Helping speakers with anxiety disorders

Recently, I saw guest speaker Maryellen Curran, Psychologist specializing in OCD, anxiety disorders and EMDR, speak at PowerSpeaking Inc.’s Trainer’s Day. I want to share a snipit of the interesting information she shared as it echoed much of what the academic research discusses in Public Speaking texts.

  • 30% of people have performance anxiety (speakers, actors, singers, etc.).
  • When a person is in the midst of a fight-flight experience, there isn’t much logical thinking going on. The amygdala (the dumb part of the brain) is activated. Your body reacts without choice. You could freeze, which is when the cortex is activated and has too much going on. Nothing about the anticipated (speaking) experience is looking good to the speaker (all of this happens without the person’s permission).
  • As a trainer/coach at PSI, we provide clients with exposure therapy.

We might explore the participant’s belief about why this (presenting) is so scary.

We might ask – What is the worst that could happen?

Answers might be: Faint, panic, throw up, lose credibility, make a fool of myself, etc. (answers will be based in belief and maybe experience).

Cognitions: The participant thinks something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t come as a result. If the “worst” happens, they will feel shame, fear, dread, etc. (some of the thoughts can be exaggerated). If they are exaggerated, they are quick and fleeting, have been around a long time, are easily triggered, are charged with emotion, and these thoughts are rarely questioned.

Coaching strategy: Talk about the unspoken. Then ask, has that ever happened?

There are a series of questions a coach could ask a participant with high anxiety that would help re-frame (or make changes in the “self-talk” that is going on in the person’s head). Ultimately, shifting the intrapersonal dialogue from the dumb part of the brain, to the more logical part of the brain begins to help the speaker put things into perspective.