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Anxiety Management for Public Speaking

Physical tricks to keep your hand brake on

Have you ever stepped up to speak, whether at a meeting, conference, wedding, or job interview and felt that your body is working against you? Damp or shaking hands? Difficulty in focusing on your notes or the audience? Blushing, feeling a lump in your throat, swallowing, not being able to think clearly?

The human brainstem is incredibly effective at preparing the body for action, unfortunately it’s not always accurate in assessing what action is required. 

Adrenalin gives the body the energy it needs for dealing with conflicts, but too much of it coursing through your system when you’re trying to speak calmly can make hearts hammer and limbs shake. Damp palms grip better to the dry branches our ancestors needed to climb when escaping predators, but aren’t so useful when trying to hold on to a pen. Even our eye’s ability to become long-sighted to focus on danger at a distance can make it very difficult to focus on the notes in our hands.

If the body has this incredible ability to prepare itself for action, why is it that it sometimes gets it so wrong, responding to a mild stress trigger like a job interview as if a tiger had just walked into the room?

The human body has evolved to be the most efficient machine possible, and when it comes to survival, public speaking anxiety is an unfortunate side-effect of that survival hyper-efficiency.

When a trigger is perceived, such as a loud bang, the brain has a trick to speed up its response time. Before taking the time to turn around and assess whether the bang came from a gun or a car backfiring, the brain looks first at the state of the body. If the body is in a relaxed pro-social condition, it’s like having your hand brake, everything feels safe, and the brain decides there is time to assess the trigger’s origin before dumping adrenalin in the system. If however the body is already primed for action in a mobilised state, with the hand brake off, the brain doesn’t waste time double checking the danger, it just gets floors the accelerator all the way to fight or flight.

This short-cut can save vital moments in a genuine survival situation, but if we get up to speak with our hand brake off the side effects can be an overwhelming stress reaction.

Unfortunately it’s very difficult to tell whether our hand brakes are on or off, and trying to put that brake on after your body has floored the accelerator is next to impossible. If your hands have already started sweating, it’s too late.

To avoid the symptoms of flight or flight all our work has to be done in preparation. There are a number of muscular and nerve systems connected to the brain stems hand brake, and exercising them can bump start the body into a highly pro-social state. The systems I’m going to work with here are the striated muscles of the face, the focussing muscles of the eyes, and the breathing system.

(It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling when you do these exercises; if you do them, it will change the state of your mid-brain. You may feel like you’re doing something silly, you may feel nervous, you may feel like you don’t want to do it. Treat it like a work out session: it doesn’t matter if you don’t enjoy it, you will feel better afterwards.)

Facial Muscles

All the muscles of the face are primarily used for communication; when the hand brake comes off, they go dead.

When people are in a fight or flight state, you can see it in their face, they literally lose the ability to smile or respond appropriately.

Start simply, give your face a vigorous rub and massage, then big grins that show the teeth and stretch the face, allow the eyes to get involved, open them wide with the smile. Try to wiggle your ears back and forth. Then alternate between a big wide open face and a screwed up eyes closed, tight lipped face as if you’ve just eaten the sourest lemon imaginable. 

Eye movement

When the hand brake comes off there is a strong tendency for the eyes to become long sighted, to be better equipped to see danger coming from a distance. We only need near sight to focus on the facial expressions of others in a pro-social communicative situation.

Bring the palm of your hand towards your face, about 10 – 15cm away, focus on the lines of your hand, and track them as if you were a palm reader.

Do this with detail, try to focus on exactly where they intersect. Then take your focus to the furthest corner of the room (preferably over 5m away). Focus in detail at that spot, then bring back your focus to the palm of your hand. Repeat this a few times and make sure you’re constantly breathing.

Breathing system

The body breathes in different ways depending on what activity is required. When we are preparing ourselves for action, we tend to keep the stomach muscles tight, forcing the ribcage to expand, and sometimes even raising the shoulders. We also tend to breathe in through the nose rather than the mouth. The time taken for the inhale and the exhale is also about even. When breathing for speech and pro-social behaviour we tend to breathe through the mouth, with a relaxed jaw and shoulders, allowing the stomach muscles to relax so that our diaphragm can descend and the belly can expand slightly on the inhale. If you watch the way babies breathe you will see this stomach movement. Vitally, the exhale is longer than the inhale.

You can focus on a slow exhale of breath through the mouth, until the stomach feels completely empty, with the belly button moved in towards the spine. Then relax the stomach muscles and allow the breath in through the mouth quickly all the way down to the bottom of the belly.

This should be a relaxed process and can be combined with either of the above exercises.

Spending 5 – 10 minutes performing the exercises before your interview or presentation greatly increases the chances of keeping your hand brake on. You will still be aware of the stress triggers, just far more able to stay in control and engage socially, without adrenalin coursing through your body, priming you for fight or flight.

If you or a loved one is in immediate crisis...