Do you have a fear of public speaking? If you’re like most people, getting up in front of an audience is the last thing in the world you want to do. Unfortunately, at one point or another in your life, you’ll likely have to make some type of big speech, whether it’s a business pitch or a toast at your best friend’s wedding.
Psychologists call speech anxiety glossophobia — that feeling when your mind goes blank, and your heart feels like it’s going to beat out of your chest.
In this article, you’ll learn what glossophobia is, where it comes from, what you can do about your speaking fears, and how to tell whether mastering your vocal control will fix the issue.
What Is Glossophobia?
Glossophobia, AKA the fear of public speaking, is a common anxiety disorder that affects about 75% of the population. Public speaking fear even stands ahead of the fear of death, spiders, or heights. https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2017/02/20/public-speaking-and-fear-of-brain-freezes/
Glossophobia can range from slight anxiety or nervousness to a debilitating panic attack at the thought of speaking publicly. And this isn’t just an issue we see in the US, but worldwide. http://repository.uinbanten.ac.id/6901/
Symptoms of Glossophobia
For people with glossophobia, being the center of attention and speaking publicly can bring on all sorts of feelings:
- Feeling tense
- Trembling hands
- Pounding heart
- Weakness in the legs
- Losing train of thought mid-speech or mid-sentence
Although this response may not seem logical, it comes from a part of the brain that’s programmed for survival, not logic.
Is Fear of Public Speaking A Social Phobia, or Something Else?
Most psychologists consider glossophobia a form of social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder can root from a number of different causes, including:https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/social-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353561
- A traumatic experience in childhood such as an embarrassing social situation or being bullied or made fun of
- An overactive amygdala (brain structure that plays a role in controlling your fear response)
- Learned behavior from a role model
- Family history of anxiety
Regardless of the root cause, when someone experiences social anxiety disorder, they are triggered into a fight or flight response in their brain. This is an ancient mechanism that has kept humans alive in a world full of threats for thousands of years. However, unlike your ancestors, who would be adapted to the fight or flight response in the presence of a predator, those with glossophobia and social anxiety are triggered at the mere thought of being the center of attention.
As a result, the autonomic nervous system is triggered into a state of activation, which tells your brain and body, “I’m not safe.”
The underlying fear is of embarrassing themselves and being rejected by others. From an ancestral perspective, this may equate to the fear of being rejected by the tribe, which is an innate instinctive concern as humans have always been tribal beings. If one of your ancestors was rejected by the tribe, they would have to survive on their own in a world much harsher than the one we live in today.https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0070468
What If It’s Not Social Anxiety? Looking at Vocal Control
Even though we’ve been speaking since we were toddlers, not everyone has mastered their own vocal control. Poor vocal control can manifest as nerves or anxiety around public speaking.
You could be quite confident addressing a large group but would benefit from small tweaks in the way you use your voice.
Some common vocal characteristics that can be mistaken for fear or social anxiety include:
- Speaking too fast or too slow
- Monotone speech
- Bad airflow, or not breathing at the right time
- Speaking voice that is too quiet or too loud for the room
Everyone’s voice is a little different. While some people can project across a stadium, others have a quiet tone that almost sounds like a whisper.
Breathing at the wrong time or running out of air can make your voice shaky, which could make you feel nervous that your voice is shaking.
These qualities can look just like anxiety when you’re up on stage, but it’s not. None of these have anything to do with anxiety, and they’re all fixable. You can work with a speech coach or a vocal coach for tips and tricks to speak with ease.
Could It Be Imposter Syndrome?
For some people, it’s not a generalized social anxiety disorder that makes it scary to get up in public — but deeply held beliefs. “Imposter syndrome” is a common term used to describe the fear that you are not as competent as you portray yourself to be. You may feel like an imposter, as if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, and in doing so, you’re just fooling everyone around you.
Imposter syndrome is incredibly common, and many people learn to push through the discomfort to find that the value they contribute to the world is actually much more substantial than the stories told by their limiting beliefs.
Imposter syndrome is often the result of being raised in a family that emphasizes achievement. At a young age, this pressure to be perfect and to succeed can become mixed up with feelings of self-worth and results in a feeling that love is conditional. The amount of pressure that puts on an individual can magnify self-doubt and lead to feeling like you’re a fraud.https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud
How To Overcome Speaking Anxiety
Voice Coach for Public Speaking
Before you go through the effort and expense of therapy to address fear of public speaking, Dona session with a voice coach. You may be able to make a few small tweaks in your delivery that take care of your issue.
A few sessions of voice coaching could help you feel far more relaxed and at ease while addressing groups. A voice coach can help you with a wide range of vocal elements, including:
- Intonation – the rise and fall of your speaking voice
- Inflection – how your vocal pitch changes when you speak
- Volume and projection – how loudly and softly you speak, and making sure everyone can hear you
- Speed – how fast or slow you speak
- Enunciation – how you pronounce your words
- Mannerisms – all of the non-verbal things that go into your overall communication skills, like hand motion, moving around the room or stage, and facial expressions
- Air flow – knowing when to breathe so that your voice doesn’t shake, and so that your breaths aren’t distracting
Working with a vocal coach can help you like your speaking style better, which can send your public speaking confidence through the roof. Vocal coaching can also give you parameters that you hit as you go. That can serve as feedback that you’re doing well and put you at ease.
A lot of people address public speaking issues thinking it’s rooted in anxiety when the problem is related to the way you use your voice.
If your fear of public speaking stems from trauma in childhood or a deeply held belief, psychotherapy may be the way to go to get to the root of your fears.
There are several forms of therapy available, but the most commonly used therapy for social anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3016703/
CBT is a type of therapy that works on your belief systems. People with high levels of anxiety typically have strongly held beliefs that fuel the fire and keep them in a loop of fear. With CBT, you uncover those beliefs and make efforts to change the way you think – eventually leading to new, more empowering beliefs.
Other forms of psychotherapy that address trauma and belief systems include Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
Medications for Public Speaking
When anxiety is severe, some people choose to take medications that can help to treat debilitating symptoms.
The primary types of medications prescribed for social anxiety include beta-blockers, anxiolytics, and antidepressants.https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/
Beta-blockers, such as Propranolol work by lowering your blood pressure and thereby decreasing your physical reactions to stress. This sends the message to your brain (via your body) that there is nothing to worry about.
Anxiolytic medications work specifically by calming the nervous system. These medications often work right away, but they can become very addictive. Some examples include Xanax or Ativan.
Antidepressants take longer to work than anxiolytics but are often used to treat anxiety disorders long-term instead of the quick fix you get from drugs like Xanax.
Public Speaking Class
If your fear of speaking comes from a lack of confidence or experience, taking a public speaking class may be all you need. Toastmasters International is an organization that was put together exactly for this purpose.
Regardless of why you may feel anxious about public speaking, being prepared for your speech is crucial.
When you know your material back and front, it will make it much less likely that you’ll freeze when you get up to speak. Practicing your speech will also give you more confidence as you’re able to iron out any wrinkles and find your flow.
If possible, try practicing in front of a small audience, even one person. This will give your brain a little training on what it’s going to be like to stand in front of people as the center of attention and speak.
Calm Your Body
Before any public speaking event, be sure to get your body physically into a calm state. This means avoiding excessive caffeine or other stimulants and learning how to relax your body.
A relaxed body gives way to a relaxed mind.
One of the fastest ways to relax your body is to engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing. Even just two minutes of deep belly breathing before your speech can put you into a parasympathetic mode, which is the opposite of your fight or flight response. This disengages your amygdala and allows for more logical thinking. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6070065/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6189422/
Having a fear of public speaking is completely normal and much more common than you may think. However, if your fear of speaking publicly is getting in the way of a successful career or becoming a significant burden, you may want to work with a psychologist to get to the root of your troubles.
With that being said, many people benefit from programs like Toastmasters International or techniques like deep breathing and getting intimately familiar with the speech material.
Either way, if you suffer from glossophobia there are many ways to work through your fears and become a much more confident communicator.