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Afraid of public speaking? Your problem may be solved

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It's worse than a shoe-sized tarantula, or our fear of death. Public speaking is the most common phobia in the US.

More than 70 percent of Americans have glossophobia, or a fear of speaking in front of a crowd, but researchers at a university in Western New York may have a solution.

That looming graduation speech or wedding toast may not be the end of the world after all.

A new study from the University of Rochester, published in Clinical Psychological Science Monday, has found a way to help people perform better both mentally and physically when faced with public speaking.

The research shows that learning to rethink our body’s stress signals, and view a pounding heart and sweaty palms as good signs and not omens, can increase performance and ability to cope.

“The problem is that we think all stress is bad,” explains Jeremy Jamieson, lead author on the study.

He says that people interpret feelings of stress before speaking in public, like butterflies in the stomach, as a sign that something bad is about to happen. It is this interpretation that needs to change, says Jamieson.

Stress can help us do well

“People just never stop to think that their body’s responses can be good in these situations,” he says.

“Those feelings just mean that our body is preparing to address a demanding situation. The body is marshaling resources, pumping more blood to our major muscle groups and delivering more oxygen to our brains.”

The body’s response to a stressful social situation is the same fight or flight response that occurs when we are presented with something we perceive as a physical danger.

The physiological changes that triggered by stress are meant to help us perform, whether we’re running from a mugger, swimming in the semifinals of the Olympic games, or yes; giving a speech at our best friend’s wedding.

“So really what you need to change in people is you need to change the appraisal process. We’re going after how people are perceiving their internal stress responses, and if they can use these things as a coping tool, their body is going to respond with much more adaptive types of responses in turn.”

Time to try the rose-colored glasses

Jamieson highlights that our body’s reactions are triggered by our perception of a situation and whether or not we think we can cope with it. If we change the way we think, our body will change the way it responds, he says.

“Our body’s [a] stress system, it doesn’t have eyes and ears and a nose, it doesn’t know what’s going on in the world. The only way it gets information is through the lens of our perception, so when we’re telling it that something out there is very demanding, that we don’t have the resources to cope it’s going to respond with a threat response.”

“But, if we think we do have coping resources to meet the demands of the situation, then our body will respond in kind.”

Jamieson says teaching ourselves to view the body’s stress signals as a coping mechanism allows us to respond to a situation as a challenge, not a threat, and that means we can function at a higher level.

"From changing the body's stress state from this threat state to a more challenge type response, the body's more efficient at delivering oxygen to where it needs to go and this actually helps us to do better."

Additionally, Jamieson says that when the body is not in a ‘threat’ state, we are less likely to notice or focus on negative stimuli.

This means we won’t interpret a yawn from someone in the audience to mean that we are doing a poor job, and we will be more likely to have a positive view of the experience, he says.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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