Fear of Public Speaking - Dallas, Plano, Garland, Allen Texas
How to Overcome a Phobia of Speaking
By Steve Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT
You need to be able to speak in groups. However, the very thought of it triggers feelings ranging from anxiety to panic. You are suffering from performance anxiety. It is also commonly called stage fright. When you are forced to speak in front of a group, you may experience an array of unpleasant symptoms. The fear of embarrassing yourself and the fear of experiencing symptoms of anxiety can immobilize people. It is, in fact, one of the top fears that people experience. The good news is that you can learn to overcome a public speaking phobia. You can free yourself from the distressing anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety Symptoms Associated with Public Speaking
- Sweaty palms
- Queasy stomach
- Rapid heart rate
- Butterflies in your stomach
- Tight throat
- Shaky hands, arms or legs
- Hot feelings
- Quivering voice
It is like every fiber of your being is screaming for you to run for your life.
Most people do everything they can to avoid their fear of giving a presentation in public. Avoidance is our default strategy for dealing with performance anxiety and stage fright. But for many people, perhaps you included, avoidance is not an option. You don't want this common fear to stall your career. You may have compelling reasons to overcome your speech anxiety including:
- Your job may depend on it
- A future promotion may hinge on it
- The success of your business requires it
- Perhaps even advancing your education necessitates it
- You need to be seen as a leader
- You need to build your self-confidence
However, you feel like a knife is at your back and you are being forced to walk the plank, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea of people in the audience.
If this is your experience, you are not alone. The feeling of stage fright that you experience is actually a speaking phobia. The formal term for a fear of speaking is Glossophobia. Glossa is Greek for tongue and phobos is Greek for fear. Survey research has found that the fear of public speaking phobia is the most common of all fears. It is estimated that 75% to 80% of people experience some anxiety or nervousness when public speaking. Speech anxiety accounts for 19% of phobia sufferers. Only about 10% of the population naturally loves public speaking. For everyone else, it is a serious challenge. Common fears have actually been ranked in order of prevalence. On that list, the fear of public speaking ranks number one. That is well ahead of the fear of death, which comes in at number four. So as you see, this fear is epidemic, but why?
What Causes a Fear of Public Speaking?
I have often been asked ‘what causes a fear of public speaking’ and ‘why is performance anxiety so prevalent?’ There are a few key reasons that I have identified over my years of working with this particular phobia.
Traumatic Speaking Experiences
First, in my clinical practice in the Dallas Texas, Plano Texas, Garland Texas, and Allen Texas areas, I often see people who have had very bad experiences associated with public speaking. Almost everyone has had to stand up in front of an elementary school class and read aloud or answer questions. In essence, you are being put on the spot. When one inevitably falters, children who have yet to develop much empathy, burst into laughter. This form of embarrassment can be impactful and leave its mark psychologically. This conditioning leads to stage fright. Later, we learn to be self-critical. So even if an older audience is more compassionate at a speaking mistake, we may internally castigate ourselves. In this way, we reinforce our own performance anxiety.
When an extremely bad experience results in the speaker having a moment of panic or freezing, then this can be internalized as a traumatic event. The moment the intensity passes the threshold associated with trauma, the emotional midbrain becomes imprinted. Once imprinted, any future reminder of the overwhelming experience triggers a level of high anxiety or panic. This is the alarm center of the brain activating the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response. It is designed to get us to run for our lives or to fight for our lives. The problem is that your thinking brain may realize that there is no clear or present danger. In fact, you may even be presented with a great opportunity that could result from your speaking. Unfortunately, your midbrain doesn’t care and will mistakenly activate your alarm system. Once the midbrain has been conditioned to react this way, it will continue to do so until the negative memories that trip the alarm trigger have been desensitized.
Fortunately, there are some very helpful therapies that have been designed to treat this problem and to help retrain the midbrain to associate calmness and comfort with such issues as a speaking phobia or anxiety. We will review some of these therapies later in the article.
Innate Fear Associations That Have Been Genetically Hardwired
Even though many of the people that I treat have had traumatic experiences associated with speaking, for the number of people who fear public speaking to be as high as 75% to 80%, there must be additional mechanisms at work. I have grown to believe that there is a very primal issue at work here. It is as fundamental as the survival of the species. It may very well be genetically hardwired within us.
Twelve-thousand years ago, primitive people lived in a landscape filled with large predators such as the Saber-Toothed Tiger. Humans are not as strong and not as fast. Our only hope of survival hinged on being able to organize ourselves in groups so that there was strength in numbers. In small tribes, we could use our intelligence and our numbers to create weapons and coordinate efforts to tip the odds in our favor. Alone, our odds of survival were slim.
Therefore, getting along with others and being accepted in the group increased our likelihood of survival. The risk of being rejected by the group puts us dangerously close to being banished from the group. Banishment was tantamount to a death sentence for our primitive ancestors.
I believe that this rejection aversion has become hardwired into us as a species. When speaking in public, there is a risk that our message will not be accepted by the audience. This may feel as though we are personally not being accepted. That can lead to the risk of rejection and then to the fear of being banished. Of course, this is not processed consciously but we still feel it subconsciously. In this way, our fear of public speaking and performance anxiety is the brain trying to prevent us from taking a risk socially that could have put us at risk of being expelled from our tribe in the ancient past.
Social Phobia – Social Anxiety
The number of people who will suffer from social anxiety or social phobia at some point during their lifetime may be as high as 12 % of the population1. At any one time, approximately 7% of the population experiences this problem [source SocialPhobia.org]. People with this social anxiety suffer from an intense inner critic. They tend to judge themselves harshly. It is common for this type of person to project their judgmental tendency onto the audience. In other words, they expect the audience to be as critical of them as they are of themselves. This makes them naturally shy and tentative in a speaking situation. They are expecting a negative outcome. Even if there is no negativity from the audience, they fill in the void with a steady stream of their own self-criticism.
Introversion vs. Extroversion
Nearly half of the population is introverted. Introverts draw their energy from alone time. Extroverts draw their energy from interaction with other people. The introvert may find public speaking more draining from an energy perspective while the extrovert may be more energized by the experience. Consequently, as an introvert, it may be more comfortable avoiding public presentations and conserving their energy. This can be easily overcome and is not a major deterrent. However, it is one more factor that presents a headwind for some people.
Although there is no single factor that accounts for performance anxiety, these are all factors to assess when working on gaining comfort and confidence while speaking.
Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking
People are motivated to overcome a fear of public speaking and performance anxiety by two possible things. They either wish to avoid some greater negative experience or they want to benefit from a positive reward. The first motivation, I call an ‘away from’ strategy. An example of this might be that keeping your job depends on being able to speak in public. By learning to speak in public comfortably, you avoid the loss of a good job.
The other motivation I call a ‘toward strategy’. Here you want a promotion, but to get that new high-paying job you must be able to handle a new job duty, public speaking. In this example, it is all about going for a benefit. Perhaps the greatest motivation is derived from a combination of both strategies at the same time.
Assuming that you have sufficient motivation to want to overcome a fear of public speaking, I have good news. It is very possible to conquer this phobia. There are a number of treatments, either individually or in some combination, that can help with performance anxiety. Those therapies can empower you to go from fear to confidence.
Treatments that Help People Reduce Anxiety When Speaking
Some of the treatments that I utilize at my Richardson, Texas counseling office include:
- Quick REMAP
- Cognitive Therapy
- Behavioral Therapy
- Exposure Therapy
- Clinical Hypnotherapy
I have found these therapies to be very useful in helping my clients overcome the fear of public speaking in Dallas, TX, and surrounding areas. Let’s review each of these and when they may be helpful for your stage fright.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has an excellent track record for helping people get over traumatic or overwhelming memories. These are the type of memories that can imprint the emotional midbrain and set in motion the alarm reflex that is triggered by reminders of the bad experience. EMDR has been helpful in treating military PTSD survivors. It also utilizes one of the two mechanisms that have been shown to reach and soothe the region of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. That mechanism is patterns of bilateral eye movements that replicate the distressing effect that happens in rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). If you have experienced one or more painful speaking experiences that may be interfering with your ability to speak in public, then I may be able to help you with EMDR.
Quick REMAP utilizes the other mechanism that can calm the midbrain, self-administered acupressure. Studies at Harvard Medical School have shown that certain acupoints are able to change the blood flow to an area of the midbrain known at the amygdala2. This causes that region of the brain to calm down and turn off the fight-or-flight response3. One of the most powerful things about this intervention is that you can learn to use it yourself. Quick REMAP can be applied prior to any speech so that your nervous system is calmer from the start. Having empowering tools like this can contribute greatly to resolving speaking and performance anxiety.
If you think a thought intently and visualize it vividly, your midbrain is unable to tell the difference between that thought and external reality. If our thoughts are negative – such as imagining that your speech goes poorly or that the audience tries to embarrass you – then your midbrain believes it is inevitable and tries to save you from stage fright by revving your nervous system into fight-or-flight. This is where cognitive therapy can help. By learning how to catch negative thoughts and changing them to thoughts that are more realistic and positive, you will be able to keep your nervous system calmer.
By changing our behavior, we are often able to change the way we feel. Have you ever been upset about something and then gone for a 45-minute walk? If you have, then you may have noticed that you felt better after the walk than you did before the walk. Your emotions may have been calmer and your thoughts may have shifted for the better. This is a simple example of behavioral intervention. There are a variety of behavioral techniques that can help people overcome a phobia.
A fear avoided gets stronger. A fear confronted gets weaker. Exposure therapy involves systematically and gradually exposing oneself to the situation that evokes anxiety. If done correctly, your brain will learn in small, tolerable increments that it is safe to speak in front of groups. Your performance anxiety will fade. Stage fright will become a thing of the past.
Mindfulness is a meditative technique that can help people achieve a state of objective detachment from their problem, their troubling thoughts about their problem, and their emotional reactions. This can be incorporated into a comprehensive approach to overcoming the fear of public speaking.
First of all, the probability is that whatever you think hypnosis is, it's not that! It is definitely not magic. It is not a quick fix to your problems with speaking in front of groups. However, in the hands of an experienced and licensed psychotherapist, it can be a useful tool in your journey to speaking with comfort and confidence.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of unlicensed people who have had a few weeks training in hypnosis who hang out a shingle offering the uninformed public the hope of hypnosis. Unlike most of the people who put up YouTube videos selling hypnosis, I have trained in clinical hypnotherapy in graduate school, studied, researched, and practiced various methods for 30 years, and have written a master's thesis on the topic. It is a tool that I use sparingly and only when it will benefit the people I work with.
If you are willing to approach clinical hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis with realistic expectations, then it may be a tool that could help you. I can help you know whether it is or is not.
I tailor the treatment methods that can help you overcome a speaking phobia to your needs. You may respond better to some methods than others. Together we can discover what works best for you.
How to Get Help
To schedule an appointment to begin to get help in finding freedom from the fear of public speaking, call Steve at 972-997-9955.
Steve is an expert in the treatment of anxiety issues. Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias are the main focus of his specialty practice. He is also a professionally trained speaker who has presented at professional conferences, corporate training events, college classes and has given keynote addresses internationally. He is a past member of the North Texas Speakers Association and the American Speakers Association. In addition to providing treatment for anxiety, panic, and phobias, Steve can provide coaching to help you in developing effective speaking skills as you overcome performance anxiety.
Steve Reed is available for an office appointment for your counseling and psychotherapy needs in the Dallas, Fort Worth, DFW metroplex, including Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Colleyville, Denton, Euless, Fairview, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Highland Park, Hurst, Irving, Keller, Lake Highlands, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Plano, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, and University Park. He provides therapy at his office in Richardson, TX.
Appointments are also available by phone and video for people anywhere in the world.
Steve can also be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions.
- Kessler RC, Berglund PA, Demler O, Jin R, Walters EE. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593-602.
- Wu MT, Hsieh JC, Xiong J, Yang CF, Pan HB, Chen YC, et al. Central nervous pathway for acupuncture stimulation: localization of processing with functional MR imaging of the brain-preliminary experiences Radiology 1999; 212:133-41.
- Hui K, Liu J, Makris N, et al. Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects. Human Brain Mapping. 2000; 9:13-25.3.