Fear of Public Speaking Hardwired
Speech Anxiety Worse for Some, but Most Can Overcome It
April 20, 2006 -- Fear of public speaking strikes some people harder -- and
differently -- than others, according to a new study.
The study shows that those who suffer most over speaking in public get more
anxious -- not less anxious -- as their presentation gets under way. And when
it's over, instead of feeling relief, they feel even more anxious.
If speaking in public scares you, you aren't alone, says Paul L. Witt, PhD,
assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University,
"It is even scarier than rattlesnakes," Witt tells WebMD. "The
idea of making a presentation in public is the No. 1 fear reported by people in
And it's not just making a speech. Anxiety strikes any time we present our
ideas in front of other people.
"Anytime people make verbal remarks that need to be clear and
persuasive, we find widespread reports of stage fright and nervousness,"
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Getting a little keyed up may help us
focus and pay better attention. It happens to almost everybody who gets ready
to make a presentation, Witt and colleagues find.
Sensitizers vs. Habituaters
Witt and colleagues studied 48 male and 48 female college students enrolled
in a beginning public speaking class. The speakers underwent a battery of
psychological tests before and after making a five-minute assigned
presentation. The tests included a self-report inventory of gastrointestinal
To nobody's surprise, people who are anxious by nature -- what psychologists
call high-trait anxiety -- had the most symptoms when speaking in public.
What was surprising was the anxiety pattern. People with low-trait anxiety
get nervous before speaking but begin to relax once they get started. People
with high-trait anxiety, however, are anxious when they start speaking and get
more anxious as they go on.
"We hear this comment a lot from speakers: 'I was so nervous when I
started but by the time I finished it wasn't so bad. I even wished I had more
time,'" Witt says. "What happens is we have habituated -- we have
gotten used to the context of public speaking."
Habituaters are usually low-trait anxiety people. People with high-trait
anxiety, Witt says, tend to be "sensitizers."
"Sensitizers are those who really focus on the unpleasant indicators:
'Oh my gosh, I have to make this speech. Oh my Lord, my hands are trembling.'
And they focus on these things instead of taking a deep breath or becoming more
focused. They are really into the experience but react in negative ways,
whereas habituaters are really into the experience and react in a more
Even when their speech is over, sensitizers don't relax. In fact, they
become even more anxious.
Witt's study appears in the March issue of Southern Communication