Anxious around public speaking? 5 tips to feel in control
Firstly, you are not alone. Yes, even those whom appear confident may actually be panicking inside. It is unreasonable to expect yourself to be perfect. It is perfectly normal to feel a degree of anxiety, particularly when under pressure to communicate ideas or information, perhaps to a room of people we have never met.
So what happens?
Anxiety, any anxiety, is the result of our autonomic nervous system responses. Basically, our body is telling us that there is an environmental treat, something is out to get us! As our autonomic nervous system kicks into action we may experience the flight/fight/freeze response. As our heart rate increases, we may sweat, our breathing may become shallow, our mouth dry and the feeling of panic may feel overwhelming. As we experience these sudden physiological changes in the more primal parts of our brain, the front of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) will inevitably attempt to make sense of them, as we desperately seek to create meaning. The meaning we come with may not always be helpful - in fact it can increase the anxiety, leaving us feeling worse, caught in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings.
How does this affect our thinking and feeling?
As our pre-frontal cortex attempts to make sense of the physiological responses going on within our bodies our thoughts and feelings overwhelm us. We will probably exaggerate the probability of something negative happening. We may feel that others will be able to see our anxiety, that we will lose control while speaking, have a panic attack, be unable to get our words out, start babbling, be unable to communicate... and the rest, right?
At the same time we are almost certain to exaggerate the consequences to such things occurring. We will lose the contract we are trying to get, we will be fired, everyone will believe us to be a total failure, we will be judged harshly, we will look stupid, incompetent, we will never be able to face people again... and the rest!
When all this is going on in our heads, we lose sight of our own strengths and resources which can allow us to cope in these stressful situations. We forget that we actually have a good degree of resilience (we have all made it through so far!) We may lose sight of all of the achievements we have already made and the coping strategies and resources we have already developed throughout life. We forget that we can actually do it!
What can we do about it?
Gain some control over the immediate physiological responses using relaxation techniques. The best way to gain some control over the physiological responses of anxiety is to use mindful breathing techniques. There is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that breathing techniques influence the parts of our brain, primarily the amygdala, which is responsible for telling us we are feeling threatened. There are some great apps out there which can offer guided breathing techniques to help reduce anxiety. When we feel anxious, our breathing can become rapid and shallow. Taking a few minutes to breathe in deeply and fully through the nose and out fully through the mouth, really focusing on the breath, is helpful. You might be surprised to find that it only takes a couple of minutes to feel more in control again!
Challenge your thoughts prior to speaking. Remind yourself of what is actually going on inside your body. Set an intention to control it rather than allow it to control you. Remind yourself of your own coping resources, perhaps by reminding yourself of all the times you have gotten through similar situations before. Remember you are there to communicate with others - not to perform. Get realistic about the consequences of your speaking. If the worst happens are the consequences actually that bad? Will you really get fired if you stumble on a couple of words. Will people really think that badly of you? For every negative thought - replace it with some positive self talk. If you shared your thoughts with a friend, what reassurance would they offer?
Feel prepared. Give yourself time to get to know the material you are presenting. Go through your slides (if you have them) and practice your speaking in front of a mirror or with a work peer or friend. Remember to challenge any negative thoughts while you do this.
A little bit of self care can go a long way! Allow yourself a relaxing activity prior to speaking. Give yourself permission to get a good nights sleep. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. I understand this may be tempting, but caffeine and alcohol may feel like it relaxes you, but actually this is a false sense of security. In reality it will certainly, increase, rather than decrease your anxiety levels.
Use these tips if needed whilst speaking. Even though we have prepared as best we can, we may still feel anxiety and may need to get a grip of it before it becomes overwhelming during our presentation. To help ground yourself, take water with you. Stop and take a sip each time the anxiety threatens to return. I promise you - no one will notice. You could also take a tissue infused with a strong perfume or essential oil and smell it at regular intervals. Having a strong mint or sweet would also work. Make sure you are standing with both feet on the floor. Take a moment to breath between sentences. All of these tips will help you remain grounded and more in control of the physiological aspects of anxiety.
Therapy, can be a helpful way of exploring all forms of anxiety. Gaining awareness of how anxiety has developed within us, understanding our fears, and learning new ways of dealing with the overwhelming feelings can provide new opportunities to live life in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.
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About Saska Plowman
Saska Plowman is a psychotherapeutic counsellor and tutor of counselling skills. She runs her private practice in Victoria Park, Hackney East London E9. Saska has also worked within a range of settings including Camden, City and Islington and Westminster bereavement service, Westminster drugs service and Entrust Young peoples service.