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Fear of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking, also known as 'Glossophobia', is the most common phobia there is. It is a mix between Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and performance anxiety. SAD is characterized by a strong fear of scrutiny, embarrassment, and humiliation of others. Performance anxiety is a fear specifically to do with performing some type of action or task in front of others. It can affect people from all walks of life, including:

  • Students
  • Teachers
  • Businessmen
  • Athletes
  • Actors

Many people will allow this fear to determine the direction of their life, but is it worth it? Let’s say you want to be an actor. Do you really want to choose an accounting degree just so you are able to avoid public speaking? Wouldn’t you feel like kicking yourself years down the track because you did not pursue your dream?

 

Seinfeld

Problematic Thoughts

In terms of anxiety there is a no more damaging phrase than “What if?” Asking yourself these types of questions before a performance related task will almost certainly ensure that it does not go well.

Common what if questions include;

  • What if I stuff up my presentation?
  • What if I my mind goes blank, and I forget what to say?
  • What if people laugh at my presentation?
  • What if I stutter my words?

Upon asking yourself these questions before a presentation you may have already realised that this will leave you feeling quite anxious. You might also experience some of the following symptoms;

  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Shaking
  • Croaky or squeaky voice
  • Heart palpitations
  • Panic attack
  • Freezing Up

Now the issue is compounded right? Perhaps now you not only worry about your performance, but you may also begin to worry that these symptoms will become noticeable to audience members. This only creates further anxiety, and you are now focused on trying to get through your presentation without people noticing. You try very hard not to be nervous, but this only makes things worse, and pretty soon it feels as though the world is caving in on you.

When I was in my early 20s, I was doing a Taekwondo grading to get my blue belt. A group of us were watching the others do their grading and we were discussing amongst ourselves about staying calm as we anxiously anticipated our turn. One of the instructors overheard us. He smiled and said to us, "I'll give you a tip, don't try not to be nervous, accept that you are nervous and get on with it." To this day it was one of the best pieces of advice I have received. So simple and so profound.

Trying not to be nervous is like struggling in quicksand, the more you struggle the faster you sink. With anxiety, the more you try to get rid of it the more it will be a problem for you. As Carl Jung once wisely wrote, “What you resist, persists." The idea is to allow yourself to feel anxious and acclimatise yourself to the sensations of anxiety and panic. Paradoxically, attempting to push away or avoid these feelings will only make matters worse.

Avoidance

When an individual experiences any form of anxiety their natural instinct is often to avoid what it is that they are afraid of. Avoiding a presentation at work or a speech at university may seem tempting but it will inevitably make the problem worse over time.

Avoidance of public speaking can have significant costs including;

  • Not speaking up for yourself
  • Missing out on job or promotional opportunities
  • Choosing a career path not in line with your values
  • Flunking out of university
  • The regret of not asking someone out

Avoidance will result in some short-term relief, but it will only serve to maintain and reinforce the problem. In order to overcome this fear, we must be willing to learn new skills and take some risks. No risk = no reward.

Treatment

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), as well as exposure therapy is the most common approach for treatment. During CBT the client is encouraged to look at their automatic thoughts that arise when the issue of public speaking presents itself. These thoughts may result in particular behaviours, such as not making eye contact with the audience, rushing through their speech, or avoiding it all together.

As therapy progresses a fear hierarchy will be developed between psychotherapist and client. This hierarchy will start with less challenging public speaking tasks, gradually increasing in difficulty. This allows the individual to gradually expose themselves to feared sensations and panic like symptoms in a controlled and measured way. ACT as the acronym suggests involves taking action towards the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live regardless of how you feel. ACT suggests not to let emotions such as fear dictate the direction of your life. You simply take action in your desired direction and let all your emotions come along for the ride.

Many clients I have counselled have also gone onto do public speaking courses as part of their exposure therapy. These courses are fantastic because they closely replicate common public speaking scenarios, and many people are there to boost their public speaking confidence as well. Toastmasters International (I have no affiliation), for example, “is a not for profit training organisation that focuses on communication and leadership development.” They run programs in almost every city in the world. Chances are you can find one near you. Alternately you could join a drama club or perhaps an improvisational comedy club, anything that will replicate the fear of performing in public.

Of course, partaking in a public speaking program is not necessary to gain more confidence in public speaking. However public speaking will be a key ingredient in your recovery. Some people hope that psychotherapy will help them to get rid of their fears so they can deliver a speech with confidence. Unfortunately, this is not realistic, and anyone offering such promises is either misinformed or lying. Overcoming this fear and gaining confidence in public speaking will require you to expose yourself to this fear. As the old saying goes you need to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” But, with the right support, treatment plan, and the willingness to take some risks you will develop the necessary skills to become a confident and effective public speaker.

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