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Stage Fright and Social Anxiety: Transforming Fear into Freedom

“Several surveys have shown that not only is giving a speech an extremely stress provoking proposition but that people would rather DIE than give one! It’s estimated that 75% of all people suffer from speech anxiety, and more than 19 million Americans meet the criteria for the diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder. So, those of us suffering with some level of social anxiety are in good company.”

-Nicole MacDonald

I immediately “dropped” classes in college when I found out I’d have to give a speech in them, but later in graduate school I was required to give a speech in every class! I literally lost hair over it. I even went to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for Xanax, just to know I had some if I really need to be drugged!

During the hours leading up to a speech I’d have to visit the bathroom every few minutes, my heart raced and pounded, my mouth got very dry, voices around me sounded as if they were being spoken in a tunnel. The experience before and during my speeches was nearly unbearable. I was having panic attacks!

My experience is an example of how our body’s survival instincts are triggered by the fearful thoughts many of us have about giving a speech—The fight-flight (and fright) response becomes activated. This mechanism is in place to sharpen our awareness when there is danger and to mobilize our bodies to defend our lives or get us to safety in the face of a life-threatening emergency. Why does public speaking make so many of us think we need to fight or run for our lives? Maybe it’s only the adrenaline junkies who “love” to give speeches and be in the public eye—I would have rather had a root canal!

What happens when it’s not just public speaking that creates anxiety, but when social anxiety is part of our daily lives? Some of us experience persistent, intense, and chronic fears of being judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by something we might accidentally say or do? We may very well know in our head that the fear of social interaction is excessive or unreasonable, but despite this awareness, it can be quite difficult to change. It’s a painful experience and one that often carries with it feelings of shame and loneliness.

Several surveys have shown that not only is giving a speech an extremely stress provoking proposition but that people would rather DIE than give one! It’s estimated that 75% of all people suffer from speech anxiety, and more than 19 million Americans meet the criteria for the diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder. So, those of us suffering with some level of social anxiety are in good company.

Why does being with groups or speaking in public trigger such anxiety?

We can’t possibly “read” everyone in a group to determine how they are receiving us, and we can’t alter ourselves to meet everyone’s expectations. We don’t always get enough feedback to tell us the impression we’re making, and when in front of an audience we have even less control.

What’s happening within our minds and bodies to trigger and amplify symptoms of social anxiety?

When our minds become flooded with fearful and negative thoughts, it makes us doubt that we can handle social interactions and public speaking. It kicks off a vicious mind-body cycle. Our negative thoughts cause symptoms like a shaky voice, trembling, blushing, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, and other digestive problems. The more these symptoms flare, the more our mind gets really scared. Sometimes we fear that others will take notice of the physical reactions we are having too, accelerating the Mind-Body cycle and amplifying anxiety.

What can we do to stop the cycle of anxiety and disengage the Fight or Flight response?

Compassion for Ourselves
Create a loving phrase, something a trusted confidant might tell us, or words spoken from our higher Self. This might be what we’d say to a child who was afraid to express himself in a new social environment. We’d tell them something like, “It’s OK. I’m right here with you. You are safe. Go ahead and tell them your name”. Now whittle that phrase down to its essence:

“I am safe and I am loved.”

Say this phrase over and over in the face of anxiety. Even if you don’t think you are really “hearing” the words, and the negative voice is louder and warning you of danger, keep repeating it to yourself:

“I am safe and I am loved.”

Adding the Breath
Try adding “Breathe” to the end of the phrase:

“I am safe and I am loved. Breathe.”

We often hold our breath or breathe erratically when we are anxious or scared. This tells our body there is an emergency, which triggers the mobilizing physical responses. By rhythmically saying a calming sequence like this one, and adding the breath, our mind-body will get used to responding with relaxation. And over a relatively short period of time this phrase (or mantra) will work more and more quickly. Eventually, just saying the phrase once will remind our body of what’s to follow: Calmness and Safety.  

Relax the Body with Medicinal Herbs
Take this formula of equal parts Kava Kava (Piper methysticum),
California Poppy (Escholzia californica), Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). This combination of herbs reduces nervousness, apprehension, agitation, heart palpitations, susceptibility to fright, muscle tension and spasms, dream-disturbed sleep and insomnia. When we calm the body with these medicinals it simultaneously calms the mind and Spirit.

Practice Receiving Love and Acceptance
Practice with a person you trust-a friend or counselor (or your pet! Then work your way up to feeling comfortable talking to a person). Ask them to just sit and smile and nod at you while you share your speech or express yourself. You may be relieved to find that your confidant has a much different and very positive experience of the way you express yourself. Share with them how difficult it is and what your body tends to do when you get nervous. You will likely find they too have a level of social anxiety, and that you are not alone in your feelings.

Excitement versus Fear
My heart races every time it’s my turn to speak in a group. I had always assumed this was fear and dread, and part of my hang-up about talking in public, but I have realized that it was actually my excitement about getting to share myself and what I’m passionate about. My body was interpreting the heart racing as “fear” and “danger”, which got me feeling nervous! But when I realized it was excitement (not fear) I was able to tell myself, “You are so excited to share. Go for it!” Sometimes what we interpret as fear is at least partially getting excited about sharing ourselves. We all want to be heard!

Find Your Power Stance
Find a stance or gesture that symbolizes you “meeting” the energy you want to channel through you. I use the typical martial arts stance. It just feels steady and powerful to me. A friend of mine thrusts her arm back, bent at the elbow and says, “Yes!” Try this one-it’s great! Take a moment before you get to your social destination and try these power stances over and over. It feels fantastic to move the energy and own it!

Connect with your True Purpose
Take a look at your deeper reason for speaking or socially engaging in the first place. If you are giving a speech for work or for school you are likely not ultimately doing it because your boss or teacher is making you. You are probably doing it because you have a personal career goal that your class is leading you towards, or you want to advance in your work or share something you are knowledgeable or passionate about. If it’s chronic social anxiety you want to release, tap into the longing for deep meaningful connection and say to yourself, “I want and deserve to have fulfilling relationships” or, “I really want people to know me”. Connect with that part of you and set your intention on fulfilling that goal as the “why” or true purpose behind your speech or social engagement.

By employing these techniques and utilizing the powerful capabilities of the herbal formula we can “show” the more primitive part of our brain that there’s no danger. We can reduce our suffering over having to give speeches. We can feel more comfortable branching out socially. We can transform fear into freedom!

Nicole MacDonald holds a masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (currently taking her board exams for licensing) and is a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild.  She has been successfully combining counseling and medicinal herbalism, healing mind and body to restore her client’s well-being, for the past nine years. Nicole is also an experienced workshop facilitator.  Her latest workshop series is all about Finding Your Life Purpose.  


  1. Ali on October 25, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Thanks, Nicole. I found this very helpful and a pleasure to read.

  2. Bold Serenity on October 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Well written. I will definitely use these tools. Thanks!