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Fool yourself out of your fear of public speaking

You're on a stage, lights hot and glaring, watching the large audience you’ll soon be addressing file in. How is your body reacting?

You’re most likely jittery, your heart pounding through your rib cage and your breath quickening. Your legs may very well be able to run a marathon at this moment. And—oh great—your mouth just became super dry.

These reactions are not exactly conducive to standing in place and addressing a crowd, right? You’re not alone. Fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, is estimated to affect 75 percent of adults.

But such reactions, as it turns out, are the body’s natural way of helping us cope with stressful situations. According to a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, rethinking the way we perceive stress may actually improve our physical and mental performance.

In the study, 73 adults, half of whom met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, underwent the Trier Social Stress Test. Designed to induce stress in a socially-evaluative situation, the test gives participants three minutes to prepare a five-minute speech about their strengths and weaknesses to two judges. Immediately following the speech, subjects must count backwards by sevens beginning with the number 996.

Before beginning the test, half of the participants were randomly assigned to read information regarding the evolutionary advantages of the body’s stress response. Specifically, they were informed that “the increase in arousal [they] may feel during stress is not harmful,” and that they should “reinterpret [their] bodily signals during the upcoming public speaking task as beneficial.” They also read summaries of three psychological studies that evaluated the benefits of stress.

The other half of the participants did not undergo this “anxiety preparation” task.

Purposely, the judges provided negative, non-verbal feedback throughout the speeches by head-shaking, stone-faced expressions, and tapping annoyingly on their clipboards. If the participant made a mistake, the judge instructed them to start over.

Before, during, and after the stress test, cardiovascular measures of heart rate and blood pressure were assessed in all participants.

Participants who did not undergo anxiety preparation showed a much greater cardiovascular stress response. The group that went into the stress test informed about the benefits of stress, on the other hand, reported feeling that they had more resources to cope with public speaking.

Jeremy Jamieson, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at University of Rochester, says that his work “shares the underlying concept that if you can alter cognitive factors, you can alter downstream outcomes.”

“Feelings of arousal, like sweaty palms or a racing heart that are typically construed negatively can instead be viewed as tools to help cope with acute stress,” he says.

Interestingly, despite greater fear of public speaking, individuals with social anxiety disorder did not show more physiological arousal than their non-anxious peers.

The authors conclude that our experiences of short-term stress are shaped by how we interpret our body. “Viewing one’s biological responses as beneficial will increased the ratio of perceived resources versus task demands,” says Jamieson. “Our reappraisal instructions focus on educating individuals that stress is an adaptive response.”

So the next time you feel the jitters of public speaking overtaking you, remind yourself that the human body is designed to help us cope with this stress, despite our trembling legs and dry mouths.

Above all, be grateful—this ability likely evolved when our ancestors had to outrun predators, not give speeches!

Jordan Gaines is a science writer and neuroscience grad student at Penn State College of Medicine. You can check out her blog, Gaines on Brains, and follow her at @GainesOnBrains.