You’re about to give a talk. You’ve practiced, you think you’re ready, but then…your heart starts to pound, your mouth gets dry and your hands get sweaty, your brain goes blank, and you feel like throwing up. What’s going on? Welcome to the wonderful world of speaker’s anxiety manifested in the famous “Flight or Fight” response.
This is something most of us have felt at some point or another (heck, I still feel it from time to time!). And it’s the topic of this question sent in by Suleman:
Watch the video below for my full answer (You can click here to watch it over on YouTube, or scroll down to read the transcript):
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And I’d love to hear from you – what sort of weird flight-or-fight symptoms do you get? (I get shakey and the tips of my fingers tingle). Share your thoughts with me over on Twitter via @lsergy or over here on Facebook!
Suleman, thanks so much for your very honest and open question. First, I’d like to assure you that there’s nothing wrong with you – you are completely normal. Lots of people, even experienced and highly competent professionals – have this kind of reaction when they speak. What you’re describing is the famous Flight or Fight reaction. This is when your brain perceives a threat, like a marauding tiger – and it goes into survival mode and preps your body to either fight that tiger or flee from it.
This is an unconscious reaction, and what the body does is super interesting. Your breathing gets faster and your heart pounds to send more oxygen and blood rushing through your body. You might get nauseous or feel butterflies in your stomach as your digestion slows to give more energy to your muscles. Your hands might shake and tingle as adrenaline and extra blood goes into your limbs to get you ready to fight. Ever experience tunnel vision when you talk? That’s your pupils dilating and your focus narrowing to you can more clearly see your escape route. One of the most frustrating Flight or Fight responses is when your brain going blank – that’s blood being diverted away from your frontal lobe – the logical thinking area of your brain, and towards the more primitive areas of your brain that will help you physically react without having to think. It’s almost like our brains actually make us dumber right at the time when we most need to be on the ball.
Now why on earth would we get this response when we speak? Well, that’s the caveman in us coming out. Usually when we’re speaking, we’re in front of several other people, fully exposed to them. Even though it might just be a room of your co-workers, your brain sees it as a mob that could potentially harm you. There’s also the reality that speaking involves a lot of social risk – the risk that we get rejected by the audience, that we’ll look foolish, that we’ll be wrong, or embarrass ourselves. An outcast caveman was usually a dead caveman, and our brains will do a lot to prevent us from being rejected by our group. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t terribly smart when it comes to distinguishing between the threat posed by a tiger and the threat posed by an audience. The good news is that there are a couple of steps you can take to help you prep yourself and get some control over that Flight or Fight so that it doesn’t control you.
First, have the first four or five lines of your presentation firmly memorized so that you can get through them even when your brain goes blank. Try to become so familiar with these first few lines that you can repeat them without needing to think.
Second, tap into the power of your breath. When flight or fight kicks in, we take lots of short, panicked breaths high in our chest. You want to do the reverse, taking in long, strong breaths from your diaphragm, right around your solar plexus. Pull in the air through your nose and deep in to that lower part of your lungs. Stop when you feel comfortable – you don’t need or want to tank up with air right to the top of your lungs. Just take enough to feel like you are 3/4rs full.
Doing this slowly is key, so I want you to breathe in for a count of 5, then out for a count of 8. Then in for 5 and out for 8 again, and again. Do this for a minute or so before you get up to speak, and then a couple more times when you are actually standing at the front of the room or at the lectern and are getting ready to speak.
This breathing counteracts the fast, panicked Flight or Fight breathing. It slows down your heart rate and helps lower your blood pressure. The rest of your body…and brain will take this as a cue to calm down. You’ll still feel a little nervous, but you’ll also feel more in control and you’ll be able to keep a clearer head.
If you’d like to know more about the Flight or Fight response when speaking, along with some tips for getting a handle on your own speaker’s jitters, be sure to sign up for my newsletter on this blog. You’ll be sent a download that covers the fear of public speaking along with my favorite tips for managing your nerves when you step up to the microphone.