Why Most People Are Deathly Afraid of Public Speaking and What They Can Do About It

Being put on the spot to display one's knowledge or skills can feel terribly uncomfortable and scary. The key to overcoming these emotions is to be prepared and recognize that our fears stem, not from a lack of self-worth, but quite the opposite. Our fears are born out of a deep sense of love for the self that wants nothing more than to protect us and keep us safe.
02/19/2014 04:12pm ET | Updated April 21, 2014
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It has been repeated by many and joked about by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld that most people are more afraid of public speaking than of death itself. And even though this statement may be quite amusing, it lacks scientific truth. However, research has shown that public speaking is in fact one of the most common social phobias.

So for instance, when you receive an amazing opportunity to give a talk on a particular subject in your field of expertise, or to give a live interview on the radio or TV, do you immediately jump to a place inside yourself of sheer panic? Does your heart race? Breathing stop? Mind go totally blank? Well if the mere thought of having to put yourself out there like that leaves you terrified, then consider doing these three things to alleviate the stress of it all, and instead, feel confident and prepared for such a situation:

1) Make Friends With Your Cavewoman or Caveman
You may not be aware of this, but each and every one of us has a cavewoman or caveman living inside our bodies. He or she is one of the many parts of the self. When our inner caveperson feels that it is being "singled-out," primitive instincts kick in telling us that we are no longer a part of a group, and therefore, survival is slim to none. After all, how are you going to fight off a saber-toothed tiger all by yourself? The bottom line is, we feel threatened in a life or death kind of way.

However, the cavewoman or caveman simply lacks understanding. It is the reactionary piece of ourselves that thinks it is protecting us from harm. So when he or she starts acting out, trying to get your attention by alerting you to something it sees as danger, don't try to ignore it. The challenge of being able to control our nerves only gets harder when we seek to "kill off" that scared side of us, trying to force the mind to pay it no attention. What happens then is the caveperson's voice and influence becomes louder and stronger as it fears even more for your/its life! At that point, panic sets in indicating that he or she has gained way too much power and has created a major imbalance of who's in charge.

In order to regain control and balance of our nerves, we have to do the opposite. We have to see that primitive part of the self for what it is -- just another hat each of us wears on a daily basis. Embrace this piece of yourself, have compassion for that which resides within and doesn't understand. When you experience fear, recognize where it is coming from -- this frightened cavewoman or caveman inside that is merely wanting to protect you. So take care of them, sit them down in the corner for now, make them a nice hot cup of tea, give them reassurance, a big hug, and put them down for a nice long nap. Then go and put on a different hat of yours... perhaps the hat of the Wise One? Picture your cavewoman or caveman as a cute little character that just needs your love and understanding. Each time you do, he or she will become less and less vocal and less in charge, because you both will gradually be able to relate to one another and realize that your relationship is based purely in self-love.

2) Get Out Your Smartphone
Find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted -- even if it's your car or the bathroom -- and interview yourself. Take out your phone and record yourself speaking. Answer questions about your work and your life; explain the new project you've been working on or the new information you have to share with the world. Play it back, and as you hear your own voice, recognize ways to tweak the words you use to make it sound more interesting. Maybe you notice that you were talking too fast or weren't enunciating. This exercise will not only bring much more self-confidence, but will allow you to form patented answers to questions that can flow right off your tongue when the real situation arises. Once you're comfortable with this process, take small steps into exposure. Ask a friend, then two, then more, to sit and listen to you respond to their questions or just be the audience to your presentation. Standing in front of a small group and getting their feedback will greatly shore up your courage!

3) See It Before You Do It
There is so much validity to visualizing an experience before it happens. Athletes the world over will tell you that it is essential to their performance. When you get up to speak in front of a group of people, it is a performance. You are just like an actor, musician or athlete -- they all have to rehearse their material. They see themselves doing it over and over again, thinking of ways to improve and enhance their execution of it. They not only practice for real, they practice in their mind's eye! They notice all of their senses that are involved in that moment and anchor them into reality. They create the memory of having already reached their goal. It's like training a muscle. If you don't use it, then it doesn't get stronger. So build that weak muscle and see yourself accomplishing the feat!

Being the center of attention can feel extremely unnatural to a number of people. Being put on the spot to display one's knowledge or skills can also feel terribly uncomfortable and scary. However, the key to overcoming these emotions is to be prepared and recognize that our fears stem, not from a lack of self-worth, but quite the opposite. Our fears are born out of a deep sense of love for the self that wants nothing more than to protect us and keep us safe. Be grateful for it and show compassion for its intent.

Note: This blog was inspired by the wisdom of my dear friend, Karen McIntyre, MSW, LCSW, and Life Management Therapist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.

1. National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, 1997.