You’re the epitome of confidence in front of the bathroom mirror. You invite a friend to view your presentation and dazzle her with your poise. She loyally claps and smiles and offers words of encouragement.

It’s just that there’s this nagging flutter in your stomach every time you think about getting up in front of a group to speak. A nagging flutter? Are you kidding? More like an attack of killer butterflies! Even the thought of speaking in public can start your heart pounding, palms sweating and fill your mouth with cotton.

If you make it to the stage, your knees knock, your breath comes in gasps and you feel light-headed. Even if you get past all that, you’re voice shakes. You experience “brain freeze” and you “choke”. You open your mouth to speak and…nothing. At least that’s your nightmare! It usually is just a nightmare; the fearful things we conjure up in our imagination are almost always worse than the real thing.

But when we’re in the middle of the anxiety we think, “JUST a nightmare? Is there anything scarier than getting up in front of a group of people to speak?” Apparently not. There’s little we humans are as universally afraid of as speaking in public. It tops the list. Personally, spiders that bite and being stuck in quicksand top my list.

If you're fearful of speaking in public, you’re definitely not alone. Public speaking is stressful to a large number of people. Our bodies don’t seem to know the difference between being chased by a hungry saber-toothed cat and being stared at by an expectant, friendly audience. Most of our fears are imagined, but that doesn’t make them any less potent.

It’s not the speaking or the audience that’s the problem. It’s the fear! Our bodies are programmed to protect us from danger, real or imagined. Under extreme stress our bodies shoot hormones of adrenaline and noradrenalin into our blood stream so we can engage or run away (not a bad idea if you’re at all familiar with the likes of hungry saber-toothed cats). It’s the fight or flight reaction. Too much of this hormone infusion causes an extreme reaction that feels just plain scary and can cause mild to debilitating symptoms.

Having butterflies or nervousness before public speaking (whether it’s a workshop presentation or a stage performance) can be desirable to a degree. Yes, that's right. Desirable. A certain amount of stage fright keeps us alert and on our toes. Who wants to sit through a blasé, bland performance or presentation by someone bored with themselves and their material?

Most of the time, the stressful symptoms are manageable and temporary. They FEEL worse than they really are. We’re often more afraid of what we think might happen than of what does happen. We think, “What if I can’t remember anything? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I fail? What if I fall apart?”

The fear of public speaking is common AND it's also manageable. There may be some deep underlying reasons (real or imagined) for the inordinate fear that a counselor can help you sort out, but knowing what’s happening within your body that feels so uncomfortable can alleviate some of the anxiety. Performing an anxiety-reducing exercise can help you manage it.

Years ago I had a fear of flying that made trips by plane a nightmare. Thinking about the trip was the worst part. How would I react and how could I get through it without causing a spectacle of myself? Once I found out what the sounds and movements of the plane were, once I talked with pilots, attendants and maintenance people and got information, and once I understood the anxiety reaction and what could be done about it, most of my fear evaporated. I love to travel.

You now know what happens in your body when you have the “fight or flight” reaction. It’s a natural response you can learn to manage just as I did. I learned an exercise that quelled my own anxiety and relieved the symptoms. The situation didn’t change, but my reactions did.

The exercise can be used successfully anywhere and in any anxiety-producing situation. What a difference that made for me! Let me share it with you.

1. Sit in a relaxed and upright position, hands unclenched. (You can do this standing, if you must.)
2. Close your eyes. (This keeps you from being distracted. Plus, when someone sees you with your eyes closed, they generally won’t disturb you.)
3. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of ten, completely filling your lungs from your abdomen to your upper chest.
4. Gently pause, hold the breath for a moment before slowly releasing it into the back of your throat and out your mouth to the count of ten.
5. Repeat this cycle 10 times or until you feel the symptoms abate.

Now you have useful tool to use if, where or when you need it.

Author's Bio: 

Jan Noyes is a facilitator, teacher, Neurolinguistics Programmer and author of two books, How to Create and Present Great Workshops and Hey, Watch Your Language!