Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Glossophobia, or Why I Have Problems Speaking in Front of People

I am terrified of speaking in front of people. Coincidentally, I also HAVE to take a public speaking class for my degree. It's not optional. I literally HAVE to take and pass this class. So far, we've given a 45-second introduction on another classmate, and a two-minute speech on what we would take with us off of a sinking ship if we knew we were going to be stranded on a deserted island. I bluffed my way through the first one, and stuttered through the second, forgetting half of my explanations for why I would bring what I would bring.

This week is my first graded speech, so obviously I am not breathing. I spent the whole weekend researching and writing, only stopping long enough to go have coffee with a classmate. Instead of summarizing the whole thing, I'm just going to post it here for you. Keep in mind I only had one week to complete it. Everything is put into my own words and I've tried to cite any necessary sources verbally. It had to be five minutes long, but if you have any interest in the subject of glossophobia or speech anxiety, you might find it interesting.

Without further ado . . .

When I was in 7th grade I was given an assignment by my favorite English teacher – to give a speech about racism. Growing up in a small town, racism was everywhere from my school cafeteria to my church on Sundays. The number one thing I heard was the debate over why we had Martin Luther King Day off. I formulated an idea that I called “Great American Men in History Day”, wrote a riveting 3 minute speech on the topic, printed out pictures of who I felt were great American men in history, and practiced my speech instead of my music. Finally the day of the speech came. I curled my hair, wore an outfit that my modeling instructor had praised me for, and thought I was ready to go. That is, until I got to the podium. My hands were shaking, my voice refused to project and instead came out raspy and crackling, and I completely forgot my visual aids. I even got points taken off of my speech because of my physical reaction. To this day I am still terrified to speak in front of people, a condition known as glossophobia. I have now spent over 14 hours researching this phobia, and today I am going to tell you what glossophobia is, how it affects us physically, and give you some steps to overcome it.

Let’s start with the definition of glossophobia. Put in its simplest terms, it is the fear of public speaking. The name comes from the Greek word “glossa” meaning tongue, and “phobos” meaning phobia. It is also commonly referred to as speech anxiety. According to Dr. Dan J. Stein, the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cape Town, in his 2011 paper titled “Subtyping Social Anxiety Disorder in Developed and Developing Countries”, about 22% of the world population suffers from a fear of speaking or performing in front of other people. After thoroughly searching through every journal, article, and blog post I could find one thing is for certain – no one yet understands the underlying cause of glossophobia. It is thought to come from traumatic childhood speaking experiences like the one I’ve shared with you. Other possible causes are low self-esteem, expectation of failure, an illusion of transparency – where a speaker feels that their audience can see exactly how he or she is feeling, and the spotlight effect – where the speaker feels like everyone in the audience is paying more attention to their shortcomings or even a spot on her tshirt than they actually are.

Now let’s take a look at how glossophobia affects you. We all know the outward symptoms – your hands are shaky, your breathing is shallow, you feel like your heart is going to beat right out of your chest, and your throat feels like there’s a golf ball lodged in it. You may even become dizzy. These are all physiological responses to your sympathetic nervous system dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream. The sympathetic nervous system – what you might know as your fight-or-flight response – is programmed to detect danger in our everyday lives. In public speaking, there is no real danger – at least not the type that we are biologically hardwired to avoid, such as the threat of injury or death – but there is the threat of embarrassment and failure. Your brain subconsciously detects this threat and prepares your body to run away from the threat. This results in the outward symptoms that plague so many of us when we walk up to the podium. A second theory exists, championed by Dr Jeffrey Gray of the Institute for Psychology in London, that a feature of the human brain called the comparator quote “detects conflict between an organisms goals and current environmental conditions” end quote. In other words, this feature detects if there are likely to be negative consequences to our actions. If the possibility exists, then the comparator switches on what Dr Gray refers to as the behavior inhibition system which will then shut down motor function. This is why we sometimes become tongue tied, have a feeling of being frozen on the spot, or even unable to speak. In both cases, continued exposure to the threat without negative repercussions does cause the physiological response to lessen – basically, the more you speak in front of people the more your brain calms down.

Now that you know what glossophobia is, and how it affects you physically, let’s look at some ways to overcome it. In an article titled “How Can I Overcome My Fear of Public Speaking?” Dr. Daniel Hall-Flavin, a psychiatrist from Rochester Minnesota, suggests that knowing your topic inside and out, being organized, practicing until you’re tired of hearing your own voice, visualizing success for yourself, and doing some deep breathing exercises can help abate your speech anxiety. A study produced by Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, suggests that channeling your anxiety into excitement can help improve your performance. Telling yourself out loud “I am excited!” or even writing “get excited” on the top of your speaker’s outline can trigger an excited physiological reaction.

In conclusion, glossophobia – also known as speech anxiety - affects about 22% of the world’s population. The exact causes of the phobia are unknown, but are thought to be a traumatic childhood experience, low self-esteem, or illusions of transparency and the spotlight effect. Our nervous reactions are caused by our sympathetic nervous system, and possibly a feature in our brain called the comparator, both of which can halt our physical actions in the case of a perceived threat. Ways to overcome glossophobia are by knowing our material, practicing, visualizing ourselves succeeding, deep breathing exercises, and channeling our anxiety into excitement. Anyone can become a great public speaker, and while anxiety is a normal and healthy part of our everyday lives, it does not have to rule them.

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