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Public Speaking - The Number 1 Fear Part II

Aug 1, 2008
Fight or Flight

When the hypothalamus, which regulates most bodily functions, receives the threat signal, it sends a group of hormones to the pituitary gland at the base of your brain. This in turn releases hormones that activate your adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys - a spot ideally centralized in the body to make for the shortest trip to all parts of the body for the adrenals' output: adrenaline.

Adrenaline is actually pretty cool stuff. It causes a number of responses in the body, all of which are designed to give your body the physical edge it needs to run like hell or stay and fight to the death.

It starts with the heart.

First, adrenaline increases the rate at which your heart beats, speeding the process of moving blood through the oxygenating function of the lungs. Next, it increases the force of your heart's contractions, to ensure blood gets to the far reaches of your body like your fighting hands or your running feet. That's where the thump-thumps come from.

All's pretty good so far.

Then, to make sure all these muscle groups are working best, adrenaline facilitates what is essentially a valving process that ensures enough blood is flowing to the motor control sections of your brain. Bit of a downside to this process, however, in that the system has to get the blood from somewhere, and finds the most convenient supplies in the thinking portions of your brain.

So just when the rational parts of your brain, which actually don't fear imminent death at the podium, want to have as much cognitive ability as they can muster, greater forces have other plans. You actually get a little dumber.

You've got the fever

If all that weren't enough, adrenaline works to speed up your metabolism as it works to turn glucose, blood sugar, into glycogen, the form of 'energy' your cells can use. This speed-up produces a couple of side effects, one being the aforementioned perception of time slowing down. More immediately noticeable is increased body temperature, which can manifest itself in the "cooling" process known as sweating.

But that's not fair - weren't you told never to let them see you sweat? And because burning all that glucose is also a de-hydrative process, it can cause your mouth to go dry, especially when the facility puts out gallon jugs of water in front of every audience member but non at the podium.

Finally, whenever we send out hormones there's always an anti-hormone emitted to keep it company, and in the case of the adrenals we're talking nor-adrenaline. Nor-adrenaline's effect is to increase your blood pressure, which you typically feel in the form of flushness in the face.

So if you've ever found yourself walking into the auditorium, or perhaps the boardroom or conference area and felt your heart beating a little faster, with a discernible thump-thump, thump-thump, and your brain both a little less sharp than it should be and stuck in a minor time warp; if you've ever felt moistness in your palms or around the collar and your face a bit flushed, then congratulations! Your body is performing precisely to spec!

What you need to take home here is the understanding that, no matter what you may be consciously thinking, your sympathetic nervous system will always respond to external stimuli in the way it is hard-wired to do so. Every time.

That is why so much advice on overcoming fears is worthless - no amount of "positive thinking" or alternate perceived realities such as NLP "therapy" will cause your body to respond to an outside threat differently. As long as you expose yourself to certain stimuli, your body's response will be the same. It is why our species has survived this long.

Sounds depressing, huh?

Well, the good news is that although you cannot change your response to certain stimuli, you certainly can change the type and frequency of the stimuli to which you expose yourself.
About the Author
J. Douglas Jefferys is a principal at PublicSpeakingSkills.com, an international consulting firm specializing in training businesses of all sizes to communicate for maximum efficiency. The firm spreads its unique knowledge through on-site classes, public seminars, and high-impact videos, and can be reached through the Internet or at 888-663-7711.
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