This is why you get public speaking anxiety (and how to beat it)


The best way to overcome your public speaking anxiety is to identify its root causes. We are well aware of the symptoms of public speaking anxiety:

  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • A dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness
  • Nausea
  • Increased heart rate

But we aren’t as aware of the things that are causing the symptoms.

In this blog, we will examine what happens, why it happens, and how to beat it.

Flight or fight mode

When it’s time to speak in front of a group of people (and this could be in a team meeting or on stage), you feel under threat. There is a part of you that fears judgment. You’re scared people will laugh at you, you’ll embarrass yourself, and you’ll come across as incompetent.

Now, the conscious part of your brain knows it is a terrifying situation but at the same time knows that it’s not life-threatening.

Illustrate a man on a stage visibly overwhelmed and scared about public speaking. The man appears in his early 40s, dressed in a gray suit and a light blue shirt, no tie, with medium-length black hair. His expression is one of fear and apprehension, with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth, as if he's hesitating before his speech. The background shows an auditorium with empty seats, highlighting his sense of isolation and focus on his fear. His body language, with hands slightly raised and palms facing forward, suggests a defensive posture.

Unfortunately, the subconscious part of your brain cannot decipher your exact situation. All it perceives is a threat to your existence and goes into flight or fight mode. Its intentions are good–it’s just trying to protect you–but the biological changes that happen in response to the threat are not conducive when speaking in front of a group of people.

The amygdala is activated

The amygdala is the part of your brain involved in processing emotions. It is the subconscious part of your brain. Its only purpose is to keep you safe. Once it detects your public speaking anxiety, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. 

The hypothalamus produces hormones that control your mood, heart rate, and body temperature.

The release of stress hormones 

Your body starts to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol increases your blood sugar levels.

As a result, you start experiencing the symptoms I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

So, why do these biological changes exasperate public speaking anxiety?

Increases forgetfulness

Your amygdala literally thinks you’re about to die, and so it prepares you to run away from the threat. It sends sugar-rich blood to your arms and legs so you can run. As a result, you have less blood in your head.

This makes you forget what you are going to say, slur your words, and decreases your articulation and enunciation. 


Illustrate a woman on stage experiencing a moment of forgetfulness during her speech. She is in her late 30s, dressed in a professional green blouse and black skirt, with shoulder-length wavy brown hair. Her facial expression conveys panic and confusion, with her mouth slightly open and eyes looking upwards as if trying to recall her words. She is standing behind a podium, with notes scattered, symbolizing her disorganization. The audience is blurred in the background, focusing the scene on her distress. Her hands are poised near her face, reflecting her anxiety.

As if things weren’t bad enough, forgetting your words and having your tongue twisted mid-speech just makes public speaking anxiety worse.

And, finally, because you aren’t using the high amounts of adrenaline in your muscles to run, you end up shaking.

Dry mouth

With your brain gearing you up to run, it doesn’t want you to choke on your saliva, so it simply stops producing it.

This is great if we’re trying to run away from King Kong during an attack, but not so helpful when we want to speak.

Saliva plays a vital role in our oral health and speaking abilities by lubricating the mouth, which is essential for the smooth movement of the tongue, lips, and cheeks. Without sufficient saliva, these movements become more difficult, leading to potential stumbling over words or a need to speak slowly to maintain clarity. 

Saliva aids in the precise enunciation of sounds, particularly those requiring quick or sticky movements, such as “t,” “d,” “l,” and “s” sounds.

When saliva is lacking, our ability to enunciate these sounds clearly diminishes, which can make our speech sound slurred or unclear. 

The discomfort of a dry mouth doesn’t end there; saliva also moistens the throat, protecting it from soreness. A lack of saliva leads to a dry and scratchy throat, forcing frequent throat clearing, resulting in a hoarse voice or making it challenging to speak loudly. 

The voice box turns off

The last thing you want to do when escaping something life-threatening is to make a sound. Your brain doesn’t want the perceived thread to be alerted by your presence, so it decides to lower the volume of your voice box.

The tightening or partial shutting down of the voice box can lead to a range of vocal issues—your voice might become shaky, your pitch may rise, or you might find it difficult to speak at all. 

Illustrate an Indian man on stage, visibly nervous and failing to project his voice while attempting to speak publicly. He is in his early 30s, dressed in a traditional Indian kurta of deep blue color, with short black hair and a mild beard. His expression shows anxiety and struggle, with his mouth slightly open and a look of concern in his eyes. His stance is timid, with his shoulders hunched and hands close to a microphone that seems too far away, symbolizing his difficulty in voice projection. The setting is a lecture hall, with the audience waiting in anticipation.

This physiological change, while meant to prepare the body for survival, significantly hinders our ability to convey thoughts and emotions effectively. 

In scenarios requiring clear communication, such as public speaking, the inability to use one’s voice effectively can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability or anxiety. 

Cognitive and emotional effects

The interplay between cortisol—the stress hormone—and the brain significantly impacts our cognitive and emotional states, especially in anticipation of anxiety-inducing events like public speaking. 

Cortisol’s influence extends to crucial areas of the brain responsible for regulating mood, motivation, and fear, leading to a heightened state of emotional vulnerability. 

You might find yourself besieged by negative thoughts, an overwhelming fear of being judged or failing, and a pervasive sense of worry about your performance. 

How to beat your nerves

These biological responses only make your public speaking anxiety worse, and this compounds the aforementioned effects.

The good news is that there are exercises you can employ to counteract these effects and calm your nervous system before speech. Let’s get into them.

Muscle clenching

Interestingly, a simple yet effective (and funny) technique to counteract the trembling that comes with public speaking anxiety is to clench the buttocks or thigh muscles deliberately. 

Engaging these large muscle groups can have a surprisingly calming effect. The action of clenching sends a feedback signal to the brain, a kind of bodily reassurance that the immediate threat is manageable. 

This physical response can help trick the brain into believing that the situation is under control, leading to a reduction in adrenaline production. As the flow of adrenaline slows, so too does the fight or flight response, allowing for a decrease in physical symptoms like shaking. 

This technique helps stabilise the body and serves as a grounding mechanism, refocusing the mind away from panic and towards managing the situation at hand. 

By employing such simple physical interventions, you can gain control over your physiological responses, enabling clearer thought and more effective communication when it’s most needed.

Breathing exercises

Deep breathing exercises stand as a powerful tool to mitigate the often overwhelming physiological effects of nervousness, especially in situations that challenge our composure, such as public speaking or high-pressure meetings. 

The technique focuses on intentional, deep breaths that originate from the lower stomach, below the belly button, a method that not only aids in calming the nervous system but also centers and stabilises the voice. 

By inhaling deeply for a count of three and then exhaling for the same duration, repeated three times, yoy can significantly reduce your heart rate, and diminishing the physical symptoms of public speaking anxiety. 

This controlled breathing pattern serves as a signal to the body that it is safe, effectively countering the fight or flight response triggered by stress. 

This practice doesn’t just have physical benefits but enhances emotional connectivity, allowing the speaker’s voice to carry a more resonant and authentic tone.

Physical movements

Incorporating physical movements into your preparatory routine before facing nerve-wracking situations like public speeches or presentations can surprisingly positively affect performance. 

A particularly effective exercise involves rapidly shaking one’s hands up and down while simultaneously engaging in facial exercises, which I call the “big face, small face” exercise. 


This is where you stretch your facial muscles to their limits—widening the eyes and mouth as much as possible, then contracting them—which can be both a release mechanism for stress and a way to loosen the muscles around the face and throat. 

This helps reduce excessive adrenaline and relaxes the facial and throat muscles–which facilitates smoother speech by reducing tension that can constrict the vocal cords. 

Wrapping up

While your brain means well in trying to protect you when you feel public speaking anxiety, its actions are counter-intuitive in public speaking scenarios.

Fortunately, the biological responses can be controlled and eliminated.

And it’s always worth supplementing your self-help practices with the support of an experienced public speaking coach who can provide you with more tailored guidance or enrol in an online public speaking short course.

Good luck! And if you want to hear more from me, you can find me on:

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