June 21, 2007

Public speaking: fear vs. phobia



Yesterday I received an e-mail from someone who doesn't believe I should be advertising my services to people who fear public speaking. The rationale was that building skills and practicing public speaking does nothing to resolve the fear, and that public speaking fear is an irrational phobia, which can't be fixed by the likes of public speaking coaches.

I responded that she was referring specifically to people who have phobias, which make up a small percentage of the people who have public speaking anxiety, and that those folks should seek help from a therapist, which I am not.

However, I do believe that people who fear public speaking, whether they are phobic or not, can be helped. And furthermore, I don't recommend eradicating all anxiety, as a small amount of anxiety can actually be helpful to a speaker.

So what about that phobia?

The Ohio State University Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic has a page of diagnostic criteria for social phobia (of which public speaking is one form), from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).

Under diagnostic features, the page says,

"The fear or avoidance must interfere significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, or social activities and relationships, or the person must experience marked distress about having the phobia.

For example, a person who is afraid of speaking in public would not receive a diagnosis of social phobia if this activity is not routinely encountered on the job or in the classroom and the person is not particularly distressed about it. Fears of being embarrassed in social situations is common, but usually the degree of distress or impairment is insufficient to warrant a diagnosis of social phobia."

Treatment for social phobia can include medication, but usually centers around cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

"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."

Then, "When people are ready to confront their fears, they are shown how to use exposure techniques to desensitize themselves to situations that trigger their anxieties." (I believe this refers to "practicing".) (More on Social Phobia and CBT here.)

Finally, back to the OSU Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic:

"Epidemiological and community-based studies have reported a lifetime prevalence of social phobia ranging from 3% to 13%. The reported prevalence may vary depending on the threshold used to determine distress or impairment and the number of types of social situations specifically surveyed. In one study, 20% reported excessive fear of public speaking and performance, but only about 2% appeared to experience enough impairment or distress to warrant a diagnosis of social phobia."

So, people with fear of public speaking which is severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of social phobia make up a very small part of the population. People who do have social phobia can be treated, if they so desire.

And people like me, who offer public speaking coaching not just to those who fear public speaking but to anyone who wants to improve their skills and build confidence, can continue to do so, knowing that the majority of people who have public speaking anxiety do not require psychotherapy.

Followups on social phobia and social anxiety here, here, and here.

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Are you an entrepreneur or professional who's looking for better results from your speaking? Are you hoping to build credibility and visibility for your business or cause? Tired of just "getting by" and ready to deliver truly engaging and powerful presentations? Click here to fill out my consultation questionnaire and we'll schedule a time to talk!

4 comments. Please add yours! :

Jacki Hollywood Brown said...

I've worked with horses for 25 years. Horses are large animals. I have met many, many people who are afraid of horses because they are so big. Once those people are educated about horses the way horses thinnk, once they are taught how to behave around horses, their nervousness starts to disappear. The more they are around horses and interact with them, the less nervous they are.
Once you are taught the SKILLS of public speaking and you have the chance to PRACTICE public speaking the less nervous you will be when you have to do it.
A good coach is essential in encouraging a student to push beyond his/her limit while recognizing when the student has gone beyond his/her capabilities of that session. Praise is essential.
If you can't join a group of public speakers like Toastmasters, find a bunch of friends or co-workers and form a little support group.

Carrie Sommer said...

I am here to say that the person who emailed you has no business making that statement.

As you very well know, I have a total fear of public speaking - it is nearly crippling to me. And as you know, you helped me make a presentation that will result in the biggest national publicity my business will receive to date.

Am I still parylized with public speaking fear? Yes! But knowing that there is a supportive coach available to help me see the forest for the trees will enable me to do it again, if I absolutely must!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

That's a great analogy, Jacki. And you're right - the hardest part is pushing past the comfort zone and the known limits in order to get to a new place. In order to manage one's fear, one has to face it first.

Carrie, I'm so excited for you and where this opportunity is going to take you! When you see the amazing results that you can achieve with public speaking, it helps you to realize that, no matter how anxious you are, you can always do it again!

Jacki Hollywood Brown said...

To Carrie,
Obviously you had a great coach you helped you comfortably push past your comfort zone and encouraged you to succeed.
Congrats!

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