Speech Anxiety

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Public speaking is often described as the most common fear in the world. It is also something that many people are required to do. It may be to give a toast at a wedding, to present a seminar at work, to make an argument to a local council, to receive an award or to be interviewed by a board of directors for a job. Public speaking is something few people can avoid and yet it continues to be a major fear. To understand this fear and how it can be managed and prevented, the issue will now be looked at in more detail. This will begin with a definition of public speaking anxiety and a discussion of the various forms it takes. This will be followed by a discussion of some of the common treatments and finally, the impact of preparation and practice will be discussed.

Public speaking anxiety is defined as a certain type of communication apprehension or CA, where CA is defined as, “fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with another person or person” (O’Hair, Freidrich, Wiemann & Wiemann 344). Communication apprehension can be either a personality trait, where the individual feels apprehensive about any type of communication. Or more commonly, it is situational, where the level of anxiety depends on factors such as the nature of the communication and the size of the audience. This explains why an individual may be a confident speaker in an informal situation, but may still develop high levels of anxiety in a situation with a large audience or one that is seen as a threat. It is also important to note that it is not only the size of the audience that matters, the other factors in the situation also have an impact. For example, an individual may be comfortable giving a speech to several hundred school mates, but then experience anxiety if asked to speak in front of a formal board of directors, or to a group of children. This illustrates that it is the stress associated with the communication situation that determines the levels of anxiety experienced.

The symptoms and effects of public speaking anxiety range from minor ones to more serious consequences. Symptoms for mild to medium cases may include nausea, sweating, shaking and other similar physical symptoms. More serious cases may cause a person to avoid public speaking at all costs. This may be damaging to a career and usually involves the person adapting themselves to avoid the fear. It is worthwhile to note at this point, that there is a major difference between a fear and an anxiety disorder. As Seamon and Kenrick (499) explain, “It is normal to feel some amount of fear in threatening situations. The person with an anxiety disorder, however, feels that same emotion in situations that others would say pose no threat, and he or she feels it to the extent that it interferes with their everyday life.” It is at the point where the fear interferes with a person’s lifestyle, that the fear becomes a major concern.

For severe public speaking anxiety there are two common cognitive approaches to treatment, systematic desensitization and cognitive restructuring. For milder forms of public speaking anxiety, preparation and practice are common approaches to overcoming the problem.

Systematic desensitization is described as involving, “Learning deep muscle relaxation, constructing hierarchies of anxiety-provoking stimuli, and pairing relaxation and anxiety-provoking stimuli” (O’Hair et al 508). In this treatment, the patient pairs up images that usually provoke anxiety with relaxation activities. This is a treatment based on changing the associations the person has when they think of public speaking.

Cognitive restructuring is defined as a method, “That teaches individuals how to identify anxiety-producing negative statements about...
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