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Getting over your fear of public speaking

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Public speaking can be a terrifying experience, even for members of the Royal family.

In 2014, Prince Harry admitted: "My secret is, believe it or not, I get incredibly nervous before public speaking, no matter how big the crowd or the audience. Despite the fact that I laugh and joke all the time, I get incredibly nervous, if not anxious actually, before going into rooms full of people when I'm wearing a suit."

He made the admission for World Aids Day, for the Sentebale charity's #FeelNoShame campaign. But why do people fear public speaking so much? What harm can come of it?

"It's the fear of other people evaluating us," says Dr Jamie Barker, associate professor of applied performance psychology at Staffordshire University. "You think that people are going to make judgements about what you say and how you look."

Self-fulfilling prophecy

The more nervous you are, the more you are going to think about what you're doing. "Don't mess up!" you tell yourself. "Don't forget your words!" Unfortunately, the more you tell yourself not to do these things, the more likely they are to happen.

"In psychology, we call this ironic processing," says Dr Barker. "It's the same as if I said to you: Don't think of a pink elephant. A pink elephant is the first thing you're going to think of. If you tell yourself: Don't mess up. In all likelihood you're going to mess up."

When you speak with a friend, you don't worry about what you're going to say. You just say it. But when you have to speak in front of a crowd, you're under a lot of pressure.

"There's a tendency for people to perhaps consider the words they're speaking a little bit too much," says Dr Barker. "We see this in sports where highly-skilled performers sometimes perform less well under pressure because they start to overthink what they're doing. It's the same with public speaking. Under pressure, some people start to overthink what they're going to say, and then it all starts to go wrong."

Hormones can help

When you stand at the podium and look out at the sea of faces in front of you, your heart begins to race, you start to sweat, your mouth dries up and your stomach churns.

The physical responses to stress can be horrible, but they can also be helpful.

"We know that people who do well under pressure, things happen in their heart that are beneficial and this is due to the release of hormones," says Dr Barker.

When people are challenged by a situation they feel they can cope with, their adrenal glands release the hormone adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into their blood stream. The release of adrenaline has a beneficial effect on how our bodies react to the situation.
"For example, our arteries open up, so that means that physiologically we're more efficient because there's more blood, carrying glucose and oxygen, going to our brain," says Dr Barker.

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