Anxiety about speaking in public is one of the most common fears reported by adults and young adults. While some degree of anxiety is a normal and expected part of public speaking, presenting or otherwise “performing” in public, for many the anxiety is so intense that it interferes with their ability to function.
Symptoms and Effects
There are many ways that social or performance anxiety can limit a person’s activities and interfere with daily life. Individuals who experience bouts of performance anxiety may feel isolated because they avoid certain social gatherings or parties, they may avoid enrolling in certain classes because of course demands for class participation and oral presentations, and/or they may avoid certain jobs or even turn down job opportunities and job promotions because public contact or public speaking will be required.
Symptoms of performance anxiety vary from individual to individual. Almost everyone worries about potential embarrassment, and appearing foolish or stupid to others. When confronting the feared situation, whether it’s a party or a class discussion, most people also experience some of the physical symptoms associated with anxiety. These symptoms include trembling, sweating, clammy hands, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension, blushing, confusion or losing one’s train of thought, gastrointestinal discomfort, shaky voice, and/or dizziness.
The good news is that performance anxiety can be helped. As social, academic, and occupational success increasingly demands the ability to communicate effectively, individuals who experience anxiety do not have to suffer quietly, or worse, avoid situations that they might otherwise enjoy.
Help for performance anxiety sufferers may take different forms depending on the needs and goals of the individual. Almost all interventions however, will share some common features. First, the pattern of avoidance is gradually broken so that the feared situation can be confronted, slowly and systematically. This doesn’t mean that someone who is anxious about public speaking immediately attempts to deliver a lengthy speech. Instead, the exposure to the feared situation occurs in a planned, gradual way. For example, someone who is anxious about speaking in public might begin by asking a brief question in class, and then move on to more challenging tasks, such as making a comment in a group discussion or volunteering to answer a question. Along the way, the individual is coached in methods of handling both the physical and mental or cognitive aspects of anxiety. This may involve using strategies such as stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, imagery, self-talk, and cognitive restructuring.
If you experience public speaking or other forms of performance anxiety and would like to learn more about the ways of getting beyond both the fear and avoidance, consider speaking with a mental health professional. CAPS is staffed with licensed mental health professionals who understand the difficulties associated with anxiety and who will work together with you to help you overcome your fears. These services are confidential and available free-of-charge, on a time-limited basis, to all full time students. If you would like more information on these or other mental health services, call CAPS at 654-1053, Monday through Friday, between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM.
Consider consultation with the UMW Speaking Center at 654-1166 for additional resources and coaching.