Public speaking is consistently ranked among our top fears. In fact, Gallup Polls say somewhere around 40-45% of people report a fear of speaking in public. And even if you aren’t someone who professes a true “fear,” you probably have some degree of nervousness when you stand up to present in front of an audience. Our fight-or-flight response is a built-in system meant to help us face or flee from potentially life-threatening situations. This system evolved as a necessary part of our survival and can prove to be a powerful ally at times, like when a car swerves into your lane and you instantaneously react. However, sometimes this system jump starts in stressful situations that don’t necessarily require a fight-or-flight response, like public speaking. Let’s dig into why the human body reacts the way it does in these situations by breaking down our fight-or-flight response.
The Call Center
We are constantly receiving information through what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and experience. Our brain receives that sensory input and routes it through a system called the thalamus. The thalamus works like a communication call center, gathering sensory information as it comes in, and then forwarding it on to our cortex and amygdala. The sensory cortex is connected to thinking and reasoning. It allows us to use to reason to select which sensory input gets the most attention and which gets ignored or pushed to the background. In most cases, the information we receive is passed on through this primary channel.
The other channel that the thalamus routes sensory information to is called the amygdala. When our brain decides that the information it’s receiving is dangerous (whether through natural or learned fears), it short-circuits that information, bypassing the sensory cortex and sending it straight to the amygdala. That’s why you may be able to dodge an object being thrown at you before your sensory cortex is able to identify what is being thrown and to reason how your body should appropriately respond. Normally, we think and then we act. But in cases where the thalamus short-circuits information to the amygdala, we act before we think. And when the amygdala gets triggered, it sets off the body’s alarm system.
Once your body senses danger, a number of things happen. The motor cortex kicks into gear producing any immediate motion responses that are needed such as running, ducking, or freezing. The sympathetic nervous system (involving the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands) works together to release adrenaline and endorphins to the body. Here’s what Michael Martin, a trained firearms instructor and author who has studied the fight-or-flight response says about the body’s alarm system:
Adrenaline immediately prepares the body for “fight or flight” by increasing blood, oxygen, and glucose to the major muscles including the heart. It increases heart rate and oxygen consumption by the lungs, and it dilates the pupils … and our hands may shake from … the influx of adrenaline.
If the body continues to perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system continues to react. However, once we believe the danger has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system works to shut down our fight-or-flight-response, and our body functions begin to return to normal.
The key in public speaking situations is either to avoid triggering the body’s alarm system by not perceiving it as a threat or to be able to more quickly activate our parasympathetic nervous system, thus returning our body to a more restful state.
The Recall and Response
In order to accomplish this, we need to visit one last part of the brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for recall and memories. This part of our brain registers past experiences and categorizes them. That means, if you’ve had negative experiences with public speaking in the past, the hippocampus has recorded this, and whenever you are in a similar situation, it might trigger your body’s short-circuit, alarm response again.
Reminding yourself that you are not in literal, physical danger can help you to retrain your brain, and deep breaths can help you kickstart the parasympathetic nervous system. The more you are placed within the context of public speaking, the sooner your body will recognize that scenario as one that is survivable. This will lead to you being able to more easily identify and move through your body’s natural fight-or-flight response, to experience those responses in decreasing intensity, and to return to a restful state more quickly.
Your nerves probably won’t ever go away, but hopefully now you can understand what is happening in your body when you get nervous. And when you can understand your nerves, you can begin to work to control and minimize them.
For more information on how to become a more confident and effective public speaker, check out our online presentation skills class.