12 Causes of Public Speaking Anxiety (& How to Tackle Them)

public speaking anxiety

Public speaking anxiety has many symptoms and consequences that can be difficult to overcome. We cover various causes of it, such as fear of judgment, lack of practice, and performance pressure. Various recommendations are integrated into the causes section to provide you with practical ways to improve.

Public speaking anxiety can be a significant barrier on stage when you’re trying to get your points through. It is quite common for people to experience this. It is also called glossophobia when intense and persistent (present across many such situations over time as opposed to being rare). We will discuss the symptoms, effects, and causes of this phenomenon. Then we will discuss a few related questions.

Symptoms of Public Speaking Anxiety

Note that there is a great number of symptoms that can exist with any psychological condition, but people will have a select few of these only. This individual variation exists in part because people express themselves differently and have different physiological systems.

You might experience a range of symptoms typical in any form of anxiety, such as higher heartbeat, sweating, trembling, dry mouth, shortness of breath, nausea, muscle tension, flushing, increased sensitivity to all sensations, etc. You might also struggle with your voice not sounding as intended.

Then there are anxiety symptoms specific to public speaking. This can include a strong urge to avoid public speaking. You may be stiffer, have unclear thoughts, worry about messing up, avoid eye contact, worry about the audience’s perception, etc. It may sometimes feel like you’re forgetting to breathe while you’re speaking.

Effects of Public Speaking Anxiety

It can have a range of negative effects. As it can affect speech negatively, it may lead to missed opportunities, lower self-confidence, stress, challenges at work or academics, etc. 

Anxiety often leads to avoidance, which can diminish the skills further over time because the individual does not get to practise it. As such, when they’re suddenly faced with a situation where they must speak, they struggle much more than if they had tried to expose themselves more frequently.

Related: Interested in being a better public speaker? Find out how you can use AI to do so

causes of public speaking anxiety

Causes of Public Speaking Anxiety

Cause 1: Bad Prior Experience

If you had difficulty in the past while public speaking, you might start associating it with bad consequences. This makes sense because we’re always trying to avoid repeating the same mistakes, so we want to keep those in mind when we go forward.

Try and assess what went wrong, obtain feedback from others, and practice until you’re confident. This will help you move on from the past and get set for the upcoming speech.

Cause 2: Lack of Experience or Practice

If you haven’t presented before or practised for it, you might experience anxiety because you don’t know how things will go.

Unfamiliarity can be an issue so to make yourself familiar, you can practice at home. You can video record yourself and assess how you’re doing. It’s a surefire way to improve while gaining confidence.

Cause 3: Performance Pressure

You might need to do well because of the scale of the event or the fact that it’s graded. High stakes often translate to high anxiety. 

In this case, consider what the worst consequences are and how likely it is that the worst will happen. Often, things are not as bad as we imagine them to be, although it is understandable that this happens. In the case of high stakes, we may also try to pressure ourselves to be perfect or do things that are not possible within given constraints. Instead, make yourself a realistic goal and work towards it. Cultivating some habits can help you in the long run to avoid feeling pressured.

Cause 4: Generalised Tendency to be on Edge

Some individuals tend to be anxious in general. This could mean a feeling of unease, nervousness, or being on edge almost all the time. If you have this, it might be more difficult for you to relax in general and an event like public speaking can make this worse. 

It would help to try out relaxation techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing. You can do this whenever anxious as well as before the event, for at least 10 minutes.

Cause 5: Fear of Judgment

Public speaking involves onlookers and it’s natural to think about how they might perceive you. However, this can become difficult for you when you’re preoccupied with it. You might fear judgment on what they might think of your speech, body language, etc.

Know that everyone has different opinions and it’s natural to not be liked by everyone. It sounds obvious but is a good reminder to have at times like public speaking. Practice until you’re satisfied with your performance so you’re the judge and no one can take that role from you. 

Cause 6: Self-consciousness

Excessive focus on yourself (i.e., your body language, appearance, etc.) can make it difficult for you to focus on your content, causing you to be more likely to mess up. 

It helps to be mindful of your surroundings. When you find yourself very self-focused, try to look around you and observe where you are, and how it feels like to be here. Acknowledge that, and bring your focus back to the content you’re speaking.

Cause 7: Shyness 

Some people are shy, which essentially means they struggle with being nervous around others. If you have had this for a long time, chances are that public speaking will only trigger this more. It can take courage to get out of your comfort zone and speak in front of many people. 

Just like the previous point, try to be mindful of your content. When you’re not so focused on your thoughts and fears, it becomes easier to do what you plan to do without anxiety coming in the way.

Cause 8: Anxiety of Appearing Anxious

If someone predicts that they’re going to be anxious then they might start getting anxious that they will appear anxious. It’s quite a bothersome loop to be stuck in, because then that anxiety defeats the purpose. It’s quite common to overestimate how well people can see how anxious someone is. Usually, people are so focused on themselves that they might not even notice unless there are very noticeable outward signs. 

When this happens, try to catch yourself in the process. After recognizing it, take deep breaths. If you’re anxious, that’s okay. Don’t force it. It will go away in some time. It’s important to remember that anxiety, just like any other feeling, is temporary.

Cause 9: Perfectionism

If you want to be perfect and make no mistakes at all, this puts a lot of pressure on you to perform. It is not possible to avoid all mistakes. In fact, perfectionism will increase the likelihood of mistakes because it increases anxiety.

Set realistic expectations and allow scope for mistakes. Consider the consequences of a mistake and if it’s as bad as you initially assumed.

Cause 10: Critical Onlookers

If you perceive your audience to be very critical of you, then you’re going to have a tough time. For example, some people you have some beef with looking at you intensely. 

It helps to have some friendly faces in the audience that you can make eye contact with. If not, look at the back right above the last row or empty spaces between the audience. This can give off the illusion that you’re looking but you’re not so you can focus on your content better.

Cause 11: External Pressure

Pressure from your parents, peers, etc. to do well can be difficult to cope with. Pressure is a good motivator at some level, after which it only makes things worse.

As mentioned earlier, be your own judge and take some deep breaths whenever you feel anxious. You practised, you know what you need to achieve, and you know you can do it!

Cause 12: Sociocultural Factors

Lastly, some cultures are very performance oriented and you may also face social pressures from others to do well, especially if you’re representing a particular group of people in a large platform.

Being mindful of how these pressures impact you can help you get some breathing space. 

Why do students fear public speaking?

Students when starting with presentations have not had much exposure yet. Many academic institutions do not train them in speaking skills. Hence, it’s very new and anxiety-provoking for people not used to speaking in front of many people. While they’re just as affected by the causes we considered above, they’re especially prone to peer judgment.

Students tend to worry a lot about their peer evaluations. They might experience what is commonly known as “spotlight effect”. This is when people think they’re being observed and thought about more than they actually are. So if you make a small mistake and think everyone is going to think badly of you, that would be an example of the spotlight effect. While this is understandable as we live in a society where we’re considerate of other’s opinions, it can have a reciprocal effect because anxiety can make us perform worse. It helps to consider: “If I was in the audience, and my friend was presenting, what would I have thought if they made that mistake?” Check out how to overcome public speaking anxiety as a student here.

Severe presentation anxiety

Are you finding that the anxiety is more than you can handle on your own and even after taking steps to cope, you’re still struggling? You might benefit from checking in with a mental health professional as they can shed light on the underlying issues that might be preventing you from being your best self on stage.

Conclusion

The article provides a detailed portrayal of public speaking anxiety. We start off by discussing its symptoms and effects. Then we cover the causes and how to deal with them. Then we cover why students in particular face anxiety and what one can do about severe presentation anxiety. 

If you haven’t yet, check out public speaking coaching to get the theoretical and practical know-how of how to speak fabulously without anxiety.

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