In yesterday’s blog I referenced a podcast conversation between Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi called “Unlocking Us: How to Be an Antiracist.” In the podcast, Dr. Kendi says one of his favorite movies is “After Earth” starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith. Then he references this quote from Smith’s character. “Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

Public speaking fear is something we talk about often. Frankly, that’s because it’s so prevalent. But is it real? If I was asked to debate whether or not fear is real, I can honestly say I’d be comfortable arguing for either side. Both have elements of scientific support backing them up. But this quote and this question provides a great springboard for helping us talk about and tackle public speaking fear.

Fear is A Natural, Physical Response

Try telling someone who hates public speaking that what he is feeling isn’t real. Watch his hands shake. Listen to his voice quiver. See the sweat on his brow. Then tell him, “Fear is not real. It’s a choice. It’s all in your mind.” Not only is that insensitive, but it also doesn’t seem to take those very real bodily responses into account, does it?

But science tells us that it is all in your mind. Or at least it starts there. The brain is responsible for our flight or flight response. Smithsonian Magazine explains it this way. A perceived threat “triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight . . . This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in a danger. The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.” So all of those body responses are real. They are natural and scientifically proven reactions to a perceived threat.

You Control the Context

That’s why this argument could really go either way. The same Smithsonian article, written by two psychiatrists who study the neurobiology of fear, says that “a major factor in how we experience fear has to do with the context. When our ‘thinking’ brain gives feedback to our ’emotional’ brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, going from one of fear to one of enjoyment or excitement.” We make these kind of shifts when watching scary movies or when going through a haunted house. We know that while we’ll feel scared, we won’t actually get hurt. So that means we are free to enjoy the fear.

This goes along with what Smith’s character says in the movie. “Fear is a choice.” But when it comes to real physical danger, like being chased by an aggressive dog, you might not be able to reason away your fear response. And you probably wouldn’t want to. After all, that is a built-in, biological system meant to help you react and stay safe.

But here’s the most important thing we need to remember. When it comes to public speaking, you aren’t facing physical danger. So you have the ability to control how you categorize your fear. You have the ability to remind yourself that the perceived threat of public speaking isn’t one that holds real, physical danger. You get to control the context.

So is public speaking fear real? Yes and no. When your brain perceives it to be a threat, you will have fear-based, bodily responses. Those are as real as anything gets. But you also have the ability to tell yourself that your fear of public speaking belongs in the same category as scary movies or haunted houses. You can remind yourself that speaking in front of an audience won’t hurt you. The danger is not real. And while you may not enjoy the fear of public speaking the same way you’d enjoy a scary movie, you can place it into a similar category. One in which a perceived threat doesn’t equal actual danger. One in which you are in control.

Are you ready to battle your public speaking fear? Ethos3 is here to help.


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