How I Overcame A Fear of Public Speaking Despite Having Social Anxiety

According to studies, over 40% of Americans say they have a fear of public speaking and the only fear more common was snakes! Fear of public speaking, or the medical term glossophobia, is extremely common in humans and has primal routes in our psychology. I recently had a battle with speech anxiety, and I wanted to understand it as best I could and, if possible, overcome it so I could be confident in social situations and during presentations despite my social anxiety. I share the journey in this article.

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When you start a job at a remote software startup, a clear job description may be hard to come by. In these businesses, the team is small and everyone does a little bit of everything.

If I had been given a job description, and if it had mentioned public speaking as one of the things I’d end up doing, I’m not sure I would have said yes to the job.

Yet by this time, I’d been in the job for a couple of years, and I’d come too far to give in to fear and say no. Which is how I found myself preparing for a public speaking gig.

Worst of all, the gig would be immortalized for people to watch online, until the end of time (or at least, the end of YouTube).

While no doubt testing, I’m glad I was presented with this challenge, because it forced me to look more into my fear of public speaking. It turns out I’m not alone – I would come to find out that it’s a serious fear for anywhere between 40-75% of people in the world [1].

Here’s my story of encountering speech anxiety (also known as glossophobia) in my job, and what I learned in my search to overcome it.

How I learned about glossophobia

Glossophobia is the scientific term for it. It’s also called speech anxiety, or just fear of public speaking.

It turns out a lot of people suffer from this phobia. One study found 40% of Americans say they have a fear of public speaking. The only fear more common was snakes [1]. Another says that 75% of people in the world struggle with it at some point in their lives [2].

Pretty serious.

This is something I had to come to terms with as the marketing lead for a small software startup. For some time, I didn’t have to worry about public speaking at all (and didn’t think I’d ever have to). The job was mostly sitting in front of a laptop, writing articles – perfect for someone with moderate social anxiety like me.

But as the company grew, my responsibilities would as well. Eventually, this would come to include presenting on live streams and podcasts with other companies in our industry, to promote our business.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like something that would spark my fear of public speaking. I would only be speaking into a webcam, there wasn’t actually a physical audience in front of me.

But in a way, it’s worse than doing a presentation in person. You have no idea how many people happen to be tuning in and watching. It could be an audience of thousands.

The thought of it gave me the same tremors as the thought of speaking in front of a packed audience. Even worse, perhaps – after all, if I messed up or made a fool of myself, I could always watch it over and over again on YouTube.

There would seem to be a few choices in front of me. Delegate the presentation to someone else? Not an option, unfortunately. See, as well as being the head of the marketing department, I was the marketing department. A team of one.

Could I tell my boss (who happens to also be a good friend of mine), that I couldn’t do it? Not an option either. First, because I’m stubborn. Second, because it would severely limit how much the business – and as an extension, my career – could grow.

So the only choice left was to learn about glossophobia, deconstruct it, and figure out a solution so that social anxiety and a fear of public speaking wasn’t going to stop me from advancing professionally.

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My history of public speaking anxiety and performance anxiety

I’m not sure when exactly public speaking anxiety became relevant in my life. Looking back, it’s something I’ve always struggled with.

I look back to giving speeches in class back when I was in school. The fear I felt, and the feeling of stammering through my speech in an unnatural start-stop rhythm.

I've suffered from speech anxiety since high school

It wasn’t just speaking either. Any performance in front of a crowd has always been nerve-wracking. I remember having to get up and play the trumpet for about 5-10 minutes during our band’s “24 Hour Musicathon” in high school. I remember seizing up in terror, despite it being 2am and the crowd consisting of fewer than 10 people in a small room. In the end, I didn’t go up.

There’s something about being the center of attention, whether it’s a musical performance or a public speaking gig. My mind tells me I’m going to mess up. My body tells me “stop – this is dangerous“.

I also experience general social anxiety in many other everyday settings, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’d be scared of getting up in front of a crowd as well. But while you can dance around general social anxiety – sticking to going places or being around people you’re familiar with and comfortable with – it’s harder to avoid when it starts to affect you professionally.

The symptoms of my fear of public speaking

The worst part of a phobia, like glossophobia, are the physical symptoms that accompany it.

Being afraid of getting up to speak or perform in front of people is one thing. But it’s certain symptoms that can render me, as well as others who experience the same fear, basically incapable of doing anything at all.

For me personally, I usually get some or all of these symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Brain fog
  • Dry mouth

From what I’ve read, nausea, vomiting, trembling and muscle tension are also common symptoms for people with speech anxiety.

You can see why these symptoms present a big problem. It’s incredibly hard to make it through a speech or presentation when your heart rate is up, you’re sweating, and you’re trying to get the words out through a dry mouth while hyperventilating.

Almost as bad is that my brain tends to exit the picture, and I get brain fog or mental block that makes it difficult to think straight. Not ideal when you have the possibility of someone asking you questions, which need an instant response.

The science behind the symptoms

I wanted to figure out just why these symptoms occur, so I could start going about finding a solution.

My research brought me to the subject of hormones, and something called the “fight or flight” response.

Anxiety symptoms originally come from our fight or flight response

The fight or flight response is a natural reaction from the body, intended to protect us from danger. It’s a survival mechanism – long ago, when faced with danger, such as the presence of predators, our body kicked the fight or flight response into gear to help us fight for our lives, or escape the situation [3].

Today, most of us don’t have to worry about lions or tigers sneaking up and eating us while we sleep. But the biological process is still there, and can be triggered by particularly stressful events, including public speaking.

During the fight or flight response, the body increases the production and release of the hormone epinephrine – also commonly known as adrenaline.

Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster, increasing blood pressure. This serves the purpose of delivering oxygen and nutrients to different areas of the body, helping you run faster, jump higher, or making you stronger in a fight.

Most of the physical symptoms mentioned earlier appear to be linked to the fight or flight response, and the spike of adrenaline that comes with it.

My toolbox for dealing with speech anxiety

There are two ways I saw to deal with my fears, so I wouldn’t have to admit defeat. I could address the underlying reasons I had suffered from speech anxiety for so long, or for a short-term solution, I could come up with some techniques to manage my speech anxiety when needed.

Of course, addressing the underlying cause would be best in the long run. But there was the matter of an upcoming presentation in less than a week. I don’t think I had the time to rewire my brain before the first scheduled presentation.

So I looked into what others do to manage speech anxiety – after all, with as many people suffering from this phobia, there would have to be a large number who, like me, were forced to face their fears as part of their job.

What I came up with was a set of tools to use in preparation for a speech or presentation, to help me relax, manage my fear and anxiety, and lessen the symptoms that made it hard to speak clearly and confidently.

Here’s what I added to my toolbox:

Meditation

I’ve dabbled in meditation in the past, so when I found information about how meditation may help treat stress and anxiety, I figured this would be a good place to start.

One study I found put together the results of 47 trials, featuring over 3500 participants, on the efficacy of mindfulness meditation on various mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and stress [4].

The results showed evidence that meditation improved anxiety symptoms in the test subjects. So it looked promising that regular meditation would also help with my speech anxiety.

An article from Harvard University recommends mindfulness meditation [5]. This is a style of meditation that concentrates on helping you be more present, as opposed to wrapped up in thoughts and worries.

Meditation Steps for Anxiety

You essentially just sit down for a period of time, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breath, and anything else picked up by the physical senses. When the mind starts to wander, and you start thinking about something that happened in the past or something that may happen in the future, you gently bring the attention back to the present.

This is perfect for speech anxiety, because it appears to be largely rooted in past events and worrying about the future. Through mindfulness, you practice keeping the attention on the here and now, which should reduce the stress you feel from an upcoming speech or performance.

In short, mindfulness meditation looked promising to me. I decided I would make an effort to spend 5-10 minutes each day practicing mindfulness in the lead up to a presentation.

Deep breathing

I also came across the practice of deep breathing, which is said to have the potential to reduce tension and stress.

The best thing is that a breathing exercise is easy to do, and takes just a short time. It sounded like a great way to calm down if I have a few minutes to spare before a presentation.

The particular breathing exercise I found in my research was deep breathing – also referred to as “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing”. It involves taking a number of slow, deep breaths, pulling the breath deep into the belly.

Usually, when we breathe without thinking about it, these breaths are shallow. You’ll notice the chest expands when you take a breath. With deep breathing, you take deeper breaths, causing the belly to expand and contract, rather than the chest.

Deep Breathing Steps for Anxiety

It really is simple to do. Just find a relaxed position, sitting or lying down, with one hand on your belly, one on your chest.

Breath deeply through your nose, pulling the breath down to the belly. If done right, you should feel the hand on your belly rising, while the other hand doesn’t move.

Finish by slowly breathing out, feeling the belly contract to its regular position.

Studies show that this breathing technique is effective at lowering stress hormone levels, and potentially even deactivating the heightened stress response that is the cause of many speech anxiety symptoms [6].

From all the evidence, as well as what I felt when I tried it myself, a simple 5 minute deep breathing session looked like it would be helpful in lowering my stress and anxiety before a speech.

Speech Anxiety Supplements

I also looked into supplements that could help deal with my symptoms. I came up with a few promising options.

One is GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid in full, this is a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the nervous system. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it works by slowing the effects of other particles in the brain, particularly those that make us over excited or anxious.

A number of scientific papers show that low GABA plays a significant role in anxiety disorders. It’s believed that people with anxiety disorders may suffer from a GABA deficiency, and evidence shows that GABA supplementation may help relieve symptoms of these disorders [7][8].

GABA is widely available in supplement form. There are also other supplements, most notably L-theanine, which are believed to increase levels of GABA in the brain [9].

L-theanine is another widely available supplement, and is also present in green, black and oolong teas, as well as some types of mushroom.

I also found some research about magnesium that sparked my interest. I was already somewhat aware of magnesium as a very beneficial nutrient. I try to eat a lot of avocado, banana and spinach, in part because they are all good sources of magnesium.

What I was not aware of was the benefits of magnesium for anxiety disorders. Clinical studies have shown there may be a link between magnesium deficiency and pathological anxiety [10], as well as positive signs for magnesium supplementation as a treatment for stress and anxiety [11].

So, it seemed to me that instead of eating the odd banana or avocado salad, supplementing with magnesium could do big things for my anxiety troubles.

PerformZen

It actually wasn’t until after I’d taken steps to address my fears (as well as getting through a few presentations), that I learned about PerformZen Calm Performance Formula.

When I did, it was a bit of an “aha” moment. It turns out this supplement addresses just about everything I learned about speech anxiety, and even includes some of the things I had started supplementing individually!

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The ingredients of PerformZen include GABA, L-theanine and magnesium, all of which I felt positive effects when taking before a presentation.

Alongside these ingredients, it has ginkgo biloba, which also helps lower stress levels, vitamin B6, which has a synergistic effect with magnesium, and theacrine, for mental clarity. See the full list of PerformZen ingredients here.

Reading about PerformZen and how it works, I realized how it could help me. Not only do the ingredients help lower stress and produce a calming effect, they almost all have the added effect of increased mental clarity – helping clear the brain fog that gets in my way during particularly bad bouts of speech anxiety.

The Results: Overcoming My Public Speaking Anxiety

I approached the first presentation using a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and supplementing GABA, L-theanine and magnesium. I remember that this presentation was not perfect, but I made it through. I even watched the replay, and by my overly critical standards of myself, I did alright.

I continued with this plan for two more presentations, and while I still felt a few nerves and jitters, I did not – as I had feared – mess up terribly in front of the entire internet.

In the future, I expect I will continue to improve as I get more practice and grow more comfortable as a speaker. I’m also glad I found PerformZen, as this looks like the perfect thing to provide the calming effect and cognitive boost I need before a presentation.


Eric is a performance expert and a member of the PerformZen team since it was founded. Eric has battled anxiety his entire life and he is passionate about helping people gain control over the things that they fear most, with anxiety being at the top of that list for many!

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