Acute anxiety help
for nervous public speakers 

By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 10-05-2020 | First published: 08-01-2006

How do I get over my fear of public speaking?

Graphic- list of 14 ways to manage public speaking fear

Here are 14 ways to effectively manage public speaking fear.

Some you can put into practice immediately. Others are longer term solutions.

And I've used each them myself and know they'll help.

The page is long.

(Actually, that's an understatement. It's extremely long because it's an important topic, and there's a lot to share on it. 

Take your time.

Pick one, two, three or more, and then mix and match them to meet your needs.

Yes, I used to be terrified of public speaking too!

You have my sympathy because I know how public speaking anxiety feels. I remember it very clearly.

There were times I despaired. My hyper-active imagination and jumpy nervous system often joined hands to leap and caper in a furious dance, leaving me breathless, temporarily speechless, feeling ill and helplessly inadequate. 

Fortunately I've moved on and that response to speaking in public is history; a true before, and happily ever after, story.

I believe you can move on too. Read my tips below. Select those that are the most appropriate for you and, put them into action.

Suggestions especially to help children

If you're reading this page on behalf of a child, you'll find suggestions for adapting the 14 tips nearer the end. Scroll down to find them. I know from my experience as a teacher they work!

1. Breathe well

Breathing sounds too simple to be effective, doesn't it?  However breathing properly, or fully, works.

When we're extremely anxious we tend to either hold our breath or breathe very shallowly off the top of our lungs. The result is we prolong and heighten the physical discomfort brought on by acute anxiety.

(For more on the impact of shallow breathing on health and well-being please see this article: Posture and Breathing: The Physiological effects of Shallow Breaths.)

You could short circuit the consequences of breathing poorly now.

How to breathe well instructions

  1. Stand up*. Place your feet a shoulder width apart and put one hand on your belly.
  2. To begin breathe out through your mouth, expelling all the air from your lungs.
  3. Then breathe in deeply, through your nose, using your diaphragm. As you do imagine the breath coming in through the soles of your feet and traveling all the way up your body to the very top of your head while mentally slowly and steadily counting to four. You will feel your diaphragm lift.
  4. Hold the breath for a moment before releasing it through your nose, again to the count of four.
  5. On the out-breath, imagine all the negativity and anxiety draining away from your body. Feel it leaving: flowing out of you from the top of your head all the way down to your toes.
  6. Repeat the in and out breath to the count of four at least four times.
  7. When you've finished shake your arms, wriggle your shoulders and let the feeling of ease settle in.
  8. For a variation try increasing the count to five or six. Try closing your eyes to help you to focus better.

Color your breathing

Image: color spectrograph Text: Color breathing

As an extension 'color' your breath in your imagination.

Choose a color to invigorate and cleanse you. Soak yourself in it. Feel the color  flowing through every cell in your body on your in-breath count, bringing with it all the special qualities you associate with it.  And then on the out-breath see and feel the color washing all the negative energy you've been carrying away. 

(For more on the attributes or qualities of particular colors and using color in meditation read UK therapist Victoria Weatherer's article:  Colour Breathing Meditation ~ A simple technique)

Please note: You'll know when you're breathing correctly because the hand you've placed on your stomach will rise and fall with your in and out breaths. If it doesn't move, try breathing more deeply until it does.

* If circumstances prevent you from standing, do the exercise sitting. Be sure to sit 'square' in your seat. Uncross your legs. Place your feet on the floor, straighten your back and let your arms rest comfortably in your lap.

You'll find extensions to these breathing exercises here.

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2. Reality checking

In the midst of a crisis irrational fears may take over. Often they are quite without foundation. These fears thrive in the mental muddle and deep murky underworld of  stressed minds. They can not survive in the clear light of factual truth.

Image: retro man being attacked with red devils wielding pitchforks. Text: Are you under attack by irrational fears? Give yourself a reality check. Practical solution to public speaking anxiety.

Take a moment to ask your sensible adult grown-up self, (not the part of you behaving like a very frightened child), some searching questions and LISTEN to their real or rational answers.

  1. Are you mistaking the ordinary adrenaline rush of excitement for fear?
    It can easily happen because the symptoms of both are similar: heightened sensitivity, butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate ...
  2. Have you prepared carefully? That is: have you practiced your speech? Is it the right length for the time allowance? Have worked out how to handle your notes properly? Do you need a rostrum? What about volume? Etc, etc ...
  3. Have you 'survived' this type of feeling before?

If you have confused excitement for fear and answered YES to the last questions do a deep breathing round and let the irrational thoughts and feelings go!  You do not need them.

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3. Resist using alcohol to settle your nerves

Image: drawing of two ornate wine glasses on a colorful abstract background. Text: Calming your public speaking nerves with a glass or 2 of your favorite tipple seems awfully attractive.

Alcohol is not your friend in this situation.

Recent research results indicates that alcohol may calm your fluttery - jumpy nerves but it also blunts your ability to respond quickly,  appropriately and to clearly evaluate your own performance. 

In other words, you may feel better but actually do worse.

For more read:
Alcohol May Help Your Speech Anxiety but Not Your Speech | How Alcohol Reduces Anxiety 
an article from realmenrealstyle.com

The research cited
Stevens, S., Cooper, R., Bantin, T., Hermann, C., & Gerlach, A. L. (2017).

Feeling safe but appearing anxious: Differential effects of alcohol on anxiety and social performance in individuals with social anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 94, 9-18. Link:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796717300864

Save the glass of wine for later! 

4. Use your imagination positively

In your mind put together a slide show - huge multi-colored vibrant pictures of yourself doing well.

See yourself at ease.  See yourself performing beautifully. Make the images as detailed as possible.

Now add sound, smell, feel ...

mage - a trilogy: post it notes for planning a speech, man getting ready for presentation, audience raising hands, asking questions. Text: From planning & preparation to presentation, see success.

Use all your senses to create an outstanding movie in your mind featuring yourself.

See yourself before the presentation, poised and alert. See yourself during it: responding to the audience with ease, if there's a question and answer session handling queries competently, and see yourself afterward reflecting on a task done well.

Play that slide show/movie whenever you feel anxiety beginning to tighten its grip.

And remember to breathe!

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5. Ask a NON-indulgent, understanding friend to be your support

Image: cartoon drawing of a pair of women Text: Friend - a special someone who supports and does what is best for you.

Sometimes we get so knotted up inside having someone who cares for and understands us alongside is a great help.

Tell them their chief task is to keep you on track. They may understand your anxiety but they are not to heighten it by playing into it.

They are there to remind you to breathe, to see yourself as successful and be of practical, sensible assistance.

Their first job is to banish anybody adding to your stress unnecessarily.

6. Eat lightly

Image: A large bunch of yellow bananas. Text: Good foods to eat before presenting

Heavy food in a delicate stomach makes you feel even more stressed. Say no to fast fatty foods, and anything with a high sugar content or that is caffeinated.

Also say no to anything you have not eaten before just in case it does unpredictable things. Bloating, belching, or a case of diarrhea is an added stress you can definitely do without!  

Eat light, easily digested, foods about an hour or more before you are due to present. Or if you can't eat anything, take a nourishing drink, like a banana smoothie.

Bananas have been my preferred before performance food for a long, long time. I was delighted to learn relatively recently that they have been found to contain natural beta blockers which minimize symptoms of anxiety. That made perfect sense to me!

For more on foods that reduce stress read this healthline.com article: Are there natural beta blockers?

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7. Be in the moment

Image: delicate reddish-pink flowery tracery with text. Text: Daily Reminder - Be in the moment - Another of those deep & meaningful says often dismissed as trite, a lowly cliche.

Potential cringe alert! 

I am giving you fair warning. 'Be in the moment' is one of those truisms - a cliche, a saying of the sort many people, myself included, often want to sneer, snort at, and dismiss contemptuously. (OMG - so meaningful! So deep! Snigger.)

However, a saying becomes a cliche for a reason. And that is because it expresses something both commonplace and, true. 

When you are 'in the moment' your mind is not racing ahead filling itself with all sorts of concerns about what might, or could, happen.

Instead you are focused on what it is you are doing now and carrying out that activity to the very best of your ability. This makes you alert and responsive.

To help you stay in the 'now moment' practice breathing fully. Use the rhythm of good breath control to anchor you there.

8. Success recall

Image: My Brag List - a list of successful achievements eg. I completed all my terms papers, I speak up well at work meetings, I take great care of my children ...

One of the best antidotes to anxiety is to remember previous occasions when you felt, and were, successful.

The more vividly you can recall those times the more effective they are.

The situation doesn't have to be the same as the one you are preparing to meet now.

The most important aspect of this exercise is experiencing yourself as a success and remembering in as much detail as you can how that felt.

If you have time prepare yourself a 'brag' list on a small card. Put on it your most significant personal triumphs.

Now put the list in your pocket. When you feel 'wobbly' you can slip you hand in to feel and remind yourself of them.

Because being acutely anxious is totally consuming our past successes slide from memory. A touchable reminder brings them back, helping restore balance and perspective.

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9. Seek professional assistance

See your doctor to discuss symptoms and solutions. You will know when the situation has gone beyond self-manageable limits. Don't be too proud or frightened to make the call.

There are many, many people who can not solve this on their own. You are not alone. Ask rather than suffer in silence.

Be aware that although there are drugs to lessen the intensity of your experience, taking them is a short term solution. However, if it's an emergency this could be just what you need to get you through your present situation.

The doctor will also advise whether your discomfort is the result of physical illness rather than extreme anxiety. I know from experience when you're in the midst of an attack sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

 10. Try natural remedies for stress and anxiety

There are many herbal and other natural remedies available either through a regular drug store or specialist natural health outlets.

Bach flower rescue remedy products

One of the most commonly used is Bach Flowers Rescue Remedy. It contains a mix of five different flower essences and is especially formulated to combat the effects of extreme stress.

I always have a bottle on hand for anyone suffering either first night play nerves or pre-speech anxiety. And as you can see, it's available in different forms.

Other common natural calming aids are special aromatherapy mixtures (which generally include lavender) and herbal teas. Varying mineral (for instance magnesium) and vitamin supplements may help as well.

Ask for assistance from a suitably qualified person to help you get what is most appropriate for you.

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11. Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a totally natural and normal process which will allow you to work positively with the negative thoughts and feelings underpinning full blown anxiety.

What is the difference between using hypnosis to entertain, or to heal?

Essentially to be hypnotized means to be in a deeply relaxed, trance like state. When a person is in this state they are very open to suggestion. What is suggested depends entirely on the result wanted by the hypnotist.

Articles about hypnotism in our media are often about what a stage hypnotist does for entertainment.

As part of a show some audience members will willingly allow themselves, at the suggestion of the hypnotist, to behave in extraordinary ways. They'll squawk like a chicken, bark like a dog, or passionately kiss the stranger next to them, much to the delighted horror of everybody watching.

That is precisely the result a stage hypnotist is looking for. 

However it is not how a professionally qualified therapeutic hypnotherapist works!

A qualified therapeutic hypnotist is NOT an entertainer

Trained hypnotherapists do not 'rob' you of your dignity, will, and awareness. They work with you. These people are not show men. They are there to help you take back your life and live it as you want to.

Sometimes one or two sessions is all it takes to reverse self-limiting habits.

I've personally found it very useful when I decided to tackle a couple of deeply ingrained self-sabotaging behavioral patterns. (Not public speaking fear, but cigarette smoking and all the nonsense self-talk that goes into sustaining the habit!) It made the process of freeing myself much, much easier. 

Finding a hypnotherapist

You have two options. 

Option one - receive help the traditional way 

Seek out a good hypnotherapist near you and set up a series of traditional face-to-face sessions.  You'll go to the therapist's clinic for assistance on a pre-arranged date and time.

Option two - receive online help 

The second option is to download audio and other materials from a hypnotherapist's site and use them when, and where, you choose to.

If you prefer the second option because it's more convenient, easier to manage, and  cheaper, I recommend using hypnosisdownloads.com.

(The link will take you to their 'About' page where you can read about the people running the site, their philosophy, check their testimonials, and so on.)

Look and you'll see they are an ethical company founded by reputable hypnotherapists.

Among their many programs they have an excellent one called 10 steps to powerful public speaking which covers everything you need to tackle, and overcome public speaking fear.

Find out more by clicking the link, or the image below.

*In the interests of clarity you need to know that when you buy '10 steps to powerful speaking' I receive a portion of the purchase price for introducing you to the product.

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12. Re-check your planning

Go through the 'little' details as these can be the things which in the end cause the most stress, simply because they are overlooked.

How are your getting to the venue? What do you have to take with you?

Prepare everything well ahead of time so you arrive with nothing to do but speak.

There's a useful checklist here. I call these 'Bring-it-on' lists, and I can't function without one when I have a presentation coming up.

It's number 5 on another page of strategies to help you deal with public speaking nerves.

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13. Play baroque music to soothe your nerves

Did you know music composed around four hundred years ago has been proven to calm anxiety? That music is called 'baroque' and was written between 1600 -1750 in Western Europe. 

It's likely you've already heard of three of its most well known composers: the Germans,  Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel, and the Italian; Antonio Vivaldi.

Image: Baroque painter Robert Tournières work Concert. Source: wikimedia.commons

The patterning or structure of baroque music has been proven to both enhance learning and to soothe by inducing a therapeutic change in people's brain waves. 

Get yourself some Bach, Handel or Vivaldi and start listening!

Use these links to find out more:

 14. Congratulate yourself

You're here reading this page. That means you're actively looking for solutions and that takes courage.

It also takes courage to put yourself out as a performer of any sort in the first place. So you are a doubly courageous person, the sort who will seek what they need to do and do it.

Don't wait. Hoping it will go away doesn't help either. Waiting and hoping add to your anxiety and out of control feelings.

Use the time you have positively. Choose at least one suggestion and begin using it now!

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Adapting these tips for children

If you're reading this page on behalf of a child, you'll find many of the suggestions useful. They adapt well across age groups and, children will respond very quickly if given clear instruction and support.

Cartoon - a line of very happy children cavorting around.

I suggest using the breathing exercises first. (You'll find those back at the top of the page.) 

Teach them how to do them, and then help them establish a routine of using them daily.

I've taught these breath exercises to children, teenagers and adults to help them deal with examination nerves as well as first-night play or speech jitters and I know they work. Try them and see.

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Use a natural anxiety remedy 

The Bach Flowers 'Rescue Remedy', especially formulated for acute anxiety, is a good one too. It's easily given and has no nasty side effects. That's number 10 on my list above.

Put together a comprehensive checklist

Use tip number 12 and help the child through all the organizational steps needed to make their presentation/speech successful:

  • Have they got their notes? Are they in a good, readable format?
  • What's the sound system like in the venue? Can you get in some practice with it prior to the event?
  • Do they know the right time of the speech?
  • How are they getting to the venue?
  • What else do they need to take? Water bottle? Props? Any official forms?

If the child is distressed avoid escalating it. If you allow yourself to become upset it will feed theirs. Keep calm, even if it's only outwardly and do a set of breathing exercises for yourself.

See and remember successes

Go through positive visualization exercises with them. Help the child to recall instances of success and build on them. (Tips number 4 and number 8 above.)

OMG! How awful!

Banish un-helpful hysterical friends who want to magnify the situation, to play up the drama of it all. Your child doesn't need the distraction. 

Secret signs and signals

If you can, and if it helps, station yourself where they can see you from their position at the venue. Have an unobtrusive 'remember to breathe' signal worked out, so you can remind them if you see them getting anxious.

Help the child gain perspective

Above all, help them put whatever they are doing in perspective. (Tip number 3 above - reality checking)

How critical is this event on a scale of 1-10? Ten is total disaster. What will happen if the worst occurs? What will happen if the best occurs?

Helping a child get their response in proportion to the event's real importance will help them control it. This is an empowering lesson, one that will give them confidence and faith in themselves.

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