Understanding Anxiety

Feeling Anxiety Is Normal

Public speaking is one of the most widely held fears, causing nervousness and other unpleasant physical reactions for speakers.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of ways to combat speech anxiety

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As many as 75% of all people experience some form of anxiety about having to give a speech in front of others.
  • Anxiety may be characterized by sudden changes in mood and behavior. You may feel a sense of dread, light-headedness, nausea, or want to run out of the room. This is normal and you can work past these symptoms.
  • Anxiety can trigger this fear response even though your speech may be days or weeks away.

Key Terms

  • panic attack: A sudden period of intense anxiety, mounting physiological arousal, fear, stomach problems and discomfort that are associated with a variety of somatic and cognitive symptoms.
  • anxiety: An unpleasant state of mental uneasiness, nervousness, apprehension and obsession or concern about some uncertain event.

What is Speech Anxiety?

A picture of a man putting his hands on his face and making a nervous expression.

Anxiety and Public Speaking: Experiencing anxiety during public speaking in normal for many people.

Sometimes referred to as “glossophobia,” speech anxiety is a very real fear held by millions of people around the world. As many as 75% of all people experience some degree of anxiety about having to speak in front of a group of people, so if you’re nervous, you’re not alone. It’s more common than you think.

Common Effects of Anxiety

Anxiety is characterized by an extreme shift in mood and behavior including feelings of dread, worry, doubt, or fear. You may feel faint, have an upset stomach, or want to run out of the room. You might feel like you’re going to throw up or suddenly feel clammy or sweaty. Your heart might race or you may feel short of breath. In very severe instances, these feelings may escalate into a panic attack. Know that these feelings and behaviors are natural and there are ways to both confront and conquer them as you prepare to give your speech.

The most important thing to remember is that it’s perfectly normal to be anxious about presenting in front of a crowd, no matter how big or how small. There is hope and you can get through it.

Fear Versus Anxiety

Both anxiety and fear can trigger the same response in the human brain and body. Fear, however, is a response to an immediate, external threat; anxiety can occur without any kind of immediate threat. Anxiety looms rather than pounces. So in the weeks leading up to your speech, you may feel anxious. Right before you walk out onto the stage, you may feel full-fledged fear.

Conquering Public Speaking Anxiety

Organizations such as Toastmasters International, POWERtalk International, and the Association of Speakers Clubs help nervous speakers reduce their anxiety to manageable levels through practice and support networks. In addition to public speaking training courses, there are many self-help materials that address public speaking anxieties. Tips on how to improve eye contact, posture, and speech delivery, as well as how to reduce anxiety before and during public speaking, are common areas addressed in public speaking books and courses.

By far, the most important aspect of delivering a speech confidently is preparation and practice. It is crucial for both amateur and experienced speakers to rehearse speeches just as they plan to present them. Using aids such as PowerPoint, video, audio, flipcharts, and handouts during practice also helps with smooth transitions between slides and breaks. Other benefits of rehearsal include:

  • Accurately setting the pacing of the presentation
  • Practicing in front of others and receiving helpful feedback for improving your speech
  • Rehearsing in the actual location where you will be delivering your speech, thereby increasing your comfort level
  • Helping to detect any audibility issues, either by recording or listening carefully to yourself during rehearsal

With a finely tuned and well-rehearsed speech, presenters can reduce their anxiety and nervousness and deliver a speech with poise and confidence.

Situational Anxiety

Also known as stage fright, situational anxiety is the short-term form of anxiety surrounding public speaking.

Learning Objectives

Name the effects of situational anxiety

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Stage fright, like trait anxiety, is perfectly normal.
  • Even seasoned public speakers experience stage fright.
  • You may feel faint, excitable, or jittery when experiencing stage fright. Your heart might race, your mouth might feel dry and you may feel out of breath or suddenly nauseous. These are all normal sensations and reactions that can be overcome.

Key Terms

  • stage fright: A state of nervousness about performing some action in front of a group of people, on or off of a stage; nerves; uncertainty; a lack of self-assurance before an audience.

Situational Anxiety

What is Situational Anxiety?

Stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially (for example, when performing before a camera). In the context of public speaking, this may precede or accompany participation in any activity involving public self-presentation.

I picture of a person's feet with clenched toes.

Situational Anxiety: Situational anxiety is a temporary, short-term form of anxiety triggered by certain situations or experiences.

In some cases, stage fright may be a part of a larger pattern of social phobia or social anxiety disorder, but many people experience stage fright without any wider problems. Quite often, stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead. It has numerous manifestations:

  • fluttering or pounding heart,
  • tremor in the hands and legs,
  • sweaty hands,
  • diarrhea,
  • facial nerve tics,
  • dry mouth.

People and Situations Affected

Stage fright may be observed in people of all experiences and backgrounds, from those completely new to being in front of an audience to those who have done so for years. It is commonly known among everyday people, which may affect one’s confidence in job interviews. It also affects actors, comedians, musicians, and politicians. Many people with no other problems can experience stage fright (also called performance anxiety), but some people with chronic stage fright also have social anxiety or social phobias which are chronic feelings of high anxiety in any social situation. Stage fright can also be seen in school situations, like stand up projects and class speeches.

Effects of Situational Anxiety

When someone starts to feel the sensation of being scared or nervous they start to experience anxiety. According to a Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Anxiety usually has physical symptoms that may include a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, and nausea” (Beyond Shyness). It triggers the body to activate its sympathetic nervous system. This process takes place when the body releases adrenaline into the blood stream causing a chain of reactions to occur. This bodily response is known as the fight or flight syndrome, a naturally occurring process in the body done to protect itself from harm. “…The neck muscles contract, bringing the head down and shoulders up, while the back muscles draw the spine into a concave curve. This, in turn, causes the body to slump into a classic fetal position” (Managing Stage Fright).

In trying to resist this position, the body will begin to shake in places such as the legs and hands. Several other things happen besides this. Muscles in the body contract causing them to be tense and ready to attack. Second, blood vessels in the extremities constrict (Managing Stage Fright). This can leave a person with the feeling of cold fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Constricted blood vessels also gives the body extra blood flow to the vital organs.

In addition, those experiencing stage fright will have an increase in blood pressure, which supplies the body with more nutrients and oxygen in response to the fight or flight instincts. This, in return, causes the body to overheat and sweat. Breathing will increase so that the body can obtain the desired amount of oxygen for the muscles and organs. Pupils will dilate giving the speaker the inability to view any notes that are in close proximity. However, long range vision is improved making the speaker more aware of their audience’s facial expressions and non verbal cues in response to the speaker’s performance. Lastly, the digestive system shuts down to prepare for producing energy for an immediate emergency response. This can leave the body with the effects of dry mouth, nausea, or butterflies (Managing Stage Fright).

Trait Anxiety

Trait anxiety is a form of neurosis; it is a long-term anxiety related to the very idea of public speaking.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate trait anxiety from situational anxiety

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Trait anxiety tends to build up over time and may be the result of neurosis. Trait anxiety may be conscious or unconscious.
  • Those who experience trait anxiety may already be people who are naturally shy and self-conscious.
  • Women are more likely to experience trait anxiety than men.

Key Terms

  • neurosis: A mental disorder, less severe than psychosis, marked by anxiety or fear.

What is Trait Anxiety?


Trait Anxiety: Trait anxiety refers to a long-term form of anxiety, often stemming from neuroticism.

When we talk about anxiety as it relates to public speaking, we like to think of it as two different types of anxiety. There’s situational anxiety that is triggered by specific and immediate events. The other is trait anxiety, which refers to a more long-term form of anxiety. Trait anxiety reflects a stable tendency to respond with state anxiety in the anticipation of threatening situations. Trait anxiety tends to build up over time and may be the result of neurosis. Trait anxiety may be conscious or unconscious.


Individuals who score high on neuroticism are more likely than the average to experience such feelings as anxiety, anger, envy, guilt, and depressed mood. They respond more poorly to environmental stress, and are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult.

Neuroticism is often marked by shyness and a lack of self-confidence, making tasks like public speaking seem like an insurmountable challenge. Fear not: there is hope. You might be experiencing trait anxiety when the very idea of getting up to speak in front of a crowd – no matter the size – causes an immediate feeling of dread and may affect your mood for several hours, days, or even weeks.

A neurosis around public speaking may have been caused by an event when you were very young, where you received criticism or ridicule in front of a group of people. Or, it may be something that has always stayed with you.