Does Public Speaking Make You Anxious? It Could Just Mean You Have Strong Survival Genes

Jessica Guzik  |


Does the thought of getting up and speaking in front of a group send a wave of panic through your brain?

Do you find yourself feeling shaky, stressed out, and unfocused when the time comes to deliver your presentation or speech?

If you do, you are not alone. Across cultures, the fear of public speaking consistently ranks highest on the collective list of fears and phobias.

I wanted to learn more about why this is such a common occurrence – so I sat down with public speaking expert Olivia Mitchell. Olivia is the founder of Speaking About Presenting, an online company that specializes in helping people get over their fear of public speaking.

According to Olivia, the fear and anxiety that many people feel when speaking in front of a group is a conditioned survival response that the human brain employed many centuries ago:

“It’s an evolutionary mechanism from thousands of years ago, when our only way of staying safe from predators was to belong to a group or pack of people. Being accepted as part of the pack was essential for our survival, because as humans, we weren’t very good at defending ourselves from predators on our own. Which meant that if the group rejected us, we’d literally be at risk of being hunted down and dying. So now, fast forward 400,000 years -- when you stand in front of a group, your brain starts screaming at you because it thinks that if the group doesn’t approve of you, you might actually die.”

As a glass-half-full type of person, and as someone who suffers from the fear of public speaking myself, I saw Olivia’s insight as a signal that perhaps those of us who struggle to feel at ease in front of groups are more biologically and genetically resilient. After all, our public speaking anxiety stems from the fact that our nervous systems are highly attuned to this very important survival mechanism.

But the problem still remains: this outdated biological reaction causes unwanted anxiety and interferes with our ability to communicate and present our ideas with ease. I asked Olivia for her best piece of advice for those who suffer from the fear of public speaking. Her core approach to getting over the fear of public speaking is rooted in exposing her clients to the fear of disapproval that is at the biological core of the fear itself:

“The fear of public speaking, at its root, is the fear of disapproval. So what I encourage people to do is to find tiny actions that they can take in their everyday lives that expose them to the fear of disapproval.”

The beauty of this approach is that it allows us to go outside our comfort zones in small ways, so that we can build up courage even when we are not able to practice the act of speaking in front of groups. Even seemingly minor acts, like striking up a brief conversation with a stranger, can help. Over time, Olivia encourages people to take bigger and bolder actions, until they feel ready or have the opportunity to speak in front of a group.

Olivia also suggests familiarizing ourselves with the stories of those who have overcome the fear of public speaking. She cites Shonda Rhimes, J.K. Rowling, and Barbara Streisand as examples of revered public figures who have battled debilitating speaking anxiety and stage fright – and she rightly points out that when we see successful speakers, we are quick to forget that many of them have battled their own fears of public speaking.

My conversation with Olivia gave me some much needed perspective on a topic that can easily become discouraging and overwhelming for so many of us. Olivia’s years of work with her clients serves as proof that even those who struggle with this the most can build confidence and improve over time.

To access the full audio version of my interview with Olivia, head over to iTunes: https://apple.co/2NIvck1

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