If your heart starts racing when you speak before a crowd, don’t worry. You’re not alone. The National Social Anxiety Center reported that glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, affects 73% of the population. That fear can lead you to feel all sorts of symptoms in the body when you’re in front of an audience.
The good news is, you can stop that heart from racing when talking in front of a crowd. We’ll discuss strategies you can follow in this article later on. But first, let’s talk about why you get those palpitations when you’re speaking in public in the first place.
The Scientific Explanation
Why do you palpitate when public speaking? The simplest answer to that question would be this: that you fear public speaking.
If you think about it, however, that fear is NOT a direct cause of your heart thumping like crazy. Your fear of public speaking did not physically go inside your body and force your heart to beat so fast. Something in your body must have done that instead. Your fear, in essence, was merely the trigger of a process in the human body that resulted in those palpitations.
The next question then is this: what exactly is that triggered process?
According to Dr. John Bibawi, it’s the body’s natural fight-or-flight response. Your fear of public speaking naturally gives you stress, which the body senses. The stress prompts the sympathetic nervous system to react by releasing specific hormones. It stimulates the adrenal glands, prompting the release of catecholamines that include adrenaline or epinephrine.
Here’s the “fun” part. Once in the bloodstream, adrenaline does the following:
- It binds to muscle cell receptors, allowing for the breakdown of glycogen into more easily digestible glucose. The result of this process? Your muscles get that energy boost.
- It stimulates blood vessel contraction so in the end, your blood pressure level increases.
- It binds to muscle cell receptors in the lungs. The result of this? You breathe faster.
- It constricts the blood vessels in the eye, which makes your pupils dilate.
- It decreases the flow of blood to the stomach muscle and intestine, which causes your digestion to slow down or get inhibited.
- It stimulates cells in the heart. The result? You guessed it. Your heart rate increases.
Take note that all these things happen really quickly inside the body, hence the term, “adrenaline rush.”
Sounds complicated? Well, it kind of is. Here’s a visual summary of what happens in the body just so the concept is clear:
The long and short story of it all is that because of adrenaline, you feel all those symptoms associated with glossophobia when on stage. Put another way, when public speaking, you feel like you just ran a two-kilometer marathon without stopping in between because, well, it’s just the body’s natural response to a perceived threat.
How To Stop Your Heart From Racing
Since we know the direct cause of your heart racing is released adrenaline, it follows that if you learn how to control adrenaline public speaking should no longer give you those palpitations (and all those other symptoms, if you have them).
You might ask, but can adrenaline be controlled in the first place? The answer is yes, of course. That’s the beauty of our body. For every literal action, there’s a/n (re)action. And in this case, that (re)action is the parasympathetic system’s response.
While the body’s fight or flight response keeps you on your toes, the parasympathetic system, also known as the rest-and-digest system, allows you to, well, rest. In essence, that response enables the body to relax and repair itself.
That said, how can you control the adrenaline public speaking indirectly triggers and activate the parasympathetic system? Here are some strategies you can follow:
1. Breathe With Your Diaphragm
To activate your rest-and-digest system, you need to convince your body that the “threat” or “danger” has passed. For this, you need to stimulate the vagus nerve. Think of this nerve as your body’s reset button.
While shallow breaths are associated with the body’s fight-or-flight response, slow and deep breaths are associated with the rest-and-digest response. So, if you breathe with your diaphragm, you can convince your body that you’re relaxed and that you’re no longer facing any threat.
Breathing with your diaphragm means you need to engage, not just your diaphragm, but also your stomach and abdominal muscles when you take those deep breaths. Place one hand in the middle of the upper chest and the other just under your rib cage. Then inhale slowly through your nose.
While your stomach pushes against your hand, your chest should remain still. When you exhale, your lips should remain pursed. As the air slowly goes out, your stomach should fall downwards.
2. Think Happy Thoughts
You can let the body know you’re doing just fine if you think happy thoughts. If you’re just about to speak, you can do that while implementing the centering technique. Think about that delicious food you’ll eat after your presentation or that movie you plan to watch on Netflix when you get home while you’re standing with your feet apart, with your shoulders and your head down. Go to your happy place while your physical body is also in a relaxed state.
If you’re already speaking in front of a crowd, thinking happy thoughts AND keeping them to yourself might not be such a good idea. You might end up getting distracted and forgetting what you were supposed to say in the first place. What you can do then is share your happy thoughts out loud with your audience. That way, you can also give the crowd a mini-break, which I’m pretty sure they’ll welcome especially if you’ve been discussing quite a difficult topic.
3. Give Yourself A Pep Talk
You can also convince your body that you’re no longer in a stressful situation by convincing your OWN self that there’s really nothing to fear about. If you persuade yourself you’re not facing any threat, your body won’t need any more convincing that you’re in a relaxed state because, well, you already are.
Your pep talk can come in many forms. You can boost your confidence by reminding yourself how great it is that you were given the opportunity to speak before a crowd. Or you can remind yourself how awesome you are and enumerate all your strengths in your mind. All these, of course, are on the assumption that you didn’t start your presentation just yet.
It can be a bit more difficult to give yourself a pep talk when you’re already speaking in front of an audience. What you can do, then, is to encourage your audience to give you that talk instead.
Just acknowledge publicly that you’re really a bit nervous about your presentation. If you got a good crowd, and you most likely did, they’ll give you that encouragement you need to pull through. People love it when speakers (and fellow human beings, in general) acknowledge they feel vulnerable. It just shows their authenticity and reminds them that, hey, those people, in this case, the ones on stage, are normal people, too.
Ideally, you should follow all these tips to control the adrenaline public speaking indirectly stimulates. But if it’s overwhelming for you, you can just pick one to include in your routine before (or even during) your presentation. Use the trial-and-error method to determine which one is the best tip to follow for you.
Don’t think you’re the only person in the world whose heart races when public speaking. That and the loss of voice, high blood pressure, excessive perspiration, among others, are typical occurrences in people who fear that act. That fear is what prompts the body to react. It’s the adrenaline released by the body as a response that helps cause those symptoms.
Since adrenaline is the direct cause of those palpitations, if you learn how to control adrenaline public speaking triggers, you can essentially control that heart thumping and the other symptoms. Just follow the tips I shared with you in this article. Breathe with your diaphragm, think happy thoughts, and give yourself a pep talk.
Remember, the key is to convince the body that public speaking is not a threat at all. Do that often enough and you’ll soon find we don’t even need to have this conversation ever again. Best Wishes!
For more resources to develop your public speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check out the article ‘Online Resources for Public Speaking‘. If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'