Which response to the fear of public speaking do you choose: fight or flight?
Have you ever had to give an important presentation in front of colleagues or clients and you felt like you desperately wanted to run off the stage and escape?
I have! In fact, I almost always used to feel like that when I had to speak in public. I used to suffer from stage fright and I would find myself trembling and sweating. What saved me was the fact that I could cover it up so no one actually noticed. But I still had a very unpleasant feeling of it being “me against them”, as if the audience were my enemy and I had to fight against them.
So, you may well be asking how I became a public speaking coach myself?! Well, I learned some really useful techniques to help me to manage my stress so as to feel more confident and comfortable in front of my audience. I also researched the reasons for people feeling such fear of public speaking and realised that it’s actually a totally natural phenomenon called the “fight or flight” response.
What is the “Fight or Flight” Response?
It’s a survival mechanism which enables us to react quickly when our life is in danger. The hormonal changes and physiological responses that occur in the body help us to run away to safety as quickly as possible or have the strength to fight against the threat.
Our automatic nervous system has two components:
- The sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response and fills the body with a burst of energy,
- The parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes the “rest and digest” response, calming down the body once the danger has passed.
Firstly, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response. It reacts to unexpected changes in our environment, especially threats. The body speeds up and becomes more tense and alert to maximise our chances of survival in a dangerous situation. Adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones are released into the bloodstream so that we can deal with the threat successfully. This leads to the following physical reactions:
- Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing speed up,
- Our muscles become tense,
- Fat and sugar are released to provide energy to the muscles. This can also cause trembling,
- Digestion and urine production are put standby as they’re not needed in this situation,
- Sweating occurs. This keeps the body cool and makes us harder to grab if we’re attacked,
- Our pupils dilate so that more light can enter and we can see the threat more clearly,
- Salivation shuts down, making our mouth feel dry,
- Blood vessels open wide, flooding the skin with blood. This causes our face to redden.
So, we can see that those unpleasant reactions that many of us experience when we have to speak in public (blushing, dry mouth, sweating, trembling, accelerated heart beat…) are actually just our body’s way of preparing us to successfully deal with the threat we’re facing.
Secondly, the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a sense of calm once the danger has passed. Whereas the sympathetic system reacts immediately, the parasympathetic system takes a while to return our body to a normal state and the stress hormones tend to linger in the blood stream. This is why it can take a few hours to get the body recovered from the exertion. You may well continue to feel stressed and even exhausted during this time.
5 coaching tips to avoid experiencing those unpleasant physical reactions
It’s important to send positive messages to our brain to let it know that our audience isn’t actually a threat. This is done by establishing good rapport with the people listening to us. Over the years I’ve learned techniques on how to do this and I coach my clients to do the same. Here are some of the tips that help my clients to communicate confidently and comfortably in English:
- Establish positive eye contact with your audience, addressing individuals rather than the whole group. This allows you speak to one person at a time rather than to a big mass of people, which can be very intimidating. I suggest using the Lock, Talk and Pause method:
- Use a lot of pausing during your presentation so as to leave yourself time to breathe and avoid your body panicking. Read more about this technique here:
- Adopt positive body language to let your audience see that you’re confident and to also send the signal to your own brain that you’re feeling comfortable. See Amy Cuddy’s great talk entitled “Your body language may shape who you are”:
- Ensure that you prepare and rehearse your speech well in advance. If you get up on stage not feeling prepared enough there’s a strong risk of panicking. You’ll then send the wrong signals to your brain, telling it that you’re in danger and your body needs to prepare for the worst.
- Use hypnosis and relaxation techniques to reprogramme your brain. You’ll no longer see your audience as a threat. Quite the opposite, you’ll know how to captivate your audience with flowing and impactful talk. You can access my free relaxation recordings here:
If you suffer from the ‘fight or flight” response, causing you to experience stage fright and maybe even stopping you from giving oral presentations, please do get in touch.
I’ll be delighted to put my coach’s toolkit at your disposal, using hypnosis and other tools. You’ll learn how to win over your fear and enhance your professional image during all your public speaking.