normal fear vs phobia

Fear of Public Speaking: When Is It More Than Just Nerves?

The fear of public speaking is one of humanity’s most common anxieties. Whether addressing a small group of colleagues or standing before a large audience, the prospect of speaking in public can send shivers down our spine.

Some research from the University of California, Los Angeles, reveals that this fear (often referred to as glossophobia) ranks among the top fears, surpassing even the dread of heights or spiders.

Adrenaline vs incapacitating fear

When we step into the spotlight, we open ourselves up to evaluation, criticism, and the possibility of embarrassment. This is obviously scary, but fear isn’t always our enemy. In fact, it can be a powerful ally.

Unless it’s incapacitating, the right amount of adrenaline is a huge help in keeping us focused and invested in our work.

Where does my fear come from?

Our brains are complex and interpret the world in ways that science doesn’t know enough about, even today. When we talk about emotions, there are two things to consider: the objective phenomena we observe and our internal (and very personal) experiences.

The first refers to things you can actually observe, like your audience playing on their phones while you’re talking. You can also remember a time when you were in the audience, and you listened to others saying bad things about or judging the speaker. These are things that actually happened, and they are scary.

A different thing is your internal experience of the phenomena, which is often even more important and impactful in your fear. How do you interpret what you’re seeing and listening to? How does that make you feel? For example, someone in your audience is laughing. You don’t know why, you can’t be sure, but you think they’re laughing at you, making you feel terrible. That’s the experience that sticks with you, even though they may not have been listening and laughing about something unrelated to you or your presentation.

These internal experiences are, in fact, your biggest issue when it comes to public speaking fear.

Is it a normal reaction, or do I need help?

When does your fear stop being normal and become a real problem? In psychology, several factors must be considered before you decide if the situation is pathological or not. Let’s examine them and reflect on our personal situation.

Quantity — What’s the frequency and intensity of the phenomenon? Does it happen in any communication situation? Does it keep you from doing what’s essential? Do you feel very nervous, or do you feel you can’t breathe and will pass out? For example, having one panic attack in a difficult situation doesn’t mean you have a panic disorder. The same happens with public speaking.

External context — The social space determines the “normality” of the behavior. This means that whether your nervousness is justifiable or not will depend on the context. What are the stakes? What’s the perceived pressure? For example, in most contexts, being extremely nervous when talking to 100 people or more or in a job interview will be considered normal. We are social beings, so we assimilate these untold social rules.

Internal experience — In psychological and emotional issues, we can’t ignore the person’s personal experience. If the situation, no matter how “normal” it seems to others, is responsible for intense suffering, then it’s time to ask for help. That help can mean overcoming the fear of public speaking or better dealing with the anxiety symptoms. In any case, the level of suffering is quite important to determine the “normality” of the issue.

Adaptation — What’s normal, even desirable, may differ from situation to situation. So, this is an important criterion – your ability to adapt to the context and act as expected. Imagine you have a beautiful speech to give in two different situations, one with the board of the company and the other with your direct coworkers. A little anxiety to talk to the board is an adaptive measure that may make you look more formal or professional. You’re not supposed to feel the same way with your coworkers or have the same posture with the coworkers you work with daily. So, the “normal” means that you adapt the behavior to the situation.

It is important to examine these points one by one. Yet, in the end, the big picture matters. It determines whether your anxiety level before a speech or presentation is considered “normal” or whether you should seek specialized help.

Normal vs Phobic Fear: Unraveling the Threads

The line between normal and phobia isn’t always clear-cut. For most people, a touch of nervousness before a presentation is entirely normal. It’s our body’s way of preparing for a challenge. However, when this anxiety spirals out of control, it can become debilitating.

To learn how to deal with your fear and when to ask for help, you must address and understand what you’re feeling. Fear is an internal experience, and you are the most qualified person to determine this line for your own case.

Cátia is a psychologist who is passionate about helping children develop and train social skills.


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