Most people who seek out Janet Esposito, MSW, author of In The SpotLight: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing, don’t necessarily dread giving formal presentations in front of throngs of people.
To the contrary, “many people get fearful in smaller situations,” with as little as five people or less, Esposito said. A person might get nervous at a meeting when co-workers are going around the room and updating others on their work. Or they might get anxious when introducing themselves to new colleagues.
I can relate. When I did my thesis defense, the entire time my knees were sweating — who knew it was possible to sweat profusely from your knees! — and this was just in front of my advisor and two committee members, who couldn’t have been more supportive or kind. Regardless, inside, particularly in the beginning, I was screaming “get me out of here.” Or some version of this phrase.
“People can also get anxious in situations in the community,” she said. She sees many clients who get anxious in church when asked to do a reading or a eulogy; or even when giving a toast. Anxiety can spike if an individual is speaking with someone of authority. Even teleclasses or teleconferences can trigger speaking anxiety. So can a regular conference when a person wants to ask a question.
What people fear most about public speaking is their own physical reaction and that others will notice the symptoms, Esposito said. Symptoms can include a shaking voice, profuse sweating, trembling, blushing and flushing, difficulty catching your breath, dizziness, nausea and gastrointestinal problems.
In addition to a surge in physical anxiety, people’s minds get flooded with fearful thoughts, she said. These automatic negative thoughts (such as “Other people will think I’m stupid because I’m stuttering or shaking” or “How am I going to get out of this?”) make individuals doubt that they can handle these situations, kick-starting a vicious mind/body cycle. “The more bodily symptoms, the more the mind gets really scared; the more the mind gets scared, the more the body amplifies these symptoms.”
As a result, many people try their best to avoid public speaking. But while avoidance provides immediate relief, it’s temporary and even backfires. It “makes [the fear] bigger and bigger in your mind,” Esposito said.
Fortunately, there are many healthy ways that you can take action and push through your public speaking panic. Below, Esposito explains her holistic approach, which takes into account the body, mind and spirit.
Your Body and Anxiety
Because people are usually “so concerned about what’s going on their body,” it’s important to practice strategies that calm the physical symptoms. The first step is to stop fearing the physical reactions, because this fear only magnifies symptoms. Observe these sensations without getting worked up, accept the symptoms and “ride the wave of anxiety.” Also, “remind yourself that even though the symptoms are unpleasant, they’re not going to harm you,” and your feelings will pass.
Breathing is another issue. “Many people either hold their breath or breathe very fast, choppy, shallow and erratically,” Esposito said. This tells your body that there’s an emergency. Instead you want to slow down and deepen your breath, she said.