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.
Breathe “in some imagery or thoughts about a word like ‘calm,’ ‘relax,’ [or] ‘OK.’” Breathe out slowly and fully exhale, releasing the “anxiousness, tension, tightness and fear.” Not only does this calm down your body quickly, but it also “gives the mind a positive focus.”
Also, minimize the tension and tightness in your body. “When we’re in fear, our muscles are very tight and tense because we’re on guard [and] ready for something to happen,” Esposito said. When you’re tense, your body senses danger. “The more you can consciously and deliberately relax the tension in the body, to loosen the body, the more it gives the message to the body that there’s no danger you [need to] guard against.”
Lastly, practice “with your posture and facial expressions.” When a person is relaxed and confident, their shoulders are open, their posture is upright and they have a soft smile. But “when you’re in fear [mode]…you’re almost shutting down [and] want to be invisible. Your face may be grimaced, tight and tense.” Instead, “consciously and deliberately adopt a relaxed confidence,” which sends the “message to your body that you’re OK and you can handle the challenge at hand.” And it shows “the more primitive part of our brain that there’s no danger here.”
Your Mind and Fear
Our minds can either work for us or against us, Esposito said. “When we are in fear and self-doubt about public speaking, the mind is working against us. We have a flood of automatic negative thoughts and it feeds the fear and self-doubt.”
To help your mind become an ally, stop it from being on autopilot, Esposito said. For many people, their autopilot thoughts are incredibly negative. That’s why it’s important “to become more aware of how your mind is operating and thinking and what you’re saying to yourself.” Also, think and speak to yourself “in more positive, supportive, affirming and empowering kinds of ways.” Speak “from love and kindness rather than harshness or mean-spiritedness,” like you would with a loved one.
Fear, as Esposito said, also distorts reality. It “will lead you to believe that you can’t do it,” or to think “if I lose track of what I’m saying, I’ll look like a wreck and lose credibility and everyone’s respect.” In reality, though, while it’s unpleasant to lose your train of thought, “it’s not a catastrophe” and “the probability of losing your credibility or respect is very low.” Instead, it’s more likely that people will just wait until you remember. Even if “some will judge it, you’ll still move on, and your life won’t crumble.”
Another important part of training your mind is “the power of focus.” According to Esposito, “when we’re in fear, our mind tends to fixate on the things that are frightening us [such as] our bodily symptoms” or being judged. We also focus on things that make us feel vulnerable and weak. We regress to a childlike state, feeling “helpless and powerless,” Esposito said. That’s because “whatever you pay attention to expands.”
Instead, “focus on things that comfort you.” Esposito has one client who brings a photo of her daughter to presentations, which immediately makes her feel safe. You can choose anything that grounds you and reminds you of your strengths. You also can visualize a positive outcome. “Imagine yourself doing well, and people responding well to you.”
When people are anxious, they tend to lose their perspective. “They feel everything they do is monumental,” and “everything is such high stakes.” Esposito helps her clients regain perspective and “bring it down to size.” Think about it this way: Ten, 20 or 50 years from now, this situation won’t matter.
Spirit means “rising to your highest,” not being religious, Esposito said, “though some may be able to tap into their religious beliefs.” Our “fear is related to ego concerns,” such as being self-focused and wanting to protect ourselves. Wanting to look good and worrying what others think can inflame fear, she said. “Every time we go out speaking, it’s almost like our self-worth is on the line.”
A great way to rise to your highest is to connect to people and your purpose. This is because “When we’re in fear, everything is about us, how this will affect us,” which makes us “forget our true purpose for even being there.” Remember that you’re there to share information, not prove yourself, she said. Rather than “resisting and backing away from these situations, instead [become] a willing spirit.” Plus, “the more you humanize people, the less fear you have.”
Fearing the loss of control also amplifies anxiety. So “you have to learn at some point to surrender your control and trust that it’ll be OK.” While it’s wise to prepare and rehearse a talk, Esposito has a phrase that she likes to use: “Go with the flow and let whatever happens be OK.” Also, “Learn to trust in yourself, in others, in a higher power.” Remind yourself that it’s about “just showing up, being who you are and genuinely trying to connect and share with others.”
Most of Esposito’s clients hate their public speaking anxiety and want to conquer it as soon as possible, but, as she said, the “most difficult circumstances are our greatest teachers.” She helps her clients view public speaking anxiety not as an enemy but as a lesson to be learned. “Many of my clients have been amazed at how much they’ve learned about themselves, life and other people by stepping up to this challenge and learning how to work through it in a much better way.” This “forces us to stop and pay attention.” Working through the fear, instead of against it, can lead to “personal and spiritual development.”
And if you’re interested, I ended up passing my defense. Curiously enough, while I was panicking inside, my committee complemented me on being poised and well spoken.