Speaking in a public setting, whether to a large group or simply to another person, can be a difficult and even embarrassing task when anxiety is involved. Many people with anxiety disorders experience speech problems based on having difficulty concentrating and feeling the need to swallow while they are speaking. These types of speaking problems can cause you to avoid speaking entirely, or to panic whenever you do speak to the extent that you have to stop.
If you are suffering from this symptom of anxiety, it can help to know exactly what is happening in your body when you experience these speech problems, how anxiety negatively affects this, and what you can do to prevent the attacks that seem to make it difficult or impossible to speak normally.
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How Anxiety Can Make It Hard To Concentrate
Anxiety is a mentally and physically overwhelming condition. Your mind (and your brain) can only focus on X amount of things at any given time. When you have anxiety, it takes up much of that space, making it considerably harder for you to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Indeed, not only does it take over your thoughts, but there is a great deal of evidence that anxiety can actually shut some parts of your brain down temporarily because it can't handle all the work.
It's important that you first take my anxiety test before moving onward, as this test is an important tool for showing you the severity of your anxiety and what you can start doing to treat it.
When you really need to concentrate, anxiety is right there to get in the way. Whether it is preventing you from applying your mind to a problem, crowing your mind with other problems, or refusing to let you rationalize your way past the anxiety, anxiety can cause real difficulties when you are trying to do speak well and make a good impression on others (for example, at a job interview, meeting someone you are attracted to, or making a clear informational presentation in front of a group).
Here are some of the effects that anxiety has that can stop you from concentrating when you most need to:
- Deer in the Headlights Effect Anxiety, like fear (its more rational cousin), can cause your brain to freeze up (like a deer in the headlights). The thing that disturbs you becomes so overwhelming that your mind and body don't know what to do, tensing up to the extent that you are unable to operate. Speaking can involve unrealistic anxieties about the negative ways people will perceive you if you do, and also irrational worries about your body malfunctioning while you speak. Particularly if you are anxious about not being able to speak due to a speech impediment such as the need to swallow, you may have a conscious reason not to want to talk as well as an unconscious reaction to the pressures of talking, making it even harder to work your way past it.
- Conflicting Concerns Sometimes your anxiety-based trouble concentrating when trying to speak has nothing to do with speaking at all, but instead is related to other anxieties you are having: anxiety attacks, for example, can lead you to believe that you are going to die. Generalized anxiety, on the other hand, may cause other things in the environment to catch your attention, or cause other concerns in your life to loom up and distract you from the task at hand.
- Negative Thought Spirals When you want to concentrate on what you want to say, your mind may be too busy formulating reasons why you shouldn't speak, and listing the possible consequences that will occur if you do speak, and the consequences of those consequences. (For example: I can't speak because I'll sound like an idiot, if I sound like an idiot everyone will laugh at me, if everyone laughs at me people will lose respect for me, if they lose respect for me I'll be ostracized, and so on). This does not give you the headspace necessary for formulating ideas, much less trying to figure out how to articulate them clearly, and can be very distracting when you want to be able to speak.
- Distracted by Others' Faces A sign of social anxiety is often that you are too distracted by the faces of others because you're trying to see how they're interpreting you. That distraction means you're not putting all of your thoughts on what you're about to say.
- Overthinking Another problem is actually overthinking. Many people with anxiety find that they try much too hard to figure out what they should say next in order for it to be "perfect" only to find that they've lost their place and are unable formulate thoughts.
These effects can effectively drive you crazy, making you doubt yourself and lose self esteem when you think about being unable to do a simple thing like speaking which everyone else seems to be able to do so effortlessly. Additionally, it can make people feel uncomfortable around you and worried about your mental capabilities. This may add to your anxiety and make it harder for you to control your anxiety in the future.
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Swallowing While Speaking
Swallowing, like many bodily functions we never or rarely think about, becomes strange and challenging the moment we do. When your mind is prone to obsession, as anxious minds tend to be, and when these obsessions lead to morbid thinking and fear-responses in the body, it can be difficult to cope with the results.
Overthinking simple physical acts such as swallowing that are meant to happen unconsciously may lead to hysterical reactions and socially inappropriate physical responses in attempting to compensate for the imagined problem.
Symptoms of this problem can include:
- Choking Swallowing while trying to speak can be too much for your body to process at once, which can lead to a feeling of choking. Choking is a frightening experience that can make you feel like you can't breathe properly and lead to further anxieties about suffocation and death.
- Gagging If your throat is triggered by saliva or by enough swallowing, it can result in gagging. Gagging is unpleasant to hear and to experience, as it is the result of signals in your brain suggesting that you may need to throw up, and may even result in feelings of nausea.
- Spitting Thinking too much about swallowing can actually prevent you from swallowing enough, which leads to excess spittle in the mouth and the unfortunate consequence of spitting unintentionally while speaking.
- Frequent Pauses During Speech If you are thinking about swallowing you may find yourself having to stop mid-speech to consciously do so, as you are interrupting your body's unconscious swallowing mechanisms (which control how much saliva you produce and thereby regulate when you need to swallow so it doesn't interfere with speech).
- Blushing The embarrassment caused by this problem can result in blushing uncontrollably, which can have the cyclical effect of causing further embarrassment which further stimulates blushing, and so forth. This can be very frustrating when you know your problem is a result of anxiety rather than any real physical disability and shouldn't be causing you these problems.
Anxiety also can sometimes create more saliva, though it's unclear why. It's believe that either your body is creating more saliva to combat some of the acids in your stomach, or that you are unconsciously creating it because you're more aware of it.
Regardless, being unable to concentrate can be mentally and socially uncomfortable, but difficulty swallowing can lead to physical consequences that can be even more unpleasant. Overcoming these barriers is crucial for people suffering from them to be able to live a normal and productive life. The list below will give you an idea of the types of mental exercises you can try in order to overcome them.
How to Defeat Your Public Speaking Anxiety Symptoms
The problem with anxiety is that it blows your fear of speaking and being judged out of proportion and makes you worry about things that just aren't realistic. You won't be ostracized for life if you stutter a little. You won't die from swallowing strangely. You won't lose friends simply because you lost your place in the conversation, and your life won't be over if you ever did lose a friend.
The fact is, most people get nervous when they have to speak publicly, and will usually be understanding of other people who feel the same way (and if you clearly feel worse than they usually do, they'll be even more sympathetic with you).
Furthermore, a bit of extra saliva blocking your airway due to obsessive thinking cannot cause you to die from choking. A piece of food lodged in your throat, yes, or drowning in an ocean of saliva, sure, but not from the little bit your mouth can produce when it is nervous.
Here are some ways to calm you public speaking anxiety so that it stops getting in your way when you need to make yourself heard:
- Practice Speaking If you are preparing an advance for an event, read or review in your mind what you are going to say until saying it is practically second nature (to help you, you can come up with mnemonic cues to help you remember what you need to say if your mind suddenly goes blank). In situations that aren't important (i.e., outside of a job interview), you can conscientiously practice your speech with others, trying to sound as natural and relaxed as possible.
- Pretend Your Audience Is Someone You Know Imagining your audience is a person you are comfortable talking to (a close friend, a grandmother, or maybe even yourself) can help get you in a more relaxed frame of mind. You won't worry so much about what they will think of you, and may even find yourself enjoying talking to them (when you are relaxed, you audience will react to you in a more comfortable and natural way).
- Think of Something Important to You Before speaking, you can relax yourself by calling to mind something you have a firm devotion to of belief in, like your family, your religion, or your ethical standpoint on an important issue. This will make you feel grounded and sure of yourself, which can help your mind from wandering in a state of uncertainty to unimportant things like monitoring your swallowing or obsessing about how you sound rather than focusing on what to say.
- Picture Yourself Succeeding When you vividly imagine everything going as well as you want it to (by imagining how comfortable your body will feel, how confidently you will speak, and how positively the audience will respond to you), your body will be prepared for that to happen rather than crippling you with the certainty that the opposite will happen.
Getting stuck on anxious beliefs and physical paranoia does not have to keep you from doing the important things in life that require you to speak with confidence and ease. Now that you are more informed about your body and have some strategies to cope with your speech anxieties, it is time to try them out and start making some positive impressions.
In the future, the best way to avoid anxiety while speaking is by simply ensuring that you are no longer suffering from anxiety. Reducing your overall anxiety is certainly not an overnight task, but it is something you can do effectively if you're ready to make smart treatment decisions.
I've helped thousands of people control their anxiety and reduce the way it overwhelms their mind. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test is a great way to learn more about your anxiety and start taking steps to control it.
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Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.