August 9, 2018

Your lizard brain doesn't want you to speak

My clients will frequently say to me, "I don't understand why I'm so nervous. There must be something wrong with me." Well, if it's wrong to be human, I guess we all have something wrong with us!

What we forget is that, while we are indeed human, we are also animals. Human animals, but still animals. And there is a very primitive part of our brain that still behaves as though we're living in a world populated by lions and other scary predators that are waiting to devour us if we remove ourselves from the safety of our herd. This part of the brain, the part that regulates our "fight or flight" response and other subconscious responses, is the limbic system—also called our "lizard brain," although it's not the same as what's called the "reptilian brain."

Humans have survived because we're social animals (or herd animals or pack animals, if you like)—we survive because we create cooperative and interdependent societies and groups. We need and depend on these groups, with their complex rules and systems, for our survival. And because we live and work in these groups, one of the worst things that can happen to a human (or other social animal) is to be kicked out of the group.

We need to belong to our group, so putting ourselves in front of the group, separating ourselves from the group, comes with great risk.

In a nutshell, when you put yourself out in front of an audience as a speaker, you become visible not only to the lions (according to your lizard brain), but also to those in your group who might shun you. Makes sense you would be scared if the result of your presentation might result in you being eaten or ostracized!

Of course, both of these outcomes are unlikely, but it doesn't stop our lizard brain from wanting to protect us. That primitive part of the brain is so tiny, yet has such a great impact in its ability to overrule our logical, and more recently evolved, neocortex.

So how do we manage this lizard brain?

First of all, let's just acknowledge it. There's nothing wrong with you if you're nervous about speaking in front of an audience. It's human nature to want to protect yourself, even though the process happens deep in your subconscious. Those of us who speak all the time and have been doing it for decades still get nervous! Yes, there's that lizard brain, but also, we just want to do a good job. We want our audiences to have a great experience and learn something. We do put human pressures on ourselves to succeed.

Second, there are many tools available that can help you work around that fight or flight response, the adrenaline that your body produces when your lizard brain feels threatened.

Some people prefer to dissipate the excess energy through jumping, stretching, "shaking like a dog" (that's a contribution from a client of mine who's a therapist), or moving their bodies in some way.

Others prefer to try calming strategies, such as breathing, listening to quiet music, meditating, or reading. By the way, if you ever watch athletes behind the scenes before a competition, you'll witness a variety of these strategies.

Third, understand that, with practice and experience, your nervousness will lessen over time. It very likely will not go away completely, and you will have some speaking engagements that dredge up more anxiety than others. The best way to manage your lizard brain is to speak frequently and get used to the sensations that adrenaline creates, and then work on managing your thoughts and your body so that you recover more quickly from your nerves.

And for fun, here's a short video that explains the lizard brain in an animated fashion.

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