Overcoming Nervousness: How to Control the Physiological Reaction of Fight-or-Flight When Speaking

Overcoming Nervousness

Preparation can help you take flight when speaking in public.

Even the most seasoned business executives get nervous.

Many people get nervous at the prospect of speaking in front of a large audience. They tense up. Some lie awake for nights before dreading the moment when we step in front of the crowd.

For a brand new leader in business, facing the challenges of public speaking for the first time, the nerves might seem overwhelming.

Are Nerves Psychological?

Nerves might seem like a strictly psychological problem, but it doesn’t stop there.

It is commonly known that, when faced with a dangerous or threatening situation, the human body will produce a physiological reaction commonly known as “fight-or-flight.” When one thinks of fight-or-flight scenarios, public speaking is not necessarily what comes to mind—after all, public speaking is not truly “dangerous” in the same way as an encounter with a wild animal, for instance.

Nonetheless, fight-or-flight will kick in when a person perceives a threat. A perceived threat can come in many different forms, and it may simply mean that one feels a lack of control over a given situation. This, as we have probably all experienced at one point or another, is often the case when it comes to public speaking.

In most cases we choose flight when faced with public speaking. It’s easier to walk away from a public speaking situation than it is to walk away from the threat of an animal.

Understanding The Symptoms

When you experience the fight-or-flight response, you are feeling more than simply fear or anxiety. Fight-or-flight involves specific physiological symptoms. In other words, your nerves no longer exist solely in your mind—they begin to manifest themselves in a physical form as well.

Upon perceiving a threat, your body will begin to prepare to, as the name suggests, either fight off the danger, or flee from it.

The accompanying physical reactions, then, include:

  • Accelerated activity in your heart or lungs
  • Either paling or flushing, or alternating between the two
  • The shutting down of all non-essential bodily stems, in order to redirect all available blood to your muscles; this includes, for example, slowing or stopping of your digestive system
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Shaking

These are just some of the many symptoms associated with fight-or-flight. While they may serve you well in certain truly dangerous situations, when it comes to public speaking they can make the experience even more difficult than it already is.

As a business leader, you are good at what you do—you wouldn’t be where you are today if that were not the case. But without a great deal of public speaking experience already under your belt, you may find these fight-or-flight symptoms hitting you especially hard.

The Solution

Public speaking is, of course, essential for making a positive impression on employees, clients and coworkers. As you convey your message to the group, you want to appear confident and in control. You certainly don’t want to appear pale, shaky or out of breath, as none of that that is likely to instill a great deal of confidence in those around you.

The good news is there are steps that you can take to alleviate or eliminate the symptoms of fight-or-flight as you adjust to your new role as an executive and grow more comfortable with public speaking.

Step 1 – Prepare

This might seem obvious, but it really can’t be emphasised enough.

If the fight-or-flight response is prompted in part by a perceived lack of control over a given situation, then the best way to counter that response is to put yourself in a position where you feel as much in control as possible.

The more prepared you are—the more you have practiced your speech, for example—the more likely that you will be confident enough not to be effected by the fight-or-flight symptoms.

Step 2 – Control Your Breathing

when it comes to public speaking, people are, first and foremost, listening to you. That means that one of the most important things you can do to appear calm and in control of the situation is to make sure your voice sounds as calm and in control as possible.

A shaky voice is one of the primary effects of fight-or-flight in public speaking, as activity in your lungs speeds up and your breathing becomes shallower. If you can gain control of this symptom, you will go a long way towards overcoming the dreaded fight-or-flight response.

Of course that’s easier said than done, because keeping your voice and breath steady on the outside when, on the inside, you are overcome with nerves, can be an incredible challenge. So before you even go up to begin speaking, try and focus on gaining and maintaining control of your breath. If, when you step up to speak, your breathing is even and regular, this well help ensure that your heart rate is also under control, and that your voice will be even and controlled when you begin to speak.

A Few Other Tips

A few other simple tips can help relieve the symptoms of fight-or-flight as your work on building up your confidence as a public speaker. For one, try and avoid eating too soon before you speak. Since the fight-or-flight reaction will often shut down your digestive system, you will likely feel a lot better if you don’t have any food in your stomach to begin with.

In addition, if you have a chance to get away briefly—an intermission, a break in the event, etc.—go outside and shake your limbs around a little bit. By shaking out all the extra energy that has built up in your arms and legs, you can beat back the fight-or-flight symptoms.

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