Glossophobia and Me: How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

In this article I share my personal story about overcoming my own fear of public speaking. I tried everything, from therapy (Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT) to yoga to researching different, often extreme, techniques and practicing them in front of audiences like my local Toastmasters group. In doing so I also learned a lot about Glossophobia, which is ‘a fear of public speaking’, including learning what causes it, why it’s so common a fear amongst the general public and, most importantly, how to defeat glossophobia and overcome a fear of public speaking. Here, I share my own story as well as everything I learned. If you suffer from public speaking anxiety, you will not want to miss this!

Read more

I’ll never forget that beautiful 2015 fall afternoon in the Florida Keys. It was sunny, but not hot. There was the calm blue ocean in the backdrop, and a soothing breeze washing over my best friend’s wedding party.

The quartet was playing upbeat but relaxing tunes. Everyone was finding their seats, chatting, giggling, and looking forward to an evening of celebration and fun.

It was also the first time that I was about to experience a panic attack in public.

My friend had bestowed upon me the great honor of being the best man at his wedding. After all, we had been friends for decades, and I was indirectly responsible for him meeting his wife.

Of course, when he had asked me, I was delighted. But shortly after, I had a mildly scary realization – best man job comes with a speech.

I was never good at speaking in public, but I had figured this would be easier. All I had to do was speak from the heart, share some stories, and wish the newly married couple well. How difficult could it be?

Well, there we were, about to get ready for the speeches before the party really got started. I was sweating profusely, and my hands were trembling like I had lost all control over my motor skills.

My heart was pounding, my mouth was dry, and I felt like I was about to blackout. And no, I hadn’t been drinking yet.

I felt overwhelmed by this sheer sense of dread and a gut-wrenching fear of humiliation. I remember thinking to myself that I had no option but to keep it together. Somehow, I was able to stand up and mumble through the words that I had prepared for the speech.

I discovered my fear of public speaking

Honestly, I don’t remember the details of how that speech went, or what I said. All I remember is feeling an enormous sense of relief when it was over. I was drenched in sweat, and I took the first opportunity to rush to the restroom to freshen up.

I wanted to hide from everyone long enough, so they hopefully forgot about the speech and discovered the open bar.

Of course, being the supportive people they are, everyone at the party was kind and encouraging, and some of them even said that I did a great job! But I knew better.

It also got me thinking. What had just happened? Why did I just almost faint in front of a group of friends and acquaintances, all because I had to read a few sentences? Sentences I had written myself.

That question got me started on a journey of self-discovery, and it introduced me to glossophobia, which is the medical term for fear of public speaking.

My glossophobia journey

You’ve most likely heard that public speaking tops the list when it comes to most common fears. Remarkably, more people are afraid of speaking in public than the number of people who report death as their top fear.

I knew that I was uncomfortable about speaking in public. In college, I had to present in front of the class, and it was never pleasant. But I had chalked that up to lack of preparedness and not enough practice.

But this time I had prepared. It’s something I had even looked forward to, the honor of being able to say a few words and celebrate the relationship between my best friend and his wife.

But despite the preparation, and the moment, there was no escape from the fear. In fact, this was the worst one I had ever experienced, a panic attack to the point of almost passing out.

Even more perplexing was the fact that I knew most of the people at the party. I had shared stories with them, we had made each other laugh, and I was always confident and poised during those exchanges. But when it came to speaking to them as a group, with all their eyes on me, waiting for me to deliver a grand speech, my confidence came crashing down.

My best man speech debacle got me wondering what other opportunities I could potentially miss out on due to my fear of public speaking.

What if I was asked to speak at a conference, or present to a board of executives on behalf of my company? If I was so scared to talk in front of a group of people who know me, and for the most part, approve of me, how bad would my fear affect me if I had to speak to people who were actually judging me?

While the best man speech was embarrassing, it wasn’t going to have lasting consequences. But if I messed up that bad in a professional setting, it could have serious ramifications for my career.

At that moment, while I was still trying to regain my composure in the restroom, I made the decision that I would no longer ignore my fear of public speaking. I was going to find out why it affected me so badly, and I promised myself that if there was a way to overcome it, I would do everything in my power to do so.

Here, I’d like to share that story of how I overcame my fear of public speaking.

What is glossophobia?

My quest to get to the bottom of my fear of speaking got me started on the research process. I wanted to find out how other people were experiencing their speaking fears and what the experts had to say about it.

A quick search on Reddit and other forums, and I found that what happened to me, while more on the extreme side, was not that uncommon. People are forced to speak in front of others for a variety of reasons, professional and personal, and many of them find it to be too much to handle.

In fact, around 75 percent of the population has a fear of public speaking, at least to some extent. With the phobia being so widespread, it is no surprise that there is an official medical term for it – glossophobia [1].

But what about the people that seem to thrive when allowed to speak from the podium?

We’re all familiar with the great orators of our times, like Tony Robbins, or President Obama, for example. They create magic with their words, whether it’s to inspire change in our personal lives or in society at large. When they speak, they exude authority, command attention, and people hang on to every single word.

And it’s not just them. You may know people in your life, maybe your boss, or a family member, who are excellent when speaking to an audience, with the right amount of confidence, composure, and enthusiasm.

What is it that makes them different from the rest of us? What is it about their mindset and psychology that makes them actually enjoy communicating with an audience? And more importantly, could I learn to develop that skill set and be equally charismatic when delivering a speech?

Understanding why I experienced glossophobia

When I was a kid, it got to a point where my parents refused to buy me any toys. Because no matter what it was, I would immediately find a way to take it apart. I guess even as a youngster, I was more intrigued by what was happening inside the toy car than being satisfied with the mere fact that I could play with it.

I started thinking about glossophobia in a similar manner. I wanted to know what was triggered inside me before my speech that resulted in uncontrollable trembling, the sweating, and the other symptoms. I wanted to know why it happened and if there was a way to prevent it in the future.

What triggers the physical symptoms of glossophobia?

I found some interesting facts about what happens inside the body that causes the physical symptoms like trembling, sweating, elevated blood pressure, nausea, etc.

According to a blog post published by the Boston University Undergraduate Neuroscience Program, people with a fear of public speaking can experience a severe stress response before or during a speech [1].

The stress response is commonly known as the fight-or-flight mode, and it seems to be responsible for the physical symptoms of glossophobia.

Glossophobia and the “fight-or-flight” response

When you’re confronted with something that you find terrifying, such as physical danger or extreme humiliation, your body reacts physiologically with the fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response [2].

The term “fight-or-flight” refers ro when we lived in actual dangerous environments in the ancestral times. Our predecessors often faced situations where they had to fight or flee real danger to stay alive. The acute stress response prepared their bodies with the necessary tools to either fight or to run away to safety.

Although we live in much safer environments today, and we don’t typically have to run away from bears in the jungle to stay alive, that part of our brain still works in the same way. When we perceive to be in a stressful situation, like giving a speech and risking failure and humiliation, our bodies react with the fight-or-flight response.

Because of severe stress, the body activates a part of the nervous system and releases catecholamines (including adrenaline and noradrenaline), which are stress hormones.

These hormones interact with beta receptors in the heart and cause it to pump blood with greater force. This is why you may experience higher blood pressure, racing heartbeats, trembling, and other symptoms of glossophobia. This is also why many public speakers take beta-blockers to prevent symptoms of glossophobia (more on that later).

If you were actually in a fight, or had to run as fast as possible, the catecholamines would benefit you. But when I was trying to deliver a speech, the overactive cardiovascular system left me standing there, shaking and trembling like something else had taken over my body.

Why do so many people experience glossophobia?

All of this got me wondering, what was it about public speaking that caused so many of us to panic? What is it that we are really afraid of?

I figured if I could get to the root of the issue, then I would have an easier time looking for remedies for my glossophobia.

According to an article written by Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist, one of the factors that contribute to glossophobia is how we view ourselves. It’s often our own subconscious thoughts and beliefs that create the fear that debilitates us in front of an audience [3].

Here are some of the factors that could affect our mindset when it comes to public speaking.

Perceived high stakes

If you imagine that the stakes are high, you’re more likely to be nervous about your speech.

For me, this explained why I never had a panic attack during my college presentations, but I did when it was time for my best man speech.

I didn’t really care that much about the outcome of my classroom speeches. I just wanted to get through them, secure a passing grade, and get back to whatever else I was interested in at the time.

But my best man speech meant a lot to me. For one, I didn’t want to let my friend down, and I perceived anything less than a fantastic speech that moves people to laughter and tears, to be a failure and me not living up to the expectations.

Also, if I didn’t do a great job, it meant that the people closest to me, the people whose approval I was seeking, would think less of me. I would lose credibility, respect, and it would tarnish my image.

Unlike the classroom, where I only cared enough to secure three credits towards my graduation.

Of course, these unrealistic expectations and thoughts existed only in my imagination. None of my friends have ever brought up anything about my debacle of a speech, or treated me any differently since.

The pressure to “perform” for an audience

According to Mr. Tsaousides, we can also sabotage ourselves by thinking of our speech as a performance, instead of talking to a group of people [3].

As I mentioned before, I had already given sort of “mini-speeches” to some of the same people in my audience, literally half an hour before my speech. We had been gathered in small groups around the wedding party, and I was sharing stories of my friendship with the groom, how he met his wife, and a whole lot of other things.

In a way, those were public speaking engagements. I was speaking to a group of people, sharing information, and expressing ideas to inform and entertain them.

But I wasn’t thinking of those interactions as performances. I was just talking to people.

When it came to my actual speech, all of a sudden I thought of it as a performance. I had to make an impact on the audience. I had to move them emotionally, with the right balance between laughter and tugging of the heartstrings.

And if I couldn’t do that, my performance was a failure. By thinking of my speech as a performance, instead of me talking to a larger group of friends, I had put too much pressure on myself.

Negative self-talk

Another factor that contributes to glossophobia is what we tell ourselves, and how we view our ability to speak in public. But it’s not like I was actively telling myself that I’m terrible at giving speeches, it’s more of a subconscious thing.

Since I never really worked at being good at it, I had just accepted that I’m like the vast majority of people that aren’t good at speaking. And I had proof of that from my college experiences with presentations.

So, my operating belief of myself as a public speaker went something like this – I’ve never been good at speaking in front of crowds, I can’t hold my audience’s attention, people aren’t going to enjoy what I say.

All combined, my belief that I was terrible at public speaking, with the perceived high stakes of my best man speech, and the fact that I was thinking of it as a performance, it’s not hard to see why there was so much pressure and stress when it came time for me to deliver the speech.

Again, most of this was happening unconsciously. Left unchecked, our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves can have a significant impact on how we act and behave in life.

The fear of negative judgment

This one ties in with the high stakes. If you think the stakes are high, then you care a lot more about how your audience judges your speech.

And if you already have a negative perception of your public speaking abilities, subconsciously, you’re going to expect that the audience won’t like your speech, even if there is no indication or evidence to support your assumption.

One of the interesting things about glossophobia is that even if you know that if your fear of negative judgment is irrational, you’re still likely to suffer from the symptoms.

For example, I had no rational reason to think anyone in the audience at the wedding party was going to be judging me. I knew it wasn’t about me, we were there to celebrate my friend’s wedding.

But that rational knowledge wasn’t enough to overcome my subconscious beliefs about and expectations about myself, which was that I was going to mess up badly and humiliate myself and that everyone was going to judge me negatively because of it.

Now that I had a better idea of some of the potential thoughts and beliefs that triggered my stress response, the next thing to look for was what made it more likely for me (and others like me) to experience glossophobia. And why other people seemingly had no issues with it.

Was it genetic? Or were there things I could do to retrain myself?

What makes one more likely to experience glossophobia?

Glossophobia is a type of social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, which is the fear of certain social situations [4]. Social phobia can cuase people to avoid parties and going on dates. It can also cause them to experience performance anxiety during tests, interviews, or when performing for an audience.

Interestingly, many people who experience glossophobia are perfectly fine in other social situations like meeting new people at a party, or even when it comes to singing or dancing for an audience. But if they have to deliver a speech, then they lose composure and experience symptoms similar to performance anxiety or stage fright.

This would explain why I was able to have fun and engaging conversations with people at the wedding party, but when I had to deliver a speech for those same people, I couldn’t keep it together.

Glossophobia can also occur only in front of a specific type of audience. As I explained before, when you put too much pressure on yourself to perform, and the stakes are high in your mind, you’re more likely to have stage fright symptoms.

Throughout my research, here are some of the factors that I found that could potentially make you more susceptible to suffer from social anxiety and glossophobia.

Glossophobia may run in the family

According to Boston University’s neuroscience blog, genetics may play a significant role in social anxiety and glossophobia. Like many other phobias, the fear of public speaking, or performance anxiety in general, may run in the family [1]. When people are faced with a situation where they have to perform in a social setting, the fear gene gets activated.

I couldn’t figure out if this was the case for me. I asked my parents if they had a fear of public speaking, but they couldn’t think of a specific instance when they had suffered from any sort of stage fright symptoms.

Nonetheless, I thought I should include genetics as a potential factor since I came across it during my research.

Upbringing may play a role in glossophobia

One potential factor that could make it more likely that you experience glossophobia is your upbringing. If you had overly critical parents or teachers that always demanded perfection, you might do the same to yourself as an adult [5].

Also, if you were bullied as a child, there is evidence to suggest that could also make you susceptible to social anxiety as an adult.

I wasn’t really bullied at school, but my parents did tend to put a lot of pressure on me to do really well in school. Of course, they were only trying to do what they thought was best for me, but I wondered if that added pressure had something to do with my glossophobia as an adult.

Past traumatic experiences may contribute to glossophobia

Glossophobia is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have one bad performance, where you feel humiliated, you might see that as evidence that you’re bad at public speaking, and be more likely to experience glossophobia in the future.

If you’re already in the risk group for having social anxiety, either due to genetics or upbringing, and you add your negative speaking experience, you might suffer from anxiety and stress the next time you have to speak in front of people.

A hyperactive amygdala could be to blame

The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a role in fear, emotion, and behavior.

According to an article published in The Journal of Neuroscience, people who have an overactive amygdala might have an elevated fear response, making them more susceptible to severe social anxiety [6][7].

The work begins to overcome glossophobia

At this point in my journey, I had found some of the potential reasons that could contribute to my glossophobia, but I hadn’t been able to pinpoint one specific thing that would clearly explain my fear of public speaking.

Yes, I had high expectations from my parents, but from what I gather, most people do. I had a couple of embarrassing moments in front of audiences as a teen, but again, nothing out of the unusual.

I figured that what could be the biggest reason for my glossophobia is my overall insecurity and the need for approval from my friends and colleagues. And when that was at stake, or at least I perceived it to be at stake, my anxiety and stress response kicked into high gear.

Or, it could be that I had the genetic factor or the hyperactive amygdala, or both.

Whatever the reasons might have been, I knew that I still had to overcome glossophobia. And it was time to act.

I set a public speaking goal for myself

I had to set a public speaking goal for myself for a few reasons.

For one, if I committed to a speaking engagement, I wouldn’t have a choice but to overcome some of my fear of public speaking. And I wanted it to be something of consequence so that quitting along my journey would no longer be an option.

Also, I wanted to know that I had made progress, and the validation of the remedies I was about to try would boost my confidence. The confidence not only in the solutions, but also in myself, which would then further benefit me in public speaking, and possibly in my career.

I decided that I wanted to present on behalf of my company’s regional team at our annual conference, which was still a few months away at that point. My boss was more than willing to let me take that responsibility because my team’s numbers were always among the top, and also because nobody typically volunteered for it.

He knew I was a good sales manager, but thankfully, he had no clue about my public speaking skills. I knew this would be a good (and risky) test for me because if I performed as I did with my best man’s speech, it would harm my credibility and my career.

What I did to overcome glossophobia

My Internet research helped me learn quite a bit. It gave me more clarity on how glossophobia works, and why people experience it.

But it was now time to visit a professional. I needed someone to evaluate me, get to the bottom of what was at the root of my anxiety, and recommend steps to overcome my fear of public speaking.

So, I made an appointment with a clinical therapist.

It was the first time in my life I had gone in for a therapy session, and to be honest, I was a little intimidated. It’s one thing to let a doctor check my physical health, but to let someone into my thoughts, fears, and insecurities seemed quite a bit scarier.

Thankfully, my therapist was about as kind and calming as one can be, and she was able to put me to ease rather quickly.

Then came a series of questions on a variety of topics. She asked me how I felt during the speech, about my background, family history, childhood events, and even about my physical health.

After a thorough evaluation, she recommended that I book a few behavioral therapy sessions. She also told me that I should start doing yoga and breathing exercises to improve how I respond to stress.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) works like this – your therapist works with you to take a big idea you find overwhelming and stressful, like public speaking, and they help you break it down into smaller pieces.

Then they explore your thoughts and beliefs around those smaller parts to identify negative patterns and replace them with more positive and constructive ones.

For me, it turned out, my biggest fear was that I wasn’t well prepared, and that people would be disappointed in my speech. And that it would result in disapproval of me as a person, not just my speech, which could then lead me losing friends.

In other words, I unconsciously feared that speaking in public could lead to loneliness.

My therapist gave me mental exercises to overcome those negative thought patterns. Research has shown that CBT, if one sticks with it, can be an effective long-term solution to social phobias like glossophobia [8].

Yoga and breathing exercises

My therapist had also recommended that I start doing yoga and breathing exercises.

Yoga improves something known as the heart rate variability (HRT), which is a measure of the difference in time between consecutive heartbeats. It is also a measure of how well one handles stress. By improving my HRT, I could improve my body’s ability to react to stress. So, even if I was stressed about speaking for an audience, my symptoms of glossophobia wouldn’t be as severe [9].

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is used in many mindfulness practices, like mediation. It is more of an immediate fix. Deep breaths into the stomach deactivate the fight-or-flight mode and restore regular nervous system activity [10].

A regular breathing exercise practice would also promote an overall sense of calmness and relaxation, which would then carry over when I had to present in front of people.

Toastmasters to practice public speaking

All the therapy and yoga classes felt like they were really helping. But to gain confidence in any skill, one has to actually practice it. Public speaking is no different.

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs.

I found a local meet-up in Chicago, where I was living at the time, and started going each week.

The people running the meet-up, as well as the participants, were extremely welcoming. They had all been where I was, and it felt good to be in such a supportive environment. I also had the opportunity to say a few words each time to get some “reps” in. But there was never any pressure.

Beta-blockers for glossophobia?

One thing I tried a few times was a beta-blocker, which is a type of pharmaceutical. The most common prescription beta blockers are propranolol and metoprolol. They block the effect of adrenaline and prevent the physical symptoms of glossophobia [11]. In fact, the use of beta-blockers is prevalent among performers who suffer from stage fright.

But I stopped quickly. I realized beta-blockers were only a crutch, and becoming reliant on them would actually hurt my chances of really overcoming glossophobia. Besides, if I couldn’t get over the fear of talking to the friendliest group of people at a Toastmasters meetup without medications, I stood no chance of succeeding at my presentation in front of hundreds of people at the conference.

Fear setting to overcome glossophobia

Fear-setting is the opposite of positive thinking. Instead of visualizing success, you imagine the worst possible outcome in great detail.

Made popular by Tim Ferris in his famous TED Talk, fear-setting is a technique rooted in the ancient philosophy of stoicism. Tim Ferris calls stoicism “an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments, and making better decisions.”

Fear-setting works like this – you take something you want to do (like representing your team at the annual conference), and you make a list of the worst possible outcomes.

Then you make a list of all the things you can do to avoid the worst possible outcome. You also make a list of all the things you can do to recover if the worst did happen.

For me, the worst possible outcome was that I would humiliate myself, my team, and my boss and that I would get fired.

What could I do to avoid such an outcome? Well, I could keep practicing speeches at toastmasters. I could thoroughly prepare for my presentation. I could practice my presentation in front of my team. I could keep doing yoga and CBT sessions with my therapist.

And if worst did happen, I had enough savings to last me a while. And I had enough of a track record as a sales manager that I could find another job pretty quickly.

I found fear-setting to be particularly helpful. It helped me accept the worst possibilities, which then emotionally freed me up to focus on the things I could control. It allowed me to focus on my preparation, instead of the audience reaction, which I couldn’t control.

For detailed instructions, including worksheets, check out our in-depth guide on fear-setting.

The result – how did I do in my conference presentation?

After months of work, it was finally time to put all remedies to the test. Did they really have an effect?

I had been improving at my Toastmasters meet-up mini-speeches, but those weren’t really actual measures of progress as far as I was concerned. The stakes were pretty low, and it was a non-judgmental environment by design.

But now, it was for real. People expected to learn something from my presentation. They wanted value, and they were definitely going to judge me. And the stakes were relatively high. Unlike my best friend, my boss could actually fire me.

As I got ready to get up on stage, I could feel my heart rate going up. Palms slightly sweaty. But I wasn’t trembling like I was before my best man speech.

And before it got to the trembling phase, I started taking some deep belly breaths. Long breaths into my stomach, and slowly let it out. I immediately felt a sense of calm rush over me.

And then I thought back to my fear-setting exercise. In the unlikely worst-case scenario, if I got fired for humiliating my entire team, I had enough savings to last me a while. I also had an impressive track record as a sales manager that would land me another job without too many issues. Of course, an extended beach vacation would be nice also.

As I felt myself calming down, it was time to go on stage. As I walked on, I could feel the butterflies in the stomach again. More deep breaths. Then I was able to switch my focus on the presentation, and I felt a sense of reassurance when I remembered that I actually knew what I was talking about, and had no real reasons to feel nervous or to think I would be judged negatively.

A supplement like PerformZen would have been beneficial

I made it through my presentation relatively well. I did a good enough job, and I didn’t embarrass myself. It was a significant improvement over my best man speech, and just like I had hoped, it provided me a much-needed confidence boost.

But it wasn’t perfect. There were times when I could feel my voice fumbling, and I would lose my chain of thought. It would be a few moments of awkward silence as I re-gathered my composure to keep moving through the presentation.

And that’s when a supplement like PerformZen would have been beneficial.

PerformZen is a natural supplement designed to help public speakers overcome glossophobia symptoms, and maintain their composure and mental focus when they have to deliver a speech under pressure.

PerformZen works by boosting GABA, which is a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness [12]. It also contains magnesium and vitamin B6, which combine together to improve cognitive performance [13].

Additionally, PerformZen contains L-theanine, theacrine, and Ginkgo Biloba, which are natural ingredients that promote calmness and provide a boost in clean energy.

If I had access to PerformZen, I would’ve been able to avoid the jitters and the brain-freezes during my presentation.

I’m happy to say I’m a much better public speaker today, but I still take PerformZen to give me that extra cognitive edge every time I go on stage.

Perform Better Under Pressure. Every Time.

Performance Anxiety is common before a big event or performance. For some of us, the stakes are extremely high and we have to perform at our absolute best! PerformZen was created for you; the high level performer who wants to stay focused & creative while delivering the best performance of your life, without the crippling anxiety & nerves. 100% natural and with none of the side-effects of beta blockers. Try PerformZen today:

If I can overcome glossophobia, so can you

So, there you have it – my story of how I was able to overcome glossophobia. And my journey continues. Although I’ve come a long way since that embarrassing day on the beach in the Florida Keys, I still have a lot of room for improvement. And I continue to work at overcoming social anxiety and becoming a better speaker.

And if I was able to do it, so can you.

If you suffer from glossophobia, you can follow a similar blueprint as mine. Your specific causes for glossophobia may be different, as well as the best solutions.

But you can consult a therapist to see what plan of treatment they recommend for you.

A lot of people with social anxiety and glossophobia benefit from tools like CBT, yoga, and fear-setting. Chances are, if you combine all of them, along with practicing giving speeches, you’re going to see results as well.

And the next time you get on stage to deliver a speech, consider giving PerformZen a try to provide you with an extra boost in calmness and cognitive performance.


Agnit is a performance expert and the lead writer for PerformZen. As an avid health and fitness enthusiast, he is passionate about helping people take control of their health to live happier, more productive lives. Someday, he plans to listen to his own advice and drink less coffee.

Related Posts