Why Do I Freeze Up When I Speak in Front of People?

I used to feel like I had no problem talking in front of people, even large groups of people. That's less so as I get older, though. Is there something wrong with me? It seems to me like it should get easier as you get older. I have to give presentations and pitches as part of my job, and in the last couple of years I have been getting much more nervous, to the point I sometimes get sick beforehand. I have even pretended to be sick in order to not work on a day of a presentation, so that others had to give it in my place. I feel like it's putting my job at risk. There have been a couple of times when I have stood up, thought I was starting to speak, but no words actually came out of my mouth. I couldn't talk. I just froze. I had to ask to step out for a minute. Eventually I powered through those times, but what the heck? Why would this be happening more as I get older? I am 37. In college I was a teacher's assistant and had no problem giving lectures in front of 150 people. Am I developing a medical problem? Please offer some possible explanations, not just suggest I go to therapy. Thank you! —Speechless
Dear Speechless,

Whenever a problem develops where no problem existed before, my first question is always: what is different now? You mention that you previously gave lectures to 150 people as a teacher’s assistant without the anxiety (or, perhaps more to the point, performance anxiety) you are currently dealing with in your professional life. What feels different to you about the two experiences? I wonder if the stakes seem higher now, the content more complex, or the audience more inquisitive or demanding. It seems reasonable that any of these possibilities, or something else along these lines, could create and/or intensify anxiety around public speaking.

If you can figure out what has developed to cause the problem, perhaps you can figure out some strategies for addressing it. For example, if upon reflecting on the differences between your experience as a TA and as a professional you discover that the content is more complex and the audience more inquisitive, it might be helpful to take some trainings or courses to deepen your knowledge of the content area. This might increase your confidence in your ability to answer questions as they come up. Maybe reflection will lead you to discover that your anxiety is less about content and more about style. Perhaps you have realized that the level of polish expected of professionals, as opposed to student TAs, is quite different and you don’t feel like you measure up. If this is the case, participating in a group like Toastmasters might be helpful in mastering and developing confidence in your public speaking skills.

Sometimes, unexplained anxiety that seems to come up out of the blue can be a way of getting your attention and forcing you to address dissatisfaction with an area of your life that you are not fully aware of.

You also raise the possibility that there is a medical problem that has developed and is to blame for this. The only way to rule that out for sure is to schedule an appointment with your doctor for an exam and discussion about this, and I recommend that you do that sooner rather than later. I am not a doctor, so as much as I hear your desire for explanations, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate as to potential medical issues you might be experiencing.

It is also possible that the problem is neither medical nor a reflection of simple insecurities about speaking in public. How do you feel about your career and where you are professionally? Sometimes, unexplained anxiety that seems to come up out of the blue can be a way of getting your attention and forcing you to address dissatisfaction with an area of your life that you are not fully aware of. If the above recommendations don’t yield any solutions and you land on a vague dissatisfaction with your career, what might be helpful is partnering with a career counselor to explore where you are, where you want to be, and developing a realistic plan for how to get there.

Best wishes,

Sarah

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • cris

    cris

    August 14th, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    I hate speaking in front of large groups of people. Well, if I just have something to read or something then I am fine but if it has to be like off the cuff speaking? Forget it, I am shaking and sweating and generally feeling like I am about to pass out.

  • wendy

    wendy

    August 14th, 2015 at 6:26 PM

    There is an excellent organisation that nurtures and gently encourages a person’s ability to speak in public. It is called POWERtalk International. Check out the group closest to you. Often there are workshops you can attend to get your journey towards confident public speaking underway. Highly recomnended! Good luck.

  • Trav

    Trav

    August 15th, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    You may also wish to consider doing some breathing exercises ahead of time.
    Great way to calm yourself, focus, and get through those things which might be uncomfortable to you

  • melissa

    melissa

    August 16th, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    I am afraid that if you conveniently “get sick” on presentation days then it will not be too long before people are onto you and they start to notice that this is a part of your job that you are not fulfilling. You are right in that this could definitely have a negative impact on your job if there are not things that you can start doing now to help you overcome some of that anxiety and fear.

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    August 19th, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    This is probably one of the biggest fears that many people have, and I would suspect that it is also one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. I know that there are coping techniques out there that work for some, but for many that fear of being in front of someone and making a big goof just feels to big and scary.

  • Maya

    Maya

    August 22nd, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    Is it too simplistic to ask if you could possibly move into a position where talking in front of other people doesn’t have to be such a large part of your job?

  • Carmen

    Carmen

    August 25th, 2015 at 3:45 PM

    I need help to identify stalker and help us to be confident and do a right action to handle them. Guide us in the way we speak to stalker

  • Sarah S.

    Sarah S.

    September 7th, 2015 at 1:18 PM

    Dear Speechless,
    Perhaps when you were a TA, you had just enough anxiety to feel spurred to excellence. A little bit puts wind in our sails; too much can become incapacitating, as you have described above. Is it possible that you truly love teaching, whereas you feel less enthusiastic overall about your current work? Sometimes what feels like overwhelming anxiety is our body’s way of telling us that we are engaged in something which seems at least uninteresting, and, at worst, pointless at a subconscious level (as Sisyphus must have felt when condemned for eternity to push his boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall again and again to the bottom). Could it be time for you to consider a new job?

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