Performance Anxiety: How Do I Overcome My Fear of Public Speaking?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I get a lump in my throat just thinking about having to speak in front of groups of people. Well, I had better get over it soon. Next semester I am taking a required public speaking class in which I will regularly have to stand in front of 50 or more people and figure out how to talk coherently. I am terrified and I am positive I will fail. Every time I have to speak in front of people, even if it’s a group of friends and family, my palms get sweaty, I tense up, and I can barely get a word out. And whatever word does come out sounds stupid. I hate the thought of all those eyes and ears trained on me, analyzing my every utterance and expression. Is this what is referred to as performance anxiety?

I don’t understand how some people can be so comfortable speaking in public while others, like me, struggle greatly. I’m much better one-on-one or, better still, saying what I have to say in writing. I know that’s a big reason classes like the one I am taking exist, but is there any hope of actually overcoming a fear of public speaking? Or is the best I can hope for to just get through it without humiliating myself? —Speak Uneasy

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Dear Uneasy,

You write of the terror with which so many are familiar. The thought of getting up in front of a group of people, whether friends or strangers, sends many people into a state of panic. Your body may react in that dreaded way—sweaty palms, flushed face, and tense body—just from anticipating this situation. Thoughts such as, “What if I get choked up and can’t speak?” or, “What if I forget what I am going to say?” may be racing in your mind. Anticipating talking in front of an audience can keep many from facing their fear.

While it may be possible for some to avoid public speaking, it may not always possible for others. For example, a mandatory public speaking course leaves you with no other option (aside from course failure) than speaking in front of an audience. As long as you have to do it, you might as well work to overcome your fear of public speaking. This is, in fact, possible.

Here are things to consider:

You have created a scene in your mind.

You’ll need to recognize that the scenarios you mentally rehearse about what it will be like to speak in front of an audience are imagined. Certainly, past experiences can help shape and illustrate these scenarios, but fundamentally it is your “what-if” thoughts which are creating the image and triggering the fear.

Thoughts are powerful. Also powerful is our ability to better manage thoughts. We have the ability to challenge negative thoughts, thereby creating other scenes in our heads. Similarly, we have the ability to be more aware or more mindful of our thoughts and the role they have in our behavior. We can learn to be better observers of ourselves and accept that while anxiety may come, we do not need to be held captive to it. These shifts may be achieved on your own, but if you would like support in working toward these goals, therapy can be of assistance.

Thoughts are powerful. Also powerful is our ability to better manage thoughts. We have the ability to challenge negative thoughts, thereby creating other scenes in our heads.

The imagined “worst-case scenario” typically does not actually happen.

Anticipated outcomes, when you’re worried, are nearly always worse than the situation that actually plays out. This is important to consider whenever anticipatory worry strikes, but particularly when thinking about everything that could go wrong when speaking in front of a crowd of people.

Preparation is key.

The best way to set yourself up for success, both for anxiety management and for giving a well-informed and practiced talk, is to prepare. You indicated you are more comfortable expressing yourself in writing. Why not write out your talk exactly the way you want to deliver it if speaking and read that while you practice? Perhaps you can keep this script with you as you deliver the speech, even if just for a sense of security.

Regardless, prepare for whatever you know you can expect (e.g., a time limit, create note cards or presentation slides). Prepare in advance so you don’t inadvertently add in the element of running out of prep time. Once you have your speech completed, practice as much as you feel is helpful. Practice in front of a friend or your stuffed animal. Whatever feels right to you.

This class may actually end up being life-changing.

Public speaking can actually feel good, even for those who are fearful of it. Working toward a meaningful goal and subsequently achieving this goal can feel really good. Generally speaking, having success can motivate you to continue to work toward goals in the future. Having success in meeting this goal can also modify your experience of what it means to speak in front of a crowd. Perhaps your next experience with public speaking is not met with the same overpowering fear. It may also be that, down the road, you embrace an invitation to speak in front of a crowd.

The bottom line is you can do something about this. Allow yourself to be compassionate toward yourself and your fears, recognize thoughts which are not productive, and reset your mind-set to be open to some elements of success. Practice, prepare, and seek outside help if you’d like, too. Good luck!

Kind regards,

Marni Amsellem, PhD

Marni Amsellem
Marni Amsellem, PhD, is a licensed psychologist. She maintains a part-time private practice in New York and Connecticut specializing in clinical health psychology, coping with illness, and adjustment to life transitions. Additionally, she is an interventionist and research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, both locally and nationally, involved with research investigating the role of behavior, environment, and individual differences in multiple aspects of health and decision-making.
  • 4 comments
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  • Silba

    Silba

    September 22nd, 2017 at 2:13 PM

    Deep breaths and not giving direct eye contact are my go to behaviors

  • Lydia S

    Lydia S

    September 23rd, 2017 at 8:55 AM

    I have tried it seems every trick in the book to help through this but public speaking remains my worst enemy! I don’t know what it is, even when I am in front of people that you would consider to be a freindly crowd, which is a lot easier than a hostile one I can tell you, I still get the shakes and the sweats. My voice shakes and no amount of breathing can make that better for me! I have a job where I have to do a lot of speaking in public too so I am trying to find something, anything that can help me because I know that until this is conquered there is no way that I will ever be able to move up in the company.

  • mike

    mike

    September 25th, 2017 at 3:33 PM

    Just doing a little bit of prep work before it is time to give the speech can help you make it through the experience a little more easily and without quite as much stress.

  • Sian

    Sian

    September 26th, 2017 at 2:37 PM

    I can very much relate to this. Honestly there have been times when I would rather do almost anything besides give a speech in public.

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