Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Standing up in front of a crowd of people, delivering a presentation, chairing a discussion or just sharing an idea to a class. Each of these involve putting yourself in the spotlight, opening yourself up to scrutiny from strangers and peers alike. So what is it like for those who suffer from the true phobia of public speaking?
Commonly seen in the younger population, glossophobia can begin for no apparent reason. Some attribute this to the challenges we face in our teenage years, growing up in a critical and formative environment which have a lasting impact on our sense of self worth and value within a group. That perceived value is what drives the fear of public speaking, it informs our decision to put ourselves out there, and how much we believe people want to hear what we have to say. It can be completely debilitating.
Some of the symptoms which they can suffer from are similar to those of other phobias. That includes an increase to blood pressure and profuse sweating, a sense of nausea and intense anxiety which can lead to a panic attack. But notably different to others, their neck, shoulder and upper back muscles can tense up, and take hours to relax to their normal state following the public speaking. Then there is the dry mouth, which is very common among those with glossophobia.
What’s more, there is a link between a fear of public speaking and those who suffer from social anxiety. The reason for this? They are fundamentally the same: a fear rooted in the ways in which we perceive people to be judging us, whether true or not. Therefore, credence can be given to those who draw that parallel, and a moment to reflect on just how hard that must be for those who suffer both.
Dr Russ Morfitt is one of those professionals who comments on the relationship between glossophobia and social anxiety. Notably, his advice is to try to counteract the normal advice, that all too often is cheaply given out, to those with a fear of public speaking. Why? Well he suggests that making yourself “more comfortable” doesn’t support you in the moment, and therefore will simply perpetuate the challenges. Things like over-preparing, where you try to polish the words you will say will cause you to focus on details which will increase your sense of self-awareness and become a barrier to getting past the fear of public speaking. When delivering a talk, the instinctive action to not look directly at the audience, will ultimately create a less engaged experience for both you and them, and therefore feed into that sense of being judged. In the end, the work that can be done to support someone with glossophobia is a little more complex than just throwaway advice.
Bringing it back to the phobia of public speaking, there is another common coping mechanism which sufferers employ at the time of delivering a talk: rushing through it. But what happens there is that the increased speed brings about breathing faster. When we breathe faster, the instinctive response is to increase anxiety, which in turn heightens awareness of the situation that we are in and so sends us back in a spiral. It also means that the quality of what we deliver to the audience is low and stops us being the kind of public speaker we can be.
While glossophobia is certainly one which we feel we can relate to, it does set those of us who are simply nervous or anxious apart from those with the phobia. The depths of those symptoms affects sufferers in such a way that it can affect their ability to succeed in school and the workplace. That means it’s time for us to understand the difference and support those who might just need a little more than others.
Does the content in this article ring true for you? Maybe you’d like to read more about the subject? Fearing public speaking is an article that has an evolutionary take on the condition and how it might affect individuals in different ways.