Confession: Like most people—a full 90 percent, according to Forbes—I do not find public speaking fun. Like, at all. As a reporter, I can interview people one-on-one with no jitters at all. But as soon as I’m asked to speak to a room full of people, I start sweating. (Like, a lot.)
I’ve been dealing with this most of my professional life, which is definitely an issue, since speaking in front of people is a relatively regular part of my job. So when my boss asked me to host an event last month, I attempted to deal with my impending fear by reaching for an advanced copy of a book I was recently sent: You Got This by Caroline Foran. (Out in April 2020.)
The intel that changed everything
Like me, Foran is terrified of public speaking, and her book is a scientific investigation of how the brain processes fear—especially when it comes to things that aren’t genuinely life-threatening, such as asking someone on a date or going on a job interview. Her book gives tips on how to work with fear and anxiety so it doesn’t hold you back.
As I dug into the book in the days leading up to the big event, a seemingly simplistic piece of advice really jumped out at me. Foran writes that the brain doesn’t know the difference between physical threats and emotional threats (being confronted by a tiger and public speaking, for example). To address this, she says one way to nix fear in the bud is to remind yourself that you’re not in any physical danger while taking a few deep breaths.
What? It can’t be this easy, I thought. But according to Foran, it’s simple science. “Our mind and body are trying to warn us and protect us that we are facing a risk by producing the fight-or-flight hormones,” Foran said when I emailed her for more info. “This is okay. We don’t have to try not to feel it; we need to simply understand why we’re feeling it and make sense of it. Of all the tools I share across my books and my podcast, the number one tool is education about why we feel the way the way that we do. It’s the most empowering defense against fear and anxiety. When that fear kicks in, which I expect and accept, I know I am about to do something that feels like a threat—but my rational brain can reassure my fearful brain that it’s not.”
The day of the event, I put that impossibly simple tip to use. At moments throughout the day when I thought about the event and felt my heart race, I took a few deep breaths and repeated two words to myself: You’re okay. When I arrived at the event, I repeated this phrase continuously for about 45 minutes until I had to take the stage. You’re okay. Deep breath. You’re okay. Another deep breath. You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.
And you know what? It freaking worked. Just reminding myself that I wasn’t in any physical danger helped calm me down. I didn’t hyperventilate like I normally do. I didn’t even take any CBD. And it all went smoothly.
Teaching your brain to chill TF out
I was definitely surprised by my experiment, so to speak—how could something so simple be so powerful? To find out, I called up neuropsychologist and Stop Self-Sabotage author Judy Ho, PhD.
Dr. Ho confirms that no, the brain does not know how to automatically distinguish between emotional and physical threats—so it responds to any kind of perceived threat with the same fight-or-flight response. The threat is processed in the amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of our emotions, she says. The amygdala sends a signal to another part of the brain, the hypothalamus, which communicates with the rest of the body and primes it to escape the threat.
Ironically, “the amygdala starts problem solving to figure out what these physical symptoms mean, and it interprets them as meaning that you’re in danger,” Dr. Ho says. “The mind and body are in constant communication—especially in times of crisis—which creates this feedback loop that actually makes the physiological symptoms worse.”
Dr. Ho says that the simple act of telling yourself you’re not actually in danger—the trick that worked so well for me and Foran—is the logical part of the brain (the executive brain) taking control over the emotional part of the brain (amygdala), which can’t figure out why the body is freaking out. But she acknowledges that this doesn’t work for everyone. “The amygdala is very prominent, which is why if you tell someone who is having a panic attack to ‘just relax,’ it doesn’t work. You have to literally teach your brain that nothing harmful is actually going on, giving it a physical reset.”
One physical reset she says is effective is taking ten deep breaths, which can slow your heart rate, thus sending a signal to the amygdala that the body isn’t under a physical threat. Another way to send a signal to your amygdala that you’re a-okay: listening to a song you love. “Music is so emotional, so it can be a way to change how you feel in the matter of minutes,” Dr. Ho says.
Whatever method works for you, Dr. Ho says that you can teach the brain not to fear certain things with time. “The fear may never go away completely, but it becomes faster to get over,” she says. With practice, of course.
At least in my personal experience, I have found this to be true. While I probably will never *love* public speaking, I have grown to fear it less. Fear happens. The key is knowing what to do with it.
Maybe public speaking you’re cool with, but you’re scared of the dark. Here’s what to do. If you experience anxiety on a regular basis, here are some all-natural solutions that could help.
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