Conquering the Fear of Public Speaking


Does the fear of public speaking bring you to your knees? You're not alone. Sara Petterson/Getty Images

Your heart quickens, your hands turn clammy and your brain dissolves into oatmeal. Those killer opening lines that you had planned? They've all but vanished with no evidence that they ever existed, just like your all-day deodorant and any sense of cool that you may have temporarily summoned.

The classic — if undoubtedly way too flip and clichéd — deer-in-the-headlights look now is glued to your blank face. And all those people around the table in the conference room (or classroom, or auditorium) are doing the absolute worst thing that they could do right now.

They're staring. And waiting ... waiting ... waiting. For you. "'I can't wait to get off this stage," you say to yourself. "I just want to run and hide. This is not going well. I'm going to bomb.'"

That, says Scott Compton, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, is exactly what those with a fear of public speaking are thinking. And that, of course, is exactly the problem.

It's Real, and It's Scary

The fear of public speaking is seriously real. It is a type of social anxiety disorder, which is a term first coined in 1980 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). From the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of, or anxiety toward, social or performance situations. They worry that actions or behaviors associated with their anxiety will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry often causes people with social anxiety to avoid social situations.

Social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affects a whopping 15 million American adults. Among the many subsets of the disorder, the fear of public speaking — sometimes called glossophobia — is king. The National Social Anxiety Center, citing the NIMH, goes even further, claiming that at least seven out of 10 grapple with some degree of glossophobia.

This fear is way more serious than sweaty palms and a tied tongue. Those with severe glossophobia worry so much about how they act or appear in public that they often avoid public settings altogether, and that can be harmful to their personal and professional well-being. Things get even more serious, the ADAA warns: "People with social anxiety disorder are also at an increased risk for developing major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorders."

The Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety lays it out in stark terms: "The name may sound harmless, but the disorder is complex, cruel and anything but simple. Social anxiety is far more than shyness and a fear of public speaking. It is an addiction to avoidance and a disease of resistance."

What's Happening?

Social anxiety disorders, including glossophobia, are defined by extreme fear and worry. They are the most common mental disorders in the U.S., according to the ADAA.

Among the signs that someone may be suffering from an anxiety disorder (from the ADAA):

  • Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

The anxiety is thought to be centered on the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotions. The idea is that the amygdala, acting on bad memories or false ideas of what could happen, releases "fight or flight" hormones that put the body in a stressed state. Thus the sweaty palms, racing heart and the desire to get away.

The disorders often start in young people, Compton says — a shy child who won't participate in class even though s/he knows the answers, or is afraid on play dates, or won't join a sports team for fear of messing up — and grow as the child becomes an adult.

"Most of the anxiety disorders start in early childhood and go untreated and unrecognized," Compton says. "People end up developing some pretty maladaptive sort of coping strategies."

The go-to strategy seems to be avoidance. Those who have been dealing with social anxiety for years, including the fear of public speaking, simply avoid stressful situations whenever they can. And that's about the worst thing they can do when it comes to conquering their fears.

"The more you avoid, the worse it becomes," Compton says. "My motto in therapy is you need to avoid avoidance. It's almost like, if something causes you anxiety, you need to do the exact opposite of what your history is telling you to do."

Getting Past Glossophobia

Therapy can help a fear of public speaking and many other social anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy (talking things through), something widely used to treat social anxiety by many, including Compton.

"In therapy, you start with kind of small things. 'I know you don't want to go to a conference and be a keynote speaker. But would you be willing to give a talk in front of one other person?'" Compton says. "Start small, build up some confidence and success. And then gradually turn the heat up in terms of making the situation gradually more anxiety-provoking."

Anxiety-lessening medication is a possibility, too. But the first step may simply be practicing a speech in front of a mirror, or with a friend, or solo in an empty room. Also, learn to slow down and breathe. And buy into the idea, as Compton says, that your life will be better if you overcome your fear.

"You've got to get them to avoid the avoidance," he says. "When they can make that step [of] being willing to do that thing — even though their history is sort of saying, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be awful!' — those are the ones that kind of get over their fear of public speaking."