We all remember the comedian Jerry Seinfeld's joke about fear of public speaking. He said, "The number one fear is public speaking. It even beat the fear of death. That means that most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy". The audience laughs at his joke, but when it's their turn to get up to present, suddenly public speaking is no laughing matter.
Whether speaking in front of a group, a high stakes meeting, or a difficult conversation, we've all faced situations that cause anxiety. Whenever we feel threatened, the lower, primitive brain gets triggered and can hijack the logical brain.
In these situations, we can react with avoidance, go into hyperdrive, or a deep freeze. Avoiding the encounter won't solve the problem and avoidance can have serious consequences such as becoming invisible to important stakeholders. Hyperdrive is when anxiety causes the communicator to flail, talk fast, and gasp for air. And deep freeze is the deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon. The person comes across stiff, monotone, and dispassionate. Both reactions will create a negative impression and can exacerbate an already challenging situation.
Why does this happen? When a person perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system, or "protective brain", gets activated. The sympathetic nervous system:
- prepares the body for action
- starts the mind to scan for threats
- triggers behavior that is reactive and impulsive
What's needed is a way to manage the nervous system so that confidence can overwrite fear and reduce speaking anxiety. We all contain internal resilience or an anchor. But we can forget how to use the anchor. The anchor is the parasympathetic nervous system- the neural pathway to calming anxiety otherwise known as "the thoughtful brain". The parasympathetic system:
- allows the body to heal, relax and grow
- mentally integrates new information
- results in actions that are deliberate and thoughtful
So how do you get control and activate the parasympathetic system to stay calm under pressure? Through the breath. But not any breath. Your breathing must be strategic.
The secret is to exhale longer than you inhale. For example, inhale to the count of 4 and then exhale to the count of 8. Do this several times until you feel a calming effect. If you don't have good breath support, then take in fewer breaths. Strategic breathing is the key. Slow down the breath. If this appears challenging, try exhaling through a straw.
There are definitely times when you want to engage the sympathetic nervous system. In a truly threatening situation you'll want to be guarded and alert in order to defend yourself. The problem is when the brain becomes overprotective, it may not be able to recognize what is threatening and what isn't. The speaker may then respond to neutral situations or even friendly experiences as threatening. I've seen public speakers assign great power to an audience and react with fear and negativity even when there was no indication of resistance from the group.
The goal is to align the body, mind, and breath. Use strategic breathing to engage the parasympathetic system to relax and be more thoughtful. Remember shorter inhale, longer exhale. And then you'll have instant confidence.