Speech anxiety

Many students are nervous about oral presentations, reports, or speaking in seminars. For some students, this is a big concern that creates a lot of discomfort and anxiety. Then we're talking about public speaking anxiety. Here is some brief information about what public speaking anxiety is and tips on different strategies for how you can help yourself.


What is public speaking anxiety?

Public speaking anxiety means great discomfort about speaking or appearing in front of others; it is one of the most common social fears in humans.

To feel a little nervous before a presentation can be good. It can get us excited about the task and it sharpens our senses. A lot of worry, however, can have the opposite effect and make us more or less paralysed or cause us to want to avoid the situation.

Public speaking anxiety is triggered in situations when we will be or are the centre of attention, such as when giving a report or at seminars where we are expected to say something. It may also be that we cannot stop thinking about it afterwards--that we dwell on what we said or how we looked, etc.

The worry at the heart of public speaking anxiety often deals with themes of being examined, making a fool of oneself, or failing. People with public speaking anxiety often think negative thoughts about themselves and they often place high demands on themselves in the situation. The self-critical thoughts trigger anxiety and many times it is the negative thoughts that cause problems.


Common reactions to public speaking anxiety

Concerns about public speaking and being exposed can manifest themselves in different ways--in physical/physiological reactions, in thoughts, in feelings, and behaviours. We can, for example, be worried about blushing or having trembling voice. We may experience dry mouth, heart palpitations, tremors, or that we sweat or have other feelings of bodily discomfort.  

It is also common to have thoughts about what others will think about one personally and one's presentation ("They'll think I'm terrible." "They won't understand anything." Or "Help, I'm hot, now they can surely see that I'm red/sweating". "Now I'm going to mess up, how embarrassing. ") Often, there is also a lack of confidence in one's own ability to handle the situation ("It will never work!", "I can't do it.") All of these scary thoughts increase stress in the body and the emotions of worry become stronger. 

One consequence of public speaking anxiety can be trying to avoid situations that require talking in front of others. That can mean, for example, calling in "sick", "missing" the bus, or offering to take care of technical matters to avoid talking.

Another way to respond is to use different security behaviours. Safety behaviours can be described as strategies or tricks aimed to reduce worry or even prevent fears from coming true. These fears may, for example, deal with becoming embarrassed, being evaluated, fainting, or others' seeing how difficult you find the situation. Safety behaviours may include standing and fiddling with something, reading from the book, looking down at the floor, or using medication.


How can you help yourself?

It is important to know that you can learn to handle the anxiety you feel and that, in the long run, you can reduce your discomfort. Remember that you need to be supportive and helpful to yourself if you are going to challenge your public speaking anxiety.

Below, we mainly focus on how you can help yourself to deal with discomfort and thoughts and how you can train yourself.

When it comes to, for example, how you can organise the content of an oral presentation or the factors that influence various communication situations, there is, among other things, a lecture you can attend through the university's language support services.  Information and registration for this can be found in the listing of current language support services workshops and activities.

Challenge yourself

When we feel a strong sense of worry, we instinctively interpret it as a threat, that the situation is dangerous. This is often what happens when we feel a strong physical “surge” response and thoughts that spin--what we sometimes call anxiety. It can cause us to want to avoid (flee) the unpleasant situation. It is an automatic reaction when we are afraid. During the development of mankind, it has been useful to flee, or fight against, perceived dangers. The predicament is that our brain cannot distinguish between real, external threats and mental, internal threats. Therefore, we react by wanting to escape from a speech situation even if it is not useful for us.

In order to eventually be able to handle the discomfort once it has started, you need to challenge yourself to remain in the situation instead of running away. If you remain in the situation, you will notice that the surge, for the most part, goes down by itself. It may feel like the strong discomfort will never go away, but that's not true. The body has the ability to regulate the physiological surge. It is also the case that the brain uses information from the past to make predictions about what will happen in the future. So you need to work to have new experiences.

Therefore, if you want to work with your difficulties, it is important that you gradually expose yourself to different unpleasant situations. Think about what are reasonable and meaningful challenges for you. It may be asking a question during a lecture, giving feedback to someone, or initiating a conversation with someone you do not know. You need to actively take advantage of opportunities to practice speaking publicly in order to make a change.

Train yourself to continue in a direction that is helpful for you even if it feels slow and difficult.

Safety behaviours

To deal with situations that are tough, we can use various tricks or so-called safety behaviours. One trick might be to look down at the floor so that no one will see one's worried gaze; another is to tighten one's muscles so as not to appear to tremble. The purpose behind the strategy is to reduce anxiety or prevent fears from coming true. Fears are often about different social disasters occurring--for example, getting embarrassed, being evaluated, fainting.

We like to think that these tricks will help us and protect us. Often it is vice versa. One concern with safety behaviours is that you can become so busy keeping up with these strategies that you lose focus on the task and are not really present in the situation.

Safety behaviours create security in the moment, but contribute to the problem's remaining. Try to identify and inventory your safety behaviours. Then try to expose yourself to different speaking situations without your safety behaviours and thus gradually work them out of your routine. It is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels.

Examples of safety behaviours may be talking quietly, talking fast, avoiding looking at the person you are speaking to/audience, looking at the computer, repeating words or sentences in your head, saying quietly "do better", tensing up, using make-up to not show redness, chewing gum, clearing your throat, picking at your pen/glasses, or  reading straight from the text.

Requirements and expectations

Research shows that there is a connection between public speaking anxiety and perfectionist traits. Perfection is an unrealistic requirement and becomes an obstacle for us all. If you have perfectionist traits, you might set very high standards for yourself in a speech situation and be unnecessarily critical when something unexpected occurs. If you have an expectation of yourself that it must be perfect, there is also a risk that you put off both the preparation and the speech situation.

Your attitude to yourself is important. Think about if you have life rules that help you or make things difficult for you. Maybe you have rules that say that "it must be perfect/I must be completely quiet/I should not be nervous." It is easier to live with rules that say "it's okay to be unsure sometimes/to be nervous/mess up sometimes."

Train yourself to notice your perfectionistic thoughts and question them. Try to replace the perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic ideas about how you need to prepare yourself and behave in a certain situation. Try to be tolerant and caring towards yourself and allow yourself to be and perform imperfectly.

You need courage to start doing something while knowing it won't be perfect in the process of challenging your fear of speaking in public. Try to have respect for yourself with your assets and your limitations.

Think about what your focus is. Try to focus on what you have to say and not how you are perceived by others. Do not apologise for yourself or what you have to say; that is just putting yourself down.

Managing discomfort and anxiety

It's difficult to do what feels hard. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to reflect on why it is important for you to face the fear, so that it is easier to put up with the discomfort. Our drives can be both internal (e.g. If I say what I think then I will feel more a part of things) and/or external (to get my credits and my degree).

It's easy to wish that one's difficulties will disappear. However, emotions are difficult to opt out of. If you try to ban certain thoughts or feelings, it becomes a burden and a stress factor for you. Your feelings aren't wrong. However, you can train yourself to do what you planned despite any discomfort.

We have a choice to react in the direction fear directs us or to actively choose a different behaviour. When you begin to challenge yourself, you will notice that it is possible to do things even though it's hard. You will notice that you can face your fear instead of avoiding it.

Your inner dialogue

Notice how you think about yourself and others in different situations when you are in focus. Are you judgmental and strict or you are caring and tolerant in your thinking? Our brain perceives a critical inner dialogue as a threat, which increases anxiety and stress. This means that self-criticism triggers your anxiety and stress while compassion and caring for yourself instead help to break the negative stress spiral.

Train yourself in noticing your inner dialogue. Identify your critical and strict thoughts and work to be more caring and supportive of yourself. Notice, also, how you think about others. Do you see others as teammates or opponents? The audience likely wishes you well. Research shows that people with public speaking anxiety interpret the audience/listeners more critically than other people do.

Train yourself to pause and observe

One way to train yourself is to observe your thoughts and let go of them by practicing mindfulness. This is a way to get to know your reactions (body, thoughts, and feelings) and its impulses and is an approach that is helpful for stress and anxiety.

Enlist the help of breathing

Our state of mind is often reflected in our breathing. In cases of stress and anxiety, breathing is often fast and shallow. We can calm the mind by breathing calmly and deliberately. When you train yourself to stop and focus on your breathing for a moment, you can eventually help yourself to find greater peace and to break the negative stress spiral.

Practice now and then to focus on your breathing for a few minutes--or a few breaths. Notice how you breathe in through your nose, the air slowly filling the lungs and abdomen. And then how you breathe out again. You do not have to strain to breathe in a special way. Just notice your breathing for a little while. Lower your shoulders and put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest to feel the breathing in the body. Try it!

Give yourself permission to take a pause in breathing--it's okay that it's quiet at times.

Other tips and approaches

It can be useful to come in plenty of time so that you can make yourself feel comfortable with your surroundings. Then you have the opportunity to try to settle yourself before the actual presentation/seminar so that you can concentrate on the task at hand. It's easy to want to come as late as possible to make the "pain" short.

Remember that you need to breathe and take breaks. It's okay if it's quiet for a moment. Speak loudly and clearly if it is possible.

Try not to compare yourself to others. There is not just one way to do things. You need to give yourself permission to try things and find your style. Remember that you are doing your best.

Do you need another form of support?

You are welcome to contact the counsellor at Student Health Care if you need help dealing with your difficulties with public speaking anxiety. Some people have excess public speaking anxiety difficulties in many social situations and feel limited in life. Please contact us at Student Health so we can help you with further referral if needed. 

At the university, there is also a course in oral communication and presentation skills. Information and registration for this can be found in the website information about language support workshops and activities.