Public Speaking Anxiety & Mindfulness

Public Speaking Anxiety & Mindfulness
Photo by Fabian Møller / Unsplash

Earlier this year I presented at a national conference, which happened to be my first time presenting at a national level. The feeling of getting up on stage and presenting in front of people had me nervous and anxious since the day my proposal got accepted. A few months before our presentation, as I was mentally preparing for the event, I started watching relevant Ted Talks, reading books, and listening to podcasts. From all that I read and listened to, I was convinced that I was not the only one who was nervous about public speaking. And I was right because research shows that as much as 75% of the global population feels public speaking anxiety. So, first things first, these resources made me feel less alone about the experience. Knowing that even experienced speakers may feel nervous validated my own feelings of anxiety.

I don’t know about all of you, but when I have to process something, I tend to verbalize it a lot with my trusted people. I talk about my fears with people I can confide in-they may be my coaches, mentors, friends, or family. As I was verbalizing my nervousness and fear of public speaking, the most common and recurring thing that I heard from most of these people was breathing exercises. “If you feel nervous, take a few long breaths and it should help.” I mean, I had heard about breathing exercises for years, but in full honesty, I may not have given them any attention until this presentation time came around.  I was also trying to practice mindfulness meditation since January, so the technique of tuning into my breathing was something I was being aware of during my preparation time. It was not until the day of the practice session that I got to experience the magic of breathing exercises. We were doing a test run-through for our division two days before the conference presentation. One of my co-workers started to present, and I was going to go next. I tell you what, my heart was pounding like crazy when I decided to test out the technique. It took me a minute, but it did work! At least the pounding was gone, and my heartbeat felt somewhat normal. That day, I was determined that if only I could regulate my emotions, I could do well with this presentation.

On the presentation day, I did my 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation in the morning, and I did a breathing exercise, or let’s say mindful breathing right before my turn, and voila, it helped me regulate my emotions. Because I was calm enough, I was able to deliver the presentation with minimal nervousness.

Some of you may know this already, but for those of you who don’t know yet, mindfulness is a state of being present and accepting the moment as it is without any judgment. And mindful meditation using your breath as an anchor is one of the ways of being present. To understand how mindful meditation (which includes mindful breathing) works, let me break down how our body works during stress. Our autonomic nervous system comprises  the following systems:  

1.       Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

2.       Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

These two systems are completely opposite to one another. While the SNS activates all stress responses to the body, producing adrenaline and making our body ready for the “fight and flight” response, the PNS regulates all these responses and is often referred to as the “rest and digest” response. When you are under stress, your SNS is activated, and as a protective measure, your brain releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones (also known as stress hormones) leading to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and increased breathing rate.

When you engage in breathing exercises during a stress response, your PNS gets activated. The PNS then tells your brain that the situation you are in is not a threat and that it does not need to activate the fight and flight response. PNS activation promotes relaxation and helps bring down heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

Mindful breathing allows you to center your focus on breathing and promotes a sense of calm and centeredness. When you allow your brain to rest a little bit from the anxiety of how you will speak in front of the audience, what they will think of you, whether you will say all the right things, or what will happen if you stumble in the middle of the presentation and focus on your breathing, the body starts to respond and slow down. This allows emotions to regulate and make space for your rational brain to come into action. So, when they say breathing exercises are helpful, they are not making it up. This is backed by science, and it does work, and I can attest to it as well.

So, the next time you feel like you are losing it and cannot think straight, give it a try, and let me know if it worked!

Also, a good practice is to keep doing it regularly so that it becomes established as a tool that you can rely on whenever you need it. :)

If you want to learn more about speech anxiety and explore more resources, I got you! Here are some helpful videos and articles:

  1. Speech Anxiety- Dr. Stephen Lucas
  2. Speech Anxiety Animated Video
  3. Speech Anxiety- University of Pittsburgh
  4. Speech Anxiety- University of Tennesse
  5. 10 Minutes Guided Meditation
  6. One of my favorites- 10 Minutes Guided Meditation