Do you sweat, tremble, shake or freeze when you have to speak in public? By now, you probably know you are not alone, but you still may wonder why did this happen to me and how I can make it stop! Some may trace their fear back to their childhood, while others don’t have a clue. But there are specific physical symptoms that can make public speaking REALLY difficult. Some are heart racing, shortness of breath, red face, and dry mouth. For others, it’s even worse. Their body freezes at even the thought of presenting or answering impromptu questions, and they may actually have difficulty speaking at all. Well, I’m here to tell you if this is you, there is hope.

Part of overcoming these stressful responses to public speaking includes understanding why these things happen. In essence, our nervous system attempts to keep us safe when we are afraid. Polyvagal theory (Stephen Porges) describes that our nervous system has a tiered system that enables us to respond appropriately to safe or threatening situations. This hierarchy includes three levels of response: 1) social engagement, known as rest-and-digest, 2) mobilization or fight-and-flight, and 3) immobilization, or freeze.

Let’s consider an impala living on the Serengeti. We have more in common with impalas than you may think! The impala grazes and interacts with other impalas in a relaxed state on the plains. We may joke around and share moments causally with colleagues and friends in a similar relaxed state. Now enter a lion, zeroing in on the impala, and a chase is on. This may be entering a situation where we are speaking on the spot or in front of others. DANGER. The impala immediately mobilizes energy, enters the sympathetic aroused fight or flight state, and runs for its life. When we step into the spotlight, we may want to run too! And we may feel our heart racing, have shallow rapid breathing and feel our muscles tense, ready to run! These can be uncomfortable feelings when preparing to give a speech. Of course, we usually override our nervous system and make ourselves stay put rather than actually sprinting out of the conference room.

So what happens next? If the impala can’t get away from the lion, its nervous system enters into a different state. It freezes or “plays dead.” The lion will hopefully lose interest, and the impala can escape. But for us too, when fight or flight doesn’t get us to a feeling of safety, our body may move into the next level of safety-seeking—and that’s shutdown! This can feel awful, like tunnel vision, a feeling of muteness, feeling frozen, and having difficulty speaking and moving freely. These reactions can make public speaking VERY difficult indeed!

So, how can we be more in our social engagement state and less in our fight, flight, or freeze states when we are presenting?

First, our nervous system needs to be foundationally calm in the bigger picture of our lives outside of Toastmasters. We have to take steps to keep stress levels manageable (and ideally low!). Practices like Qi Gong, yoga, meditation practices, and exercise are excellent. It is also essential to have “play” activities, do things we enjoy regularly, and allow space and time when we aren’t always so busy. The more we can get the “good hormones” going through our bodies: oxytocin, endorphins, etc.- and have less adrenaline and norepinephrine, the less easily we will be triggered into the activated nervous system states.

But what if we are in a public speaking situation, and here we are again, with our nervous systems triggered into fight, flight, or shut down? How do we shift more towards social engagement AND FAST? Here are a few ideas to try:

  1. Breathing: There are several strategies to employ with breathing. For one, take some long deep breaths into your belly while ensuring your exhalation is longer than your inhalation. This activates your vagus nerve and the rest-and-digest system.
  2. Mammalian Dive Reflex: This is a set of reflexes, including slowing heart rate, that is activated when our face hits cold water. While more difficult in in-person speaking scenarios, this strategy is much easier to use now that many meetings are on Zoom. Hold your breath and place your face in a bowl of cold water, or hold a cold pack on your eyes and cheeks for 30 seconds. You should quickly feel calmer and more relaxed.
  3. Intense Exercise: Do intense exercises like jumping jacks or burpees, or try running around the yard. This allows you to off-gas the body’s fight or flight energy.
  4. Paired muscle relaxation: This can be done more surreptitiously. Taut your body muscles in sequence, starting with your face and moving down to the neck, upper arms, lower arms, hands, sides, abdomen, and down your legs. Tense the muscles while breathing in, and say to yourself the word “relax” in your mind as you breathe out and let go of the tension.

Getting used to working with a dysregulated nervous system can be a process. The more we practice these methods outside of the Toastmasters meeting (or work meeting, pitch, etc.), the more we can employ them when we need them. Please try out these ideas, and feel free to comment below with feedback!

Written by: Analisa Baker – District 101 – VPE-Santa Cruz Orators – Club # 7481