Presentation Anxiety & how to manage it
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Presentation anxiety & how to manage it
In my experience, no-one is immune from anxiety for their entire life, the seeds are within us all and given the right conditions, they can grow. I say this to counter the idea that anxiety only happens to “other people” who have little or no experience of presenting in front of an audience. Not true. Accomplished presenters can just as easily, and suddenly, become anxious about presenting, even if they’ve done it successfully before.
A reasonable amount of anxiety can be useful. If you have an optimal amount you tend to perform better than those with none at all. Your stress makes you think about what you need to do to succeed, how you need to prepare, what you need to practise and so on. But when we’re overwhelmed by dread, it has the opposite effect.
Too much anxiety triggers an alarm and the body responds physiologically to the perceived threat or danger. It can happen before you know consciously that it’s occurring.
It starts in the brain — the amygdala is one of two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. It’s been shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses; including fear, anxiety and aggression. It sets the emotional tone of any experience. It can also act like an internal panic button, activating for false alarms and real ones.
The fast track to anxiety
You have probably heard of ‘The Fight or Flight Response’.
Quicker than you can consciously think, the amygdala sounds the alarm.
In milliseconds it sparks electrical impulses throughout your nervous system to activate your adrenal glands. These glands dump stress hormones like cortisol into your bloodstream which jolts your system by increasing breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Does this sound familiar? If we lived in primitive times, you would be ready to kill the beast or run from your enemies. This response would have been very useful and I suppose it still is for those rare life-threatening occasions. But it’s not a great deal of use in the boardroom or lecture hall when you’re about to deliver a speech.
The slow track to anxiety
There is also a slow track to anxiety. Taking the slow track you think about things before you become fearful…the reaction comes via the pre-frontal cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions. So if you already have a systemic fear of presenting, your thinking actually reminds you what to be anxious about. You are the person who says:
“I’ve never been good at public speaking, it makes me really, really nervous.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, my anxiety is a 9.”
You are using the slow track trigger to build anxiety.
So think carefully about your ‘ongoing narrative’, the story you tell yourself, about presenting and public speaking. We all have one. The good thing is that it can be changed with insight, determination and practise.
How to move on from presentation anxiety
Neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking and emotions.
We can choose to stimulate the amygdala forward by sending signals to the frontal lobe. This is where the brain handles cognitive functions such as long-term decision making and appropriate social actions.
When you feel the slow-track anxiety creeping up, visualise a time when you felt most in control in front of an audience, when you sold your message succinctly and with ease, engaging with the audience. Do this every time the anxiety creeps in.
We have vast resources within us we can use. Once we have more positive experiences we can anchor our thoughts to those, forming new neural pathways that will become second nature to us.
For the anxious presenter, bringing your anxiety under control is the first step in performing and communicating well.
For more information, or to book a session to manage presentation anxiety or to enhance your speech writing or delivery skills, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org