Symptoms of fear of public speaking

Am I nervous, or am I sick?

The symptoms of fear of public speaking are many and varied. They can afflict everybody from the most accomplished and experienced speaker to the novice with varying degrees of intensity.

Phreneology head showing fear of public speaking

If you get nervous before opening your mouth to speak in front of a room full of people, be assured it’s a fairly normal response. Most people have a few twinges of excitement/anxiety before a public performance of any type.

The heady mix of fear and excitement preceding a major event is very powerful and can cause a myriad of debilitating manifestations. Any of these, if intense, could easily be mistaken or misinterpreted as something more, perhaps even a major illness.

Understanding the problem

A large part of overcoming any problem is to know and recognize what is happening, mentally, emotionally and physically when we are in the middle of it.

Therein lies the difficulty because what tends to happen when we’re wracked by powerful reactions is a loss of clarity. Everything gets lumped together and we can no longer separate or name the elements. We just know we are feeling "not good". Hence this list.

You are nervous if you experience any of the following common symptoms of fear of public speaking when you have a speech to give.

The intensity or degree to which you feel the discomfort may vary from slight to extreme.

Symptoms of fear of public speaking

Obsessive or repeating negative thoughts and images

Whatever is feared most occurs. Your imagination works overtime in technicolor with surround sound creating potent pictures of every worst case scenario possible. The result is always public humiliation. The audience walks out laughing. You find yourself on stage naked, speechless and without any of your notes ...


You have a nervous or delicate tummy. You may feel a little queasy. At the strong end of the spectrum, some people experience severe nausea and even vomiting.


That old cliché to be "scared s***less" has its basis in truth. When we get frightened running to the bathroom is part of its physical manifestation.

Excess sweating or perspiring

Another old cliché fits: "to sweat it out". Being very nervous or under intense pressure activates the sweat glands.

Heart rate quickens

The more under stress we feel, the faster our heart beats.

Rapid shallow breathing

Under duress we tend to breathe more shallowly. We snatch small breaths off the top of our lungs and therefore get less oxygen into our bodies. Because we have less oxygen, we need to breathe again more quickly. This becomes a cycle of rapid, small breaths reinforcing our feelings of discomfort. In the extreme we may end up feeling light-headed and faint.

Shaking hands & knocking knees

There’s a cliché to fit this too. "To shake in one’s shoes" is to be so terrified we can not control our limbs. They shake regardless of how much we try to stop them.

There are effective solutions

Get 16 ways to manage public speaking fear

Excessive drop or rising of body temperature

- getting either too hot or too cold regardless of the external temperature.

Everybody else is comfortable but you suddenly have to either put more clothes on or take some off. Both states are a reflection of a nervous system under stress.

Dry mouth

The salivary glands appear to stop operating and all the moisture you should have in your mouth dries up. The result is you can’t speak properly because you need the lubrication. Your tongue will feel too big and awkward.


Speech echoes how we feel. If our breathing is too quick and shallow and our mouth is dry, the voice is going to suffer. We will be unable to shape our words properly, let alone get them out audibly.

Other not-so clever tricks we play

You might recognize a few of these.

They're inter-related and part of the "fear" picture: trying to protect ourselves from something we see as potentially threatening.

Phreneology head showing fear of public speaking-button


 -putting off planning and preparing through telling ourselves "It really is very easy." and "It won't take much effort or time".

This is avoidance. Some people are very adept at it, keeping it up right to the last minute. When the deadline for delivery approaches they whirl into overdrive and if the *performance/speech (*substitute whatever it is they are doing e.g. presentation etc) goes badly, the excuse is "There wasn’t enough time." If it goes well, they feel justified.

The personal cost of procrastination is unnecessarily stressing yourself and others. You put an extra burden on top of what is already there.


- convincing yourself the task at hand is much less than it actually is.

There are a variety of minimizations. It could be the task will take "less time" to prepare for properly, or perhaps it is seen as "not very important" to the people who will receive it, or to the person giving it.

Whatever the guise of minimization employed, the root psychological cause lies in feeling fearful about the performance.

Making the task appear smaller than it actually is brings it under control because if it's unimportant or small, we do not have to feel threatened or frightened.

Minimizing belongs in the same family group as underestimating. Chronic underestimating or minimizing is a symptom of someone unable to face and grasp reality clearly. Their judgments let them down.


- "forgetting" you agreed to speak/perform.

Sometimes when we are deeply fearful or threatened, we protect ourselves by "forgetting". The event "slips our mind" completely. We do not remember having made the commitment.

The degree of denial can vary from total "forgetting" to partial. The latter could be "forgetting" the time the event was to take place, or the venue, or leaving crucial bits of equipment behind.


- throwing out objections as to why we should not do what is being asked of us, and perhaps suggesting others whom we say will do it better, or who are more appropriate choices.

The root of avoidance is commonly fear, despite the generous coating of plausible rationalizations to hide it.

Avoidance lets us know we may have issues about "being seen". Perhaps the fear is being frightened of being seen as a fool, inadequate or weak by those who really matter.

Please be kind

Phreneology head showing being kind to yourself

If you recognize yourself as suffering from any of these symptoms of fear of public speaking, be kind to yourself. You will survive but you can do more than that, you can thrive by acknowledging and managing them.

Many of these are known to me. I won't say they're old friends but we've learned to accommodate each other.

I remember being convinced I had caught a terrible stomach flu, just as I recall shaking knees, dry mouth and more.

When the first major attack struck I didn't fully understand the relationship between how dreadful I felt and the up-coming play I'd been preparing for. Later when I did, much of the advice I was given was contradictory, and some of it less than helpful.

Stopping what I wanted to do wasn't the solution I wanted to hear.

If you can get on to it soon enough, fear doesn't have to become a dominating and limiting factor.

You can find out here what I found most useful for dealing with acute anxiety. These are user friendly, effective tips for meeting the symptoms of fear of public speaking, and dealing with them.

Totally Panic Stricken?

Literally and truly paralyzed by fear?

If that's you and you know what you're experiencing is beyond manageable anxiety, check out Barry Joe McDonagh's article on Public Speaking Panic Attacks.

There is hope and there are solutions.

Related pages

  • Understand fight or flight - why we respond as we do to threat

    Tips guaranteed to reduce the impact of symptoms of fear of public speaking
  • This page contains many essential tips for overcoming performance anxiety by focusing on how to craft and deliver a successful speech. The real answer isn't to give in, but to get better.
  • For children
    If you're here looking to understand a child suffering some of the symptoms of fear of public speaking and want some long-term tips to to help build their self confidence,
    read this page. It contains many Speech and Drama suggestions and activities for children from kindergarten through to about 9 yrs.old. Help them to help themselves.