What is glossophobia?

Glossophobia isn’t a dangerous disease or chronic condition. It’s the medical term for the fear of public speaking. And it affects as many as four out of 10 Americans.

For those affected, speaking in front of a group can trigger feelings of discomfort and anxiety. With this can come uncontrollable trembling, sweating, and a racing heartbeat. You may also have an overwhelming urge to run out of the room or away from the situation that is causing you stress.

Glossophobia is a social phobia, or social anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders go beyond occasional worrying or nervousness. They cause strong fears that are out of proportion to what you’re experiencing or thinking about.

Anxiety disorders often get worse over time. And they can interfere with your ability to function under some circumstances.

What does glossophobia feel like?

When faced with having to give a presentation, many people experience the classic fight-or-flight response. This is the body’s way of preparing to defend itself against perceived threats.

When threatened, your brain prompts the release of adrenaline and steroids. This causes your blood sugar levels, or energy levels, to increase. And your blood pressure and heart rate rise, sending more blood flow to your muscles.

Common symptoms of fight-or-flight include:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • trembling
  • sweating
  • nausea or vomiting
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilating
  • dizziness
  • muscle tension
  • urge to get away

Causes of glossophobia

Although the fight-or-flight response worked well when humans had to fear enemy attacks and wild animals, it isn’t effective in a meeting room. Getting to the root of your fear may help you take effective steps to manage it.

Many people who have a strong fear of public speaking fear being judged, embarrassed, or rejected. They may have had an unpleasant experience, like having given a report in class that didn’t go well. Or they’re been asked to perform on the spot with no preparation.

Though social phobias often run in families, the science behind this isn’t understood. A 2002 study reported that breeding mice that show less fear and anxiety resulted in offspring with less anxiety. But more research is needed to assess whether social phobias are hereditary.

Testing conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that the brains of people with social anxiety have a heightened response when negative comments were read to them. The affected areas were those responsible for self-evaluation and emotional processing. This heightened response wasn’t seen in people without the disorder.

Learn more: Social anxiety disorder »

How is glossophobia treated?

If your fear of public speaking is severe or interfering with your everyday life, consult your doctor. They can work with you to develop a targeted treatment plan. Options for treatment plans include:

Psychotherapy

Many people are able to overcome their glossophobia with cognitive behavioral therapy. Working with a therapist can help you identify the root cause of your anxiety. For example, you may discover that you fear ridicule, rather than speaking, because you were mocked as a child.

Together, you and your therapist will explore your fears and the negative thoughts that go with them. Your therapist can teach you ways to reshape any negative thoughts.

Examples of this might include:

  • Instead of thinking “I can’t make any mistakes,” accept that all people make mistakes or have omissions when presenting. It’s okay. Most of the time the audience isn’t aware of them.
  • Instead of “Everyone will think I’m incompetent,” focus on the fact that the audience wants you to succeed. Then remind yourself that your prepared material is great and that you know it well.

Once you’ve identified your fears, practice presenting to small, supportive groups. As your confidence grows, built up to larger audiences.

Medications

If therapy doesn’t relieve your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe one of several medications used to treat anxiety disorders.

Beta-blockers are usually used to treat high blood pressure and some heart disorders. They also can be helpful in controlling the physical symptoms of glossophobia.

Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they also can be effective in controlling social anxiety.

If your anxiety is severe and affecting your daily life, your doctor may prescribe benzodiazepines like Ativan or Xanax.

Other strategies for overcoming glossophobia

There are some strategies that you can use in combination with tradition treatment or on their own.

For example, you might find it beneficial to take a public speaking class or workshop. Many are developed for people who have glossophobia. You may also wish to check out Toastmasters International, an organization that trains people in public speaking.

Here are some other tips to help you navigate public speaking situations:

In preparation

  • Know your material. This doesn’t mean you should memorize your presentation, but you should know what you want to say and have an outline of the key points. Give special focus to the introduction, because this is when you are likely to be most nervous.
  • Script your presentation. And rehearse it until you have it down cold. Then throw away the script.
  • Practice often. You should continue practicing until you’re comfortable with what you’re going to say. Then practice more. Your confidence will increase as you realize that you know what you’re going to say.
  • Videotape your presentation. You can note if changes are needed. And you may be pleasantly surprised at how authoritative you look and sound.
  • Work audience questions into your routine. Jot down a list of questions you might be asked and be prepared to answer them. When appropriate, plan to involve the audience in your presentation by asking questions.

Just before your presentation

If possible, practice your material one last time before heading out to give your presentation. You should also avoid food or caffeine before speaking.

Once you’ve arrived at your speaking location, get familiar with the space. If you’re using any equipment, such as a laptop or projector, make sure everything is working.

During your presentation

Keep in mind that 40 percent of the audience fears public speaking, too. There’s no need to apologize for being nervous. Instead, do your best to accept that stress is normal and use it to be more alert and energetic.

Smile and make eye contact with any audience members you encounter. Take advantage of any opportunity to spend a few moments chatting with them. Be sure to take several slow, deep breaths to help calm you down if needed.

Mark Twain said, “There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” Being a little nervous is normal. And you can overcome glossophobia. In fact, with a little practice, you may learn to enjoy public speaking.