The nervous system and fear of public speaking

The nervous system controls how comfortable we feel at public speaking
The nervous system controls how comfortable we feel at public speaking

Who is in charge here? Let’s talk about how your nervous system deals with the fear of public speaking and what to do about it.

In the last blog article I wrote about why is it that most of us are afraid of public speaking. We looked at our ancestry, at the importance of group belonging for our species’ survival and how this old history feeds our fear of public speaking. Today we will turn our focus inside of our bodies and explore what happens with our nervous system when we are in front of an audience and how to work with it so that we can be more confident.

We like to think that we have control over what say and do. That we’re ‘rational beings’ with free will. However it is enough to present to a bunch of strangers and our self possession mysteriously disappears. Suddenly we forget how to walk naturally, what to do with our hands and feet, our voice sounds strange and our breath is disturbingly short. We are startled with how little control over our bodies we actually have and feel at the mercy of some murky part of ourselves that feels like a complete stranger.

Backed by physio-psychology, I’ve come to the understanding that the root cause of these nerves can be found in the way that our body and in particular our nervous system has evolved. Although I think of myself as an ‘I’ – an individual person, I (and we all) have at least 3 decision-making centres that take charge of behaviours. The thinking self is only one among them, and not necessarily the most important one.

The trio I am talking about here are called:

  • the reptilian brain – the oldest part found in all animals from lizards onwards
  • the limbic system – younger, found in mammals
  • the neo-cortex- the youngest, most developed in humans (walnut brain)

Each represents part of our biological ancestry and exerts particular control over our behaviour, especially in situations of perceived danger i.e. public speaking. It’s critical to understand that these three systems all are concerned with our safety and that they operate in a hierarchy. If the younger and more developed neo-cortex fails to keep us safe, then the older and more crude limbic systems takes over. If that fails, then we revert to the reptilian brain. The most troubling part is that this usually has a negative effect on our communication skills.

What does this look like in action?

So you are on a conference and just met many exciting people and are chatting away with one of them. You are very engaged and eloquent, you feel a gentle tingle of excitement and you don’t even notice your heart rate or breathing. You feel confident and in control – your neo-cortex is in charge.

Then suddenly someone shouts your name from the stage, all the attention is on you, you are expected to grab the mic and share your insights with the entire conference. As soon as you realize your situation, your heart rate goes up, your breathing moves from the belly to the upper chest, you feel very nervous and all the good ideas vanish. You want to run away but you know that you can’t, your hands begin to tingle and your legs want carry you away. Your eyes are nervously looking for the way out. Congratulations, you’ve just activated the limbic system’s fight or flight response.

Now you are on stage, everyone is looking at you, your boss, your peers, their eyes piercing like hundreds of daggers. You feel cornered – you can’t escape. You pick up the mic and want to say something, but nothing comes out. The situation becomes unbearable and for a split second you lose awareness of where you are and what you’re there for. The next thing you notice is the cold sweat on your forehead and the stiffness of the body. You just had a freeze response, courtesy of your reptilian brain.

So what can I do?

To be in a fight, flight or freeze situation when we want to be eloquent and professional is no fun. It can impact not only on our careers but also on our health; each fight, flight or freeze response releases a bunch of physiological processes that are toxic to our bodies. The thing is that these responses are a part of our biological makup and are with us to stay, however dysfunctional they may feel. To avoid their activation you need to ensure that your body feels safe in the context you are in.

And here is what you can do:

  • Make the unfamiliar familiar. Your body thrives in environments that are predictable and well known. So if it is public speaking that is causing you trouble then practise as much as you can. You don’t have to seek out big audiences to do that; it is enough to begin in front of the mirror and then progress to your partner, your friends and eventually a public speaking club. The more you allow yourself to be exposed to your fear in a controlled environment, the better the results.
  • Play with your fear, break it apart. Investigate the components of the environment that create a fear response. If speaking, check what happens to confidence as you sit instead of stand, or use informal language instead of dry jargon, or the impact smiling has on how you feel about speaking. Be playful and eventually you will be able to identify and choose between options.

Most of all, remember that safety is the key to confidence. Only then will you be able to allow your neo-cortex to take charge of your behaviour and show your most impactful and inspiring self. In the next blog post I will be sharing a much more detailed way of working with Body Confidence and will reveal the 5 Gateways to Body Confidence – a unique way of putting your nerves at ease.

To learn how to be confident in your body, check out my one day programme on Body Confidence.

This blog post was also published on the Ginger Public Speaking website.

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