By Harper West
I’m pleased to guest blog for Eleni Kelakos who has been instrumental in helping me improve my public speaking ability. Some wisdom from the dog world from my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” might have some relevance to anyone who suffers from fear of public speaking.
Ask most dog owners why they like dogs and they often say it’s because a dog gives them unconditional love. One of the reasons we find dogs so appealing is that they don’t judge us and they also don’t judge themselves.
Our love of the accepting nature of dogs isn’t surprising because humans are social beings with a strong, natural need for social inclusion. In ancient times, getting cast out of the tribe was a frightening possibility that might have meant death.
Today, the feelings of shame, humiliation, criticism and rejection are the emotional parallel of being physically cast out. And what is public speaking but the opportunity to be publicly shamed and humiliated in front of a large crowd of people (our tribe!). So it is no surprise that public speaking is the number one fear for most people. It triggers a very primal fear that used to relate to our survival: If I do something wrong, I might be shamed, judged and rejected.
Of course, we recognize rationally that we are no longer likely to be physically ostracized, yet this elemental fear of being spurned socially can still trigger a primal fear response. That’s because fear of physical threat (getting chased by a bear) and fear of emotional threat (getting rejected) both activate a part of the brain called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which prepares the body to respond.
Since Walter Cannon identified “fight-or-flight” behaviors in humans in 1929 we’ve recognized that people have the same primal response to fear as dogs and other animals do. When our senses detect a threat, the signals go to a part of the brain called the amygdala that handles emotional processing. The amygdala sends signals to the hypothalamus, which signals the adrenal glands to release hormones such as epinephrine or adrenaline. The body instantly responds with physical symptoms, such as increased blood flow, faster heart rate and breathing, and sweating, all preparing the body to quickly flee, fight, or freeze. This process happens at a biochemical level so that we are not aware of it, yet is so powerful it allows us to jump instantly out of the way of a runaway car.
These hormonal responses also heighten the emotions. When you feel threatened, your emotions will be on high alert and your emotions can be easily hijacked. If you’ve ever been in a car accident, you know the sensation of your heart pounding and palms getting clammy afterward. You may have been quick to anger – did you want to yell at the other driver even if the accident was your fault? Conversely, you may have felt shaky and tearful. You may not have realized you were at the mercy of a primal survival reaction at that moment.
These reactions may sound a lot like how most people react when they even think about giving a speech: racing heart, fast breathing, sweating, shaking, blushing.
Recognizing the roots of this primal reaction may help you stop the emotional hijack that is going on in your body and brain. You aren’t actually being chased by a bear or cast out of your tribe, but your body is reacting as if it is.
In “Pack Leader Psychology” I write about how this fear response to social rejection leads to unhealthy behaviors that affect our relationships in fundamental ways. I completely transformed my personality and life with these concepts and, while I was never extremely afraid of public speaking, since becoming a “Pack Leader” I certainly have become much more confident and much less fearful of judgment by others.
Pack Leader Wisdom: When you exist only for everyone else's approval, you constantly risk rejection. When you rely only on your own approval, the risk of rejection evaporates.
For a free quiz to find out if you are a Pack Leader, go to www.PackLeaderPsychology.com/contact