When I watch someone I care about, who has a fear of public speaking, give a speech, I suffer too.
The fear of public speaking can be a challenging fear to cope with. And not just for the people who suffer from the fear, but also for those of us who are standing in the wings supporting the sufferer.
It’s emotionally draining. It’s mentally taxing.
And it can be uniquely frustrating. Because it is the kind of fear that can be avoided — buried, ignored, forgotten. Avoiding situations where you are forced to speak in public is not particularly difficult. And because of this, when we see a loved one put themselves in a position where they are speaking in public and struggle through the experience, a part of us is proud and another part is thinking: why are you bothering?
Here are seven things to remember if you love someone who suffers anxiety from public speaking.
1. The fear of public speaking is very common
For 30% of Americans, public speaking is their worst fear. Think about that. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans have a significant fear of public speaking. This is a common, everyday fear that many, many people share.
It does not feel the same stigma as other fears because it is so common. It doesn’t get the same attention, despite its prevalence, because avoiding public speaking is relatively easy.
For some sufferers, however, public speaking is something they need to do. Perhaps their job or career requires it. Perhaps they simply cannot let the fear go untamed. Regardless, they meet the challenge head-on. Presenting when you fear public speaking is uncommonly brave.
2. This fear is hardwired deep inside our “Lizard Brain”
The fear of public speaking is a natural, human reaction. It is, in fact, the result of our evolution as a social species.
We fear rejection by the group because being cast out of the tribe in primitive times meant certain death. As a consequence, we are hardwired to seek social acceptance. Standing in front of a group and putting yourself out there threatens that. We all suffer from this fear to a lesser or greater extent.
3. It is not about just needing to relax
Stress and adrenaline are synonyms for physiological arousal, which is actually a good thing. It gets us going. It is needed for peak performance.
Sufferers of public speaking anxiety struggle to control and contain their reactions to this physiological arousal. The major sources or triggers of speech anxiety are:
- Lack of preparation
- The fear of making mistakes
- Concerns about appearance
- Projections about a lack of audience interest, and
- Lack of previous experience public speaking
Taming the anxiety of speaking in public is not really about relaxing. It is about developing coping skills, particularly coping skills targeted at these key triggers.
4. Sufferers are aware that their fear is sometimes irrational
Being aware of how irrational their reactions to public speaking are does not, in and of itself, stop the adrenaline from pumping. Of course, if it was simply a case of realizing that they shouldn’t be nervous or afraid, then millions of people would not suffer from this fear.
Because of this, pointing out the fact that the fear is irrational, or that a sufferer doesn’t need to be afraid, doesn’t help.
5. Sufferers are grateful you care – they are just not interested in your advice
That doesn’t mean that sufferers do not appreciate or benefit from your concern. Compassion, understanding, presence, and support are all hugely helpful. But advice on what to do or how to cope, more often than not, misses the mark.
If you feel a need to be more actively engaged, focus on supporting the sufferer to cope with the key triggers of anxiety, such as a lack of preparation or a lack of practice and experience.
6. The anticipation of speaking can be as bad as the speaking itself
For sufferers of public speaking anxiety, the run-up to the speech itself can be when anxiety levels are at their peak. Sufferers can be at their most vulnerable and most anxious before the public speaking event even starts.
Often, the moments right before a public speaking event are where you can help the most by providing companionship, distractions, or by just being there.
7. Facing the fear is tough – and this is how it is overcome
At the end of the day, giving a speech when you suffer from a fear of public speaking is a particularly brave act. There are steps sufferers can take to learn to cope with the anxiety (adopting the right mindset, preparing well, visualizing success, humanizing the audience). But, ultimately, facing the fear is how the fear is overcome.