The Fear of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking

The other day, I had the joy and honor of speaking to a group of twenty-five incredibly intelligent, accomplished, and successful people. My speaking topic provided insights as to what it means to “get out of our own way” — a topic I am so passionate about and quite the expert on, not just from my academic and professional credentials, but also from the consequences of my very own failure to get out of my own way!

Yet, right as my introduction was coming to an end and I was about to step up to the podium and start my speech, my heart began racing and I realized that despite my preparation and expertise, I was nervous.

Apparently, there are several studies that clearly indicate that public speaking tops the charts of people’s fears, with death actually following public speaking in second place! But I know better: The only reason my heart was racing was because of my thoughts about the situation.

After all, I love speaking, let alone when I have the honor to speak to intelligent people about what excites me the most— the incredible power of the human mind. And what more proof do I need as to how powerful our bodies and minds are than the way I was able to engage my cardiovascular system (along with several other body systems) to elicit an instantaneous response within milliseconds of choosing the meaning to give to that particular situation. I am certain, if no one was watching, we could all admit our deep, hidden fears of public humiliation, criticism, messing up, or forgetting our words.

Our immaculate brain, after all, has evolved with the default position of assuming the worst, not because there is anything wrong with us, but because this is what has kept us alive for millions of years.

The main problem with our brain’s propensity to assume the worst is that we tend to engage our amazing neurobiology for defense and not for optimal health and performance. It is well documented that when we operate from a “fearful, threatened space,” we are temporarily compromised, cognitively as well as emotionally.

Furthermore, our implicit memories are responsible for the way we think, which will drive the way we feel, which will determine the way we will act!

Our implicit memories have so much power, yet they are stored inside the fiber of our brain without our conscious awareness. We all know not to touch a flame, yet I am pretty certain most of us cannot recall the experience that makes us pull back from a flame when we get too close to one. In the same way, our thoughts about the potential criticism that might follow a public speech that we are about to give could come from experiences with our parents, our teachers, or an embarrassing event in front of our peers.

Although we can no longer influence what happened in the past, or the imprint those experiences left on our brain, we have a lot of power to “adjust the volume” of the thoughts that stem from procedural memory (a subset of implicit memory), if and when we choose what it is we want to place our attention on.

We can be realists and still focus on all that is positive and wonderful about any situation, retaining access to the thinking part of our brain, as opposed to losing our focus by employing our stress response and operating at diminished capacity. We now have a large body of research that reflects the robust benefits of mindfulness in accomplishing sophisticated brain structural changes. But more importantly, we can experience real life benefits when through those changes; we can enjoy a more balanced nervous system that is not exhausted from defending against imaginary threats that are not here and now.

The mechanism through which the brain changes in response to the environment is a Nobel Prize-winning concept, called neuroplasticity.

The wonderful thing is, we don’t need to be scientists to take advantage of the way we can slowly but surely intervene with our automatic thoughts that literally highjack our precious resources.

Fear is a universal and necessary emotion, but most of the things we are afraid of are not real dangers and threats but simply our thoughts fueled by our brains tendency to overestimate threats based on historical stored data. But if you would like to take an active stance against your own fears or if you are tired of playing, here are some effective ways to overcome unnecessary fears like our fear of public speaking.

  1. Make a list of your “unsubstantiated” fears.

While being kind to your self since we all have unnecessary fears, assess the cost of staying in the small comfort zone that your fear of “how will others judge you” defines you. You can then choose how you want to respond. Accept and acknowledge that your body is simply responding to the meaning you give to the situation and not to the situation it self.

  1. Increase your self-awareness.

What is your built in disposition to fear? Mine is to tilt towards anxiety. Yours could be anger. Becoming mindful of our default positions will give you the opportunity to change them when we are ready.


  1.   Work with your fears- Don’t let them work you.

Embrace the power of your mind and recognize that public speaking in and of itself does not present a threat or a danger to your survival. You can simply use this, or every unneeded fear in your life as a catalyst for the positive change you wish to see towards your own personal transformation.

There are plenty of practices we can incorporate in our lives to defeat our fears. You can access a cheat sheet of my favorite five step process to bust any fear, for free when you sign up to join my community.

I would love to hear your thoughts and learn from your experiences with fear.

After all, our fear of public speaking or any other fear over imaginary threats is part of our humanness, we all are afraid of certain things in life.

Yet only when we choose to see fear for what it truly is, an illusion, then, we can be free to express our feelings, our needs and our stories. And that my friends, is the most fundamental way to make a connection between our differences which science has now proven is the ultimate shield against fear.


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