What Is Communication Apprehension?

Learning Objectives

Define communication apprehension.

At one time or another, we’ve all felt nervous about a communication event. Nerves can show up as a knot in your stomach when you are about to meet someone new, sweaty palms and a dry mouth when asked to share your opinion during a meeting, or most recognizably, a shaking voice and pounding heart when giving a presentation.

Communication apprehension (CA) is a broad term used to describe the anxiety or fear related to real or anticipated communication with others.[1] While some people experience communication apprehension (CA) to a greater extent than others, research shows that almost everyone is affected by it to some degree. So common is the fear associated with public speaking that Jerry Seinfeld famously quipped that the average funeral attendee would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy!

Trait vs Situational Communication Apprehension

Some people may have a high level of anxiety across most communication scenarios, while others may only experience Communication Apprehension (CA) during certain situations. Trait anxiety refers to apprehension rooted in personality characteristics, meaning that a person is generally anxious engaging in most communication scenarios. Situational anxiety, however, occurs when a person who feels comfortable in most communication scenarios only feels anxiety in a particular situation at a particular time.


Feeling nervous is psychological, but CA is usually accompanied by physical symptoms often difficult to ignore. These symptoms are due to the adrenaline hormone, which is produced as a response to stressful situations. Adrenaline production is part of the process commonly known as the “fight or flight response,” in that its purpose is to prepare the body for action. In other words, it is a naturally occurring performance enhancer.

As adrenaline disperses through our body, air passages dilate and blood vessels contract to provide muscles with more oxygen. Pupils become dilated and glucose rises to increase our metabolism. In an actual fight-or-flight scenario, one may not notice the physical effects that adrenaline has since the body is using the extra energy. When we have a boost of adrenaline without needing to expend the extra energy, however, the physical symptoms are quite noticeable and take awhile to dissipate.

As a result, CA may result in mild to severe physical symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Pounding heartbeat
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Vision changes
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Blushing
  • Shaky voice
  • Speaking quickly

To watch: Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and the author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1994), speaks here about how our brains trick our bodies into creating the physiological conditions of mortal danger in the face of psychological threats.

He explains that feeling neurotic (excessively anxious), paranoid, or hostile in the face of seemingly small stressors is a uniquely human experience. The fight-or-flight responses that serve animals in the natural world can also create what he calls “stressors” on human beings.

You can view the transcript for “Robert Sapolsky: The Psychology of Stress” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Sapolsky demonstrates his scientific credibility (and that of his research) by using technical concepts from biology and neuroscience by attempting to use a humorous tone. It is never a good idea to use technical terms in your speech just to sound intelligent—if you have not mastered the concepts.

What do you think Sapolsky might have done better? He might have paused before or after he said, “You are being profoundly human,” in order to better emphasize that all humans deal with stress, and to better contrast with the harsh words he used before. He might have also changed several of his pronouns to “we” instead of using the more accusatory “you.” Also, assuming his audience was college students, he might have opted to use different examples—something more relatable than “prime lending rates” and “30-year mortgages.”

The fight or flight response is triggered by a threat: an attack, harmful event, or threat to survival. The brain processes the signals, beginning in the amygdala, and then the hypothalamus. The ACTH: the pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone. Then cortisol and adrenaline are released. The physical effects of which include heart race increase, bladder relaxation, tunnel vision, shaking, dilated pupils, flushed face, dry mouth, slowed digestion, and hearing loss.


Try It

  1. McCroskey, James C. "Oral Communication Apprehension: A Reconceptualization." Communication Yearbook. Ed. Michael Burgoon, Sage, 1982, pp. 136–170.