Glossophobia: the Fear of Public Speaking

Glossophobia is a common social phobia categorized under social anxiety. As of this writing, glossophobia affects a significant portion of the American population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), public speaking anxiety affects “about 73% of the population.”

Those affected by glossophobia are often mistaken for simply having a case of nerves or typical bouts of discomfort brought on by speaking in front of a large group. However, a defining characteristic of social anxiety disorders like glossophobia or agoraphobia is that they trigger sensations of fear entirely disproportionate to the situation at hand within affected individuals.

A 2019 systematic review by the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth (IJAY) explored the effects of negative social media interactions on the brains of individuals with social anxiety. Researchers found significantly heightened responses in areas of the brain associated with emotional response and self-evaluation in subjects in the positive group, particularly when compared to the undiagnosed group. This is the same response found in glossophobic individuals when exposed to a variety of public speaking situations.

Does Glossophobia Affect Some Groups More than Others?

According to the director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at the University of Cincinnati, Jeffrey R. Strawn, MD, FAACAP, “the fear of public speaking is more common in younger patients as compared to older ones and may be more prevalent in females as compared to males.” However, this doesn’t mean that the affected demographics are limited to these groups.

Possible Glossophobia Causes

Primary glossophobia causes don’t necessarily have to be extreme or traumatic. In specific personality types, something as ordinary as a negative social experience in childhood can qualify as the root cause for a range of social anxiety disorders going on into adult life.

Glossophobia is a condition brought about by extreme fears of embarrassment, judgment, or rejection by one’s peers. As this anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response in those affected, it can lead to more negative public speaking experiences, compounding the anxiety they are already experiencing.

Hereditary Anxiety

There has been some research into the possibility of hereditary anxieties. In 2002, a study was conducted by breeding mice showing fewer signs of anxiety and fear to test the hereditary anxiety hypothesis. While selective breeding in mice does result in offspring with a lower propensity toward anxiety, further research is required before we can establish a definitive case for social phobias being passed on genetically.

Physical & Physiological Symptoms of Glossophobia

Glossophobic individuals are affected in a variety of ways when under duress. Even the fear of a poor presentation performance can sometimes be enough to cause them to become socially withdrawn or feel overwhelmed.

Glossophobia symptoms commonly include uncontrollable shaking, an elevated heart rate, and excessive sweating. Though the symptoms themselves are not easily noticeable by an audience member, they can visibly affect the speaker’s performance mid-presentation, as well as cause the speaker to experience lightheadedness or even faint in severe cases.

Glossophobia Treatment: How to Overcome the Anxiety

As with other social anxiety disorders, there are several different methods one can take toward treatment. Not all require medication, however, they do require commitment from both the patient and his or her doctor.

Treatment of glossophobia is by no means a one-size-fits-all process. It depends entirely on the severity of the case and the comfort level of the patient. The three most commonly utilized tools are habit management, psychotherapy, and medication.

Habit management can be very targeted when dealing with glossophobia. Sometimes, simply adjusting preparation habits can significantly lessen public speaking anxiety in individual experiences. This can be done alone or with the support of others. Common suggestions for management include:

  • Getting to know the material well
  • Scripting the presentation
  • Practicing the script numerous times
  • Practicing with the aid of video recordings
  • Practicing dealing with responding to audience questions

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a popular form of psychotherapy that involves changing “how one thinks” with the help and guidance of a therapist. It’s a form of interactive therapy that focuses on identifying and altering a patient’s inaccurate or distorted behaviors, emotional responses, and thinking patterns.

Medication can also be incorporated into treatment if a patient requires more assistance on a chemical level, or to aid in the management of physical symptoms. The relevant medication types can include the following:

  • Anti-anxiety medications like beta-blockers (ex. propranolol)
  • Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (ex. fluoxetine or sertraline)
  • Minor tranquilizers like benzodiazepines (ex. lorazepam or alprazolam)

It should be noted that the severity of one’s glossophobia may well be the result of multiple social anxiety disorders, so it’s always advisable to consult with a qualified physician before engaging in approaches to treatment. This will guarantee that both the patient’s time and efforts are put toward addressing the root causes of their anxiety, and better managing their daily social interactions.