The science behind speaking stress

iStock_000011804035_LargeConfronted with the task of speaking in public or delivering an important presentation, many people suffer from nerves that manifest themselves in a number of different ways; dry throat, sweaty palms, shaking knees, flushed skin, breathing difficulties, perhaps even a “frozen in the headlights” glazing over of the eyes. It is also not unusual for the nerves to be translated into an involuntary display of hectic non-verbal signals that tend to make us look afraid and panic-stricken in the eyes of the audience. Although the symptoms vary, their impact invariably sabotages our best efforts to make a good impression and think clearly. Most of us by now are aware that the adrenaline released as part of the fight or flight reaction is to blame for what we feel.

An article published in Psychology Today online provides us with the following information: “The fight-or-flight mechanism is part of the general adaptation syndrome defined in 1936 by Canadian biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal. He published his revolutionary findings in a simple seventy-four line article in in which he defined two types of ‘stress’: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Both eustress and distress release cortisol as part of the general adaption syndrome.”

Whether in response to “good” stress or “bad” stress, cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as part of this mechanism. It is also clear to scientist that fear increases cortisol. With good stress, we experience an invigorating surge of energy to help us rise to the challenge we are facing and cortisol returns to normal upon completion of the task. When we are distressed, or fearful, our body becomes equally mobilized and ready for action. However, unless there is a physical release, cortisol levels build up in the blood and this wreaks havoc on our mind and body. Our own biology – designed to ensure our survival – is playing havoc with us. The elevated cortisol levels – quite apart from many long term negatives such as lower immune function and bone density, increased weight gain and blood pressure etc. – also interfere with learning and memory and affect our ability to think straight.

What this means for us as presenters and speakers is that we have to find out how to channel the energy that is at our disposal in a way that makes us both look and sound good. This process of exploration can be done by attending a training programme or working with a coach. However, there are also things you can do on your own:

Become aware of how cortisol affects you:

a.     Make a list of your symptoms in situations where you feel nervous.

b.    Ask a trusted colleague or friend to describe how they experience you in this kind of stressful scenario.

c.     If possible, try to film yourself in action to see your performance for yourself.

Work out what is going through your mind as your prepare for the presentation or speech or just before you start.  Reflect on the beliefs that accompany you as you get started. Are these positive or empowering beliefs that enable you to shine e.g. Presenting is a great opportunity to inform and impress or negative, limiting beliefs that hold you back e.g. Presenting is a way to embarrass yourself in public.

 Make a list of what you would like to improve or do differently – both internally in how you approach things and physically in how you behave – and set priorities.

Now read our two tips “Positive, powerful ways to channel your energy” and “Conquer your nerves” for more concrete support in achieving your goals.

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