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Afraid to Give a Talk in Sacrament Meeting?

Posted by Elise on May 13, 2013

tvvoodoo (

tvvoodoo (

Fear of Public Speaking? Talk Yourself Out of It

Do you dread public speaking? There’s a simple but very effective way to reduce your anxiety. It doesn’t involve any drugs and it works quickly. The secret: An anxiety-reducing form of “self-talk” that makes it much easier to address a crowd without feeling as though you’re going to explode, pass out or throw up from nervousness.

In fact, a new study reveals that this technique works not only for people who simply feel anxious about speaking in public, but also for those with social anxiety disorder, for whom public speaking and other social situations provoke severe distress.

To use this trick to good effect, though, you first need to understand a basic physiological response. What a sweaty-palmed public speaker is feeling is a product of the fight-or-flight response, more technically called sympathetic nervous system activation. It occurs when you are faced with a perceived threat—a stressful situation that demands more coping resources than you perceive yourself to have. Your heart pumps faster, you start sweating, and your mouth goes dry. Your hands get cold as certain blood vessels constrict to keep blood and oxygen from leaving your core, so as to prepare your body for damage. Digestion and other functions take a back seat until the threat has subsided. Many people find these physiological signs of “stress arousal” uncomfortable and upsetting, associating them with fear and poor performance.


The study participants included more than 70 adults, about half of whom had social anxiety disorder. All volunteers answered questions that assessed their levels of anxiety and their perceived coping resources…they also were hooked up to sensors so researchers could measure their physiological responses.

Participants were then subjected to the Trier Social Stress Test, which is designed to induce heart-pounding anxiety. First, they were given three minutes to prepare a five-minute speech about their strengths and weaknesses. Second, they had to present their speeches while “judges” shook their heads, sat stone-faced and/or made other nonverbal signs of disapproval. Third, they had to count backwards by seven, beginning at 996.

Prior to taking the stress test, participants were divided into two groups. The control group received no preparation before speaking. The second group, however, was informed that their physiological response to stressful situations such as public speaking was a natural phenomenon that evolved to “help our ancestors survive by delivering oxygen where it is needed in the body.” In this way, they were encouraged to reinterpret the accompanying bodily signals of stress arousal as beneficial rather than negative. This technique, called reappraisal, is widely used by psychologists to help people with all sorts of psychological challenges.

Results: Compared with participants who were not instructed to reappraise their stress arousal, those who’d been taught to think of the fight-or-flight response as adaptive showed improved reactions to the speech-making and mental arithmetic challenges. For instance, their hearts pumped blood more efficiently, and their blood vessels constricted less, both of which indicated an improved ability to cope with stressors. The reappraisal group also performed better—they displayed less anxiety and their speeches rated better than those of the control group. The benefits of the reappraisal technique applied to participants with and without social anxiety disorder.


Whenever you feel nervous about facing any stressful situation, such as speaking in public, you can help yourself feel better—and do better—by reminding yourself that…

  • Your body’s responses have evolved to help efficiently deliver oxygen and other resources to where they are needed most.
  • Your sweaty palms and racing heart are signs of heightened arousal, an adaptive mechanism that helps you cope.
  • People who experience “good stress” during public speaking tend to give better speeches than relaxed speakers who feel little or no arousal.

Source: Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, University of Rochester, New York. His study was published in Clinical Psychological Science.


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