You’re shaking. You’re starting to sweat. You’re talking too fast. You’d rather be anywhere but here.
For many of us, this is what it’s like to speak in public.
The fear of public speaking affects roughly 75 percent of the population. That’s 15 percent more than the fear of death, said Kyle Keldsen, vice president of public relations for the Nashua Merrimasters Toastmasters Club, who referred to a recent poll by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Whether you’re being forced against your will to speak publicly — for your job, say — or you just want to face your fear, a Toastmasters club is a good place to start (and there are plenty — go to toastmasters.org to find a local club).
“The fact that [someone] even shows up says they are willing to try and conquer their fear,” Keldsen said. “Our approach is to try and create a safe environment where everyone can choose to talk, but the conundrum to that is some people might decide not to speak or not to come back.”
The club, which meets every first and third Wednesday at the Nashua Public Library, welcomes visitors all the time. People are allowed to visit as many times as they like until they’re comfortable enough to join, Keldsen said.
The meetings consist of what are called “table topics,” when everyone presents a one- or two-minute speech. If even that sounds terrifying, the club also provides mentors to those who have just joined.
“I think you need to take your mind off what you’re doing and see it as ... just sharing with people. It’s just changing your mindset,” Keldsen said.
What’s this fear all about?
“It’s a natural part of our body to react,” Keldsen said. “Humans have a fight-or-flight instinct in them, and when you put them in a situation where they can’t do that and it’s uncomfortable, they’re going to respond [with fear] since they can’t run from it or fight it.”
Jessica Schwartz, a therapist in Nashua, said that anxiety can range from mild or moderate to severe.
"Anxious feelings are normal within certain limits. It becomes a problem when anxiety escalates to the point that an individual is experiencing symptoms that are increasingly uncomfortable. These symptoms can include shortness of breath, heart palpitations and racing thoughts; then you need to look at what that fear is really about,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that for a moderate to severe fear of public speaking, beginning therapy with a mental health professional can be beneficial.
"There could be a connection to one's past that triggers this level of anxiety, such as having been harshly judged or criticized," Schwartz said.
Dr. Bill Flynn, a licensed psychologist and executive director of Merrimack Valley Counseling Association, said fear of public speaking might stem from low self-esteem or low confidence.
“If you have low confidence, you are more prone to make mistakes, and that leads to anxiety when you’re speaking, which impacts your train of thought and your ability to process and remember what you are saying,” Flynn said. “When you have anxiety, it short circuits your memory.”
Speaking to a room full of strangers can make anxiety-prone people even more nervous, Schwartz said. Not getting a response from a collective audience can be disarming.
“An audience is passive, not responding to the speaker,” she said. “In a conversation, the other engager is often nodding or agreeing, which lets us know that we aren’t alone.”
Take a deep breath
Schwartz said one of the ways she handles a person's fear of public speaking is teaching a three-step relaxation technique that involves breath work, a progressive muscle tense and release and visualization. This helps to decrease anxiety, lower heart rate and blood pressure and calm racing thoughts, she said.
Flynn encourages using relaxation techniques as well.
“You need to practice deep breathing and relaxation. It will help with tension before you speak. You can also use mental imagery to help with the stress,” Flynn said. “If you’re on stage, try connecting with a member of the audience who seems to be impressed by what you’re saying. It will boost your confidence.”
Keldsen agrees that a big part of overcoming the fear is accepting yourself and the fact that you have value and something worth saying.
“I think with most people, they need to accept that we can’t be open to all people, and that needs to be relieving. We need to tolerate that people aren’t always receptive to us and not fear it,” Schwartz said.
If deep breathing and trying to boost your confidence aren’t helping, you might need help from a professional, Schwartz said.
"When it's no longer mild performance anxiety and it becomes a disabling fear, that's when you need to work on the dynamics that underlie the fear and eventually heal from past issues,” she said.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.