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Public speaking and Jasmin Iveson
Careers and professional development

Facing the fear of public speaking

Assistant psychologist Jasmine Iveson needed to tackle her ‘glossophobia’ in order to thrive in her role, she shares how she did it…

22 April 2024

When someone suggests you speak in public do you feel a pump of adrenaline flood your body and your heart rate increase? I certainly did, and sharing my experience has been a transformative journey.

What is a fear of public speaking?

The fear of public speaking is also known as 'glossophobia', a 'disabling fear' that impacts people at different stages of their lives (Blöte et al., 2009). 

My fear began in secondary school and continued into adulthood. As identified by Wittchen and Fehm (2003) the fear of public speaking often starts in adolescence. The faster heart rate becomes accompanied with a flooding of negative thoughts, "you are an introvert, you can't speak clearly", "run for the door, you will feel better, run for safety". But avoidance is likely to maintain the problem (Beck, 2020), and so I learnt to conceal my fear. Although others would be unaware of my rumination, I would physically shake when asked to read in front of the class. Afterwards, I would feel physically, and emotionally exhausted, yet throughout my education there was limited opportunities for me to share how I felt.

I had a pre-conception that if I wanted to work in psychology, I should not fear speaking, and that instead I should be confident. I should feel energised in social situations, and I should enjoy being sociable (John & Srivastava, 1999). Yet as an introverted person I was quite the opposite, and there were only certain symptoms that I could hide. 

My assistant psychologist role relies heavily on group interactions; the monthly ward rounds, external meetings, and to not forget the staff training. So, burying the problem became a challenge. I would constantly try and memorise information so I could 'get it right,' but relentless practice led to a poor work and home balance, increased workload, and a feeling of burnout. Plus, situations arose where I was unable to prepare, for example, being asked to lead a meeting with one hour's notice. Something needed to change.

What helped my fear of public speaking

Change for me meant facing rather than concealing the fear. I started to appreciate, rather than attempt to mask my personality type and traits. I reminded myself that some of the most powerful influencers in the world were deemed shy introverts; Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gelberg, 2008) to name just a few. 

I first spoke about my fear in clinical supervision to a forensic psychologist. To my surprise my experience was validated, and the physiological responses were normalised. My supervisor shared their personal experience with me, saying: 

"I don't feel anxious when delivering staff training, but my sweating is telling me otherwise. I think now after all this time it is at a subconscious level. Honestly for around eighteen months of being an assistant psychologist I really questioned if it was the role for me. The fear of speaking made me feel poorly".

Another psychologist told me; "I still get nervous after all this time of presenting, but now it tends to be nerves on the morning, rather than days before. It does get easier". 

These disclosures helped me appreciate the power of graded exposure and how this reduces the physical symptoms of anxiety, through the process of habituation (Papworth & Marrinan, 2019). This encouraged me to gradually put myself into more situations that involved public speaking. I began to run training sessions with my supervisor, and attended more meetings where I may have been asked to speak.

As my confidence speaking to fellow psychologists developed, I took another exposure step by speaking to other multidisciplinary team (MDT) members, including nurses, occupational therapists, and management regarding their encounters of public speaking. Despite the years of experience, or their role, many still had a fear of speaking. And new employees also expressed feelings of imposter syndrome as they spoke. An Occupational Therapist told me: "I always question whether I am saying the right thing, I do feel nervous that I will say something wrong" and a healthcare worker said, "It's so nerve wracking speaking in front of others, like during handovers. I dread it, you can hear the fear in my voice, I fear that people will think I don't know what I am doing. But I think the more you do it, the more confident you become in what you are saying". 

The skills to help with public speaking

One thing for sure is that both novice and more experienced employees encounter the fear. How wonderful would it be that if instead of concealing the fear, open discussions occurred amongst our teams about the fear of speaking? Within psychology we are aware of the power of guided self-help and psychoeducational materials, and so these resources could be widely used to both educate and normalise employees' experiences. Perhaps the use of posters and visual aids could surface in the workplace to bring better awareness of the problem. Given the challenging environments we work in, we are likely to benefit from knowing that we are not alone, through recognising that others face a similar difficulty. This normalisation could help to reduce stigmatisation, promote adaptive coping and personal growth.

After normalising my experience, my thoughts in relation to public speaking were somewhat more positive. Nevertheless, some MDT members appeared better equipped to reduce their distress, and I wanted to learn their skills. 

Normalisation is a powerful experience, yet being equipped with skills to aid adaptive coping is also essential. As illustrated through the window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999; Minton, Ogden, & Pain, 2006) the role of public speaking, pushed me outside of my 'optimal zone of arousal' and I soon found myself in the threat zone, similarly to many MDT members. I needed to learn how to stretch my window of tolerance. After many years of delivering therapeutic interventions, I learnt to incorporate these skills into my daily life. I began to use self-soothing breathing and visual imagery to feel both safe and secure. Yoga and meditation became crucial elements of my daily practice. 

I started to adapt my body language using psychology skills, such as, the open palms and half-smile as developed in dialectical behavioural therapy by Marsha Linehan. I also learnt to ground both feet into the ground, to relax the shoulders, to signal safety to the brain and body. I learnt the usefulness of gestures to communicate information, where I began to take short pauses and deep breaths to allow the sound to flow with better precision. Given that the self-soothing system plays a major role in emotional regulation, I learnt to develop these skills to promote the release of opiates (Gilbert, 2005). 

How I calmed my fear of talking in front of others

By learning how to emotionally regulate, my window of tolerance began to broaden. I think it would be a wonderful idea if mental health institutions began to incorporate spaces for staff to learn ways to self-soothe. My fear of speaking has led to supervisory discussions about the possibility of running workshops to help staff self-soothe and allow everyone to 'have a voice'. I know from my experience working in healthcare roles, and speaking to other professionals, there can be times where power imbalances do occur. At these times you may question your qualifications, experience, and knowledge which can add a layer of complexity when it comes to feeling able to speak. Within healthcare environments we are a team first and foremost, and by listening to the views of everyone involved, it would surely be a starting point for inclusion, to aid individual, team, and service growth. 

Reflection is vital for personal development and so I began to request feedback from others. This involved receiving feedback on my speaking from MDT members, my supervisor, external professionals and, where appropriate, the service users. Reflection allows for the use of an 'helicopter view' to gain a different perspective of public speaking as opposed to being consumed by our own emotions (Vivyan, 2009). To my surprise others often didn't notice my fear, with comments such as "really? you get fearful before speaking?" and "wow I would have never noticed you were nervous". I also gave a similar reaction when other MDT members disclosed their fear of speaking. It can be helpful to acknowledge your fear may not be as noticeable to others as you initially thought! 

Finally, it can be helpful to think about what you require following public speaking. I found that time alone helps me to balance my nervous system. It can be helpful to think what activities may help you to feel self-soothed and grounded. If the fear of public speaking is openly discussed among the MDT, the discussions can then feed into supervisions, appraisals, and team meetings for individuals at all levels of their careers. 

I am not sure if I will ever feel fully competent when public speaking. However, I have learnt that I can speak in group settings, and so can you! The public speaking fear is shared amongst many people in various settings. Although the fear may remain, there are many ways that we can ease the distress that we feel. It will involve facing the fear safely, whilst at times feeling slightly uncomfortable. Reflection will allow for learning and personal development through experience. Afterall, there's a wonderful opportunity to use our voices as a tool to inflict change, and reach the lives of others whilst embracing our own authentic self.