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In my last blog article "Why you’re afraid of public speaking" I wrote about why is it that most of us freak out about public speaking. We looked at our ancestry, at the importance of group belonging for our species' survival and how this old history feeds our fear of public speaking. Today we will turn our focus inside of our bodies and explore what happens with our nervous system when we are in front of an audience and how to work with it so that we can be more confident.
We like to think that we have control over what we say and do. That we're 'rational beings' with free will. However, present to a bunch of strangers and our self possession mysteriously disappears. Suddenly we forget how to walk naturally, what to do with our hands and feet, our voice sounds strange and our breath is disturbingly short. We are startled with how little control over our bodies we actually have and feel at the mercy of some murky part of ourselves that feel like a complete stranger.
Backed by physio-psychology, I've come to the understanding that the root cause of these nerves can be found in the way that our body and in particular our nervous system has evolved. Although I think of myself as an 'I' - an individual person, I (and we all) have at least 3 decision making centres that take charge of behaviours. The thinking self is only one among them, and not necessarily the most important one.
The trio I am talking about here are called,
Each represents part of our biological ancestry and exerts particular control over our behaviour especially in situations of perceived danger i.e. public speaking. It's critical to understand that these three systems all are concerned with our safety and that they operate in a hierarchy. If the younger and more developed neo-cortex fails to keep us safe then the older and more crude limbic systems takes over. If that fails, then we revert to the reptilian brain. The most troubling part is that this usually has negative effect on our communication skills.
So you are on a conference and just met many exciting people and are chatting away with one of them. You are very engaged and eloquent, you feel a gentle tingle of excitement and you don't even notice your heart rate or breathing. You feel confident and in control - your neo-cortex is in charge.
Then suddenly someone shouts your name from the stage, all the attention is on you, you are expected to grab the mic and share your insights with the entire conference. As soon as you realize your situation your heart rate goes up, your breathing moves from the belly to the upper chest you feel very nervous and all the good ideas vanished. You want to run away but you know that you can't, your hands begin to tingle and your legs want carry you away. Your eyes are nervously looking for the way out. Congratulations, you've just activated the limbic system's fight or flight response
Now you are on stage, everyone is looking at you, your boss, your peers, their eyes piercing like hundreds daggers. You feel cornered - you can't escape. You pick up the mic and want to say something, but nothing comes out. The situation becomes unbearable and for a split of a second you lose awareness of where you are and what for. Next thing you notice is the cold sweat on your forehead and overall body stiffness. You just had a freeze response courtesy of your reptilian brain.
To be in a fight, flight or freeze situation when we want to be eloquent and professional is no fun. It can impact not only on our careers but also on our health; each fight, flight or freeze response releases a bunch of physiological processes that are toxic to our bodies. The thing is that these responses are apart of our biological making and are with us to stay, however dysfunctional they may feel. To avoid their activation you need to ensure that your body feels safe in the context you are in.
And here is what you can do:
To learn more about your nervous system and public speaking, click to find out more about my one day Body Confidence workshops.
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