence, positivity and success when speaking in front of an audience – check out my website, www.wendyjameshypnotherapy.co.uk to find out how to perfect your public speaking skills and embrace your opportunity to shine!

I am an experienced clinical hypnotherapist, based in Bristol and South Gloucestershire, specialising in stress and anxiety.

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