Advice on overcoming the fear of public speaking is easy to come by.

You may have been told, “Just go out there and do it, take every opportunity you can to speak”. But you still get nervous. Here’s a story from someone who has suffered through just going out and doing it:

At one point in my life I was a teacher. I did fine with students, but when it came to parent-teacher conferences, I would dread the experience (the “exposure”) weeks and weeks ahead of time. The anticipatory anxiety and fear was so strong that it gripped at my stomach and made me feel like it was bloody and raw. Over the course of nine years, I was required to go through thirty-three weeks of parent-teacher conferences. I was exposed to one of my greatest fears, and the repetition and further exposure to this fear did not cause me to lose my anxiety and feel more comfortable. Instead, I faced my fears and my fears became even stronger.

Maybe you know that as well as going out there and doing it you need to “think positively” – so you’ve practiced affirmations and visualized your success. If it works for you that’s great. But for many people, positive thinking is not the answer.

Use proven psychological strategies

I believe that we should approach overcoming the fear of public speaking with the same approaches that have been proven to work for other anxiety issues.

That’s because the fear of speaking is on a continuum with severe anxiety. The continuum has a huge range. From slight nervousness before you get up to speak. To loss of sleep for weeks before your presentation. And for some, it’s so debilitating that they avoid public speaking altogether.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the recognised treatment for severe anxiety. The Social Anxiety Network says:

Meanwhile, in study after study, cognitive – behavioral therapy began to prove to be the therapy of choice for many mental health care problems, including depression and the anxiety disorders. In fact, large-scale, long-range (i.e., longitudinal) studies over the past decade have consistently shown cognitive – behavioral therapy to be the only therapy that can be dependably relied upon to help people overcome clinical anxiety disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health is the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to research focused on the understanding, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders. It says:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive part helps people change the thinking patterns that support their fears, and the behavioral part helps people change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations.

So if you get nervous before giving a presentation, use the principles from CBT which are proven to work.

What does this mean?

CBT involves both a behavioral approach and a thinking (cognitive) approach.

Maybe you go out there and present frequently, but you still get nervous. That’s because just going out there and doing it (the behavioral part of CBT) is not necessarily enough on it’s own. You have to change the way you think as well.

In the next post, I’ll look at the common thinking patterns that many of us have about presenting – and which contribute to making you feel nervous. I’ll look at how to replace those thinking patterns with rational and empowering thoughts.

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