Overcoming the fear and anxiety of Public Speaking and other phobias.

In survey after survey, people put the prospect of speaking in front of an audience near the top of their list of anxieties and biggest fear. These surveys list “fear of public speaking ” in front of heights, divorce, cancer and death.  It’s a universal fear: Even seasoned presenters often experience sweaty palms and butter flies before presenting. The reasons for these fears are the activation of the  fight-or-flight reflex which releases cortisol and adrenaline and other nervous substance in our blood stream.

Glossa means tongue and phobos stands for fear or dread. Here are the most important educational fear of public speaking statistics, seven bare facts. These statistics are hard to find, so I’ve compiled one fact sheet, based on studies of national and international mental health institutes and governing bodies.

Research Results
Some surveys and research results show that most people rather die instead of talking in front of a live audience. This is a global fears top ten:

1. Fear of public speaking
2. Fear of death
3. Fear of spiders and snakes
4. Fear of darkness
5. Fear of heights
6. Fear of people or social situations
7. Fear of flying
8. Fear of germs and diseases
9. Fear of thunder and lightning
10. Fear of confined spaces (Claustrophobia)

In an exciting breakthrough for psychological science, researchers in the United States have demonstrated a drug-free, no beta blockers,  way to prevent the return of a learned fear.  It’s hoped the rediscovered approach through the  behavior modification principle  of extinction will lead to improved and practical ways to remove fear of speaking, heights, germs etc. These phobias and  traumatic memories can have devasting impacts oh every day quality of life.

Research Elizabeth Phelps has been research how fears can be acquired through learning for over twenty years. The fact that memories and behavior are learned raised in her mind how can they be unlearned?  It is clear that people are quite adept at acquiring fear, but what mechanisms can we use to successfully diminish fear once it has been learned? The procedure began with 65 participants learning to fear a coloured square that appeared on a computer screen. Each time the square appeared they received a mild but unpleasant electric shock to their wrist. In a real-life scenario the equivalent might be a repeatedly bad experience on each attempt at giving a public speech or sales presentation. The next day, the participants were repeatedly presented with the square but without the shock. This is a well-established procedure in psychological therapy known as extinction, the idea being that the person unlearns the fear associated with the stimulus or situation. A real-life equivalent might be to repeatedly practice giving a presentation in a safe environment, perhaps to sympathetic friends and family, or to a “virtual audience”.

Crucially, a minority of participants undertook the extinction trials just ten minutes after they were given a reminder of the coloured square. This reminder will have rendered the memory of the square temporarily “labile” or vulnerable to modification. Other participants completed the extinction trials six hours after a reminder – too late to capitalise on the memory’s vulnerable period – whilst a third group of participants had no reminder at all. A short-coming with extinction therapy is that even after people appear to have unlearned the fear associated with a stimulus or situation, that fear can creep back. In the lab, on day three, the participants were again presented with the coloured square. Even though they’d all responded without fear at the end of the previous day’s extinction training, the majority of the participants – those who’d had the 6-hour reminder before extinction, and those who’d had no reminder – showed a renewed fear response (as betrayed by their sweatiness), just as eventually tends to happen after extinction therapy in real life.

But excitingly, this was not so for the participants who’d had the ten-minute reminder before the previous day’s extinction trials! They were ice calm, unmoved by the coloured square. For this group, it’s as if their memory of the square had been permanently modified. When, on the previous day, they’d been reminded of the unpleasant shock-square experience, this memory was briefly vulnerable to modification, and it was just at this critical time that they’d had the run of ten innocuous, shock-free presentations. For the fictional student with a fear of class presentations, the trick would be to recall their nightmare experience in class, and then begin the safe, innocuous practice of presentations with friends.

This study gets even more impressive because the result carried over when a subsample of the participants were post tested a year later – those who’d had the ten-minute reminder before extinction were still largely unmoved by the square whereas the other participants again showed signs of fear.

What’s more, the intervention is highly specific and concrete. The researchers repeated the procedure but with three differently coloured squares – two associated with a shock, and one safe square. They then used the pre-extinction reminder procedure for one of the feared squares but not the other, and it was only this targeted square that remained fear free. SEE more at Psychological Science summaries.


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