In a previous article I talked about how a fear of public speaking could have an evolutionary basis. The fight, flight or freeze response that many people experience is a primitive response to danger. Although the danger is clearly not life-threatening, our bodies respond as if it. Unfortunately, while fighting, fleeing or freezing may be great responses to escape a predator, they are not very helpful when you are trying to speak to an audience!
Let’s take a closer look at what happens.
Fight or flight
When faced with stress/danger your brain sends a signal to adrenal glands which release hormones including adrenalin and cortisol. This triggers the sympathetic nervous system to send blood and oxygen to your big muscles to enable them to run or fight. Your heart beats harder/faster as it distributes more oxygen and blood to your body. Some other things that happen are:
The freeze response is a little different. This is what happens to the body when we can’t fight or flee. The evolutionary basis is that if we are under attack and we play dead we either won’t be noticed or we will be let go. When we freeze the body’s defence mechanism are setting in. You may experience a numbing out or disassociation or feeling of being stuck in some part of the body. You may also feel cold.
The physiological basis is a bit more complex but it goes something like this. When cortisol floods your system and sympathetic nervous system can’t cope, this triggers your parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system is normally responsible for relaxation and sleep but when it goes into overdrive it is like the body shutting down.
This is a typical reaction while people are speaking, rather than the in the lead-up. The most common symptom is forgetting what you want to say or “going blank”. Some people also talk about that feeling of disassociation – their words feel disconnected from them.
The role of the amygdala
The amygdala is the part of the brain that senses danger first. It is a small almond shaped collection of nuclei which receive fearful stimuli before our brain has a chance to process whether the danger is real. The amygdala is also thought to have a role in forming memories that are associated with fearful events which can cause the anxiety or dread that happens when you think about a potential threat such as an upcoming speech.
What you can you do about it?
Many of my other blog articles are about how to manage your nerves (or your panic). For example, read about how to calm yourself by connecting with the audience. Most people will need to employ several strategies and a lot of patience but your persistence will pay off. Because this article is about how the body responds to danger, I am going to focus on physiological strategies here. If you combine these strategies with mental strategies (training yourself to think differently), and lots of preparation and practice (especially in a safe environment where it is OK to make mistakes) you will find that your symptoms will become less extreme.
Finally, for a great animated explanation of what happens to you during stage fright, watch this short Ted Ed lesson.
Prepared by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.