Online Public Speaking

Training & Practice

Speech Related Anxiety - Part 2 of 7

Now it’s time to get to the bottom of speech related anxiety. We’ve assembled a list of reasons why people become anxious about public speaking in the first place and solutions for each.

The first, most important reason that people become anxious about public speaking is that public speaking actually IS scary to most people. We recognize that this may sound obvious, but a lot of public speaking fear-related articles talk about how the fear is imaginary.

We’ve even read that being afraid of something that can’t actually hurt you is silly or irrational. Well, that doesn’t mean the fear isn’t real, nor do we agree that it’s irrational to feel fear at times. It’s a normal human emotion.

When it comes to the fear of public speaking, somewhere, deep within our minds, the vast majority of us have at least a few unpleasant recollections related to being in front of an audience.

We’ll pause to explain how things literally work in our minds. The human brain stores memories in our subconscious. Nerve cells called neurons hold the information. The paths between these neurons are called neural pathways. Each time we use a pathway, it literally becomes thicker and stronger. The thicker and stronger the pathway is, the easier it is for us to find it and to use it.

If you learned to ride a bike, you’ll probably remember how hard it felt at first, and you’ll probably remember the moment you finally figured it out. When you first tried, your brain didn’t have any knowledge on the subject other than a visual idea of what it should look like, and perhaps some words that someone like a parent told you, like “Just pedal and hold the bike up straight.”. You surely tried again and again, and finally, in a moment of triumph, you were riding! By that moment, you had created strong enough neural pathways to access the information about balance, speed and momentum, and everything else that goes into riding a bike.

This is largely what separates successful professional athletes from amateurs: They have created strong neural pathways that make it easy for them to find the knowledge they need, whereas an amateur simply won’t have as many well-developed pathways. It often takes years to achieve this level of skill.

Next, we need to introduce the part of the brain called the amygdala. This small almond-shaped structure processes incoming information about the world around us at the moment and finds a matching memory for that information. The amygdala uses emotions to find the memory. Depending on the nature of those emotions, it can trigger a strong response, either positive or negative.

For example, let’s say you’re walking through an airport. You’ve just gotten off a very long flight from halfway around the world. You’re returning to a place you haven’t been in a long, long time. Already, sights and sounds and smells are coming to you that you have stored in your subconscious. Your amygdala is processing it all, finding and connecting and responding with emotions.

Suddenly, you see someone you feel strongly about standing twenty feet away from you. You haven’t seen them in five years. Now, after the thousands of hours and multiple time zones that were between you, you’re just feet and seconds apart.

Your amygdala instantly connects the unfolding situation– the input - to the stored memories you have of this person. Let’s say the person is your mother, and your associations with her are quite positive. You love her. And you spent your whole childhood with her, so you have numerous, strong neural pathways for this information to travel familiarly along.

Your amygdala will find the positive associations in your memory by traveling those neural pathways, and then flood you with matching positive emotions. You will find yourself compelled to run to her, to hug her, to smile, and you may even cry tears of joy.

This process explains how things can go right, but it can also explain why it can go wrong. If getting up in front of an audience only matched positive memories and emotions, and those associations were repeated often, thereby linked with strong neural pathways, then the amygdala would make us excited to give the presentation, and the fear of public speaking wouldn’t occur.

But many people have learned negative associations with public speaking. Here are some examples. Being humiliated in some way while in front of a group of people, for example acts of bullying. Being rejected by someone. An authority figure saying unkind, hurtful things to us or about us in public. A parent not validating their child’s words or feelings, or not listening to them in the first place.

There are, unfortunately, many, many types of learned negative associations. It’s almost impossible not to have some kind of less than desirable learned experiences.

In fact, most of us share a common bond that we wish we didn’t: Some well-meaning but either oblivious or careless authority figures actually create many of these negative memories!

To prove this point, you can probably recall being forced unwillingly to the front of a classroom full of your peers, under the critical eye of an authority figure you wanted to please whether you knew it at the time or not, and being forced to give a presentation that you not only didn’t have the skills to give, but may have been about a subject you probably didn’t even want to discuss.

That’s the perfect formula for creating anxiety about public speaking for the rest of your life! No wonder so many people are worried about getting up in front of an audience.

We’ve all experienced things in the past that don’t help our confidence today. The number, type, and intensity of these experiences will have a direct impact on the number, type and intensity of issues that surface later.

Before you start to worry that you’ll never get to the bottom of your deep-rooted fear of public speaking, the good news is that the vast majority of people don’t have enough  negative associations that cause public speaking anxiety that can’t be resolved with simple practices that we discuss throughout Pspeak.

That’s a very important statement, so we’ll say it again: Simple practices and techniques can resolve deep-rooted negative associations to public speaking for the vast majority of people. Please don’t despair!

You may even have been wondering before you came to Pspeak if there was something especially different or “wrong” with you in particular if you’ve been feeling anxiety. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Almost EVERYONE experiences some level of anxiety at some point or another. It’s absolutely NORMAL to have some negative associations with presenting in public.

We realize that it may not help you much at first just because we say this is normal. You may still think your anxiety is different. We understand how you are feeling! It’s not easy dealing with this type of anxiety. Please rest assured that once you consider the other factors that can cause anxiety and work hard on building skills, it might turn out that what you previously thought was deep-rooted and unique to you was really just some standard, easy to resolve issue like the ones we will go through next.