More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Speech anxiety
Wednesday, 24 May 2006

People with low anxiety about public speaking feel the most stress right before they start to talk. For highly worried speakers, however, stress doesn't abate right away. Instead it peaks in the first minute after they start their speech.

That's one finding from a new study of the relationship between psychological and physical indicators of public speaking anxiety.

A study published in the Southern Communication Journal examined the stress-based gastrointestinal responses of 96 speakers divided into two groups: those with lower anxiety about public speaking and those with higher anxiety.

The speakers, 48 men and 48 women, were undergraduates in a beginning public-speaking class. They represented a wide range of academic majors and a cross-section of the student population. After making a five-minute speech, each student completed a detailed report of their anxiety levels and gastrointestinal sensations before, during, and after the speech.

"This study was about how anxiety manifests itself physically," says one of the authors, Dr. Paul L. Witt of Texas Christian University. Previous research looked at increased heart rates, sweaty palms, and trembling as physical indicators of public-speaking anxiety. The current study was the first to explore the differences in intensity of gastrointestinal distress between public speakers with high anxiety versus those with low anxiety.

It was also the first to examine the changes in intensity of gastrointestinal responses at four speech "milestones": the minute prior to starting to speak, the first minute of the speech, the last minute of the speech, and the minute immediately following the end of the speech.

The responses for the low-anxiety speakers and the high-anxiety speakers were then compared at the four speech milestones. The sensations studied were described as a lump in the throat, butterflies or knots in the stomach, and nausea. Such sensations can distract or interrupt speakers, particularly those who are highly anxious.

The study revealed striking differences between the low-anxiety and high-anxiety groups in both the magnitude and patterns of physical stress at the milestones, thus providing important new information about speech anxiety.

"Results at the four speech milestones showed that the low-anxiety speakers and high-anxiety speakers did not experience the event in the same way," says Dr. Witt.

Highly anxious speakers had significantly higher levels of gastrointestinal symptoms than did the less anxious at each of the four speech milestones. This linked a greater intensity in physical symptoms with a personality trait toward greater anxiety, which was expected.

The contrasting patterns of anxiety changes between the low-anxiety speakers and the high-anxiety speakers, however, revealed a previously undetected connection between anxiety tendencies and responses at the milestones.

Specifically, low-anxiety speakers felt the most stress just before they started speaking, but their anxiety decreased as they started, and continued declining to the end of the speech. The stress of high-anxiety speakers instead peaked in the first minute after they began speaking, at the same point the low-anxiety participants had started rapidly calming down. Then the gastrointestinal sensations of the highly anxious began falling as the speakers continued, and substantially declined as they progressed toward the end.

The low-anxiety speakers, Dr. Witt explains, began managing their stress and settling into the role of public speaker almost immediately when they began to speak, achieving stress relief earlier in the process than did the high-anxiety speakers.

Both groups of speakers reported an increase in stress symptoms immediately after the speech ended, probably indicating their concerns about the audience's evaluation of their performance, but this increase was statistically significant only among the high-anxiety speakers.

Since personality traits such as speech anxiety are thought to be essentially stable and unchangeable, the decline in stress while actually speaking was an intriguing finding for the high-anxiety participants, says Dr. Witt. It suggests that anxiety levels can be modified even for the highly nervous.

By studying what triggers the physical sensations of public-speaking anxiety, he says, educators may be able to develop exercises and techniques to reduce them. The implication is that controlling the physiological symptoms of stress may help control the stress itself.

"You'd think that a personality trait is an enduring part of a person's makeup, and that no intervention could change it," he says. "But we've shown that traits are variable. As people learn how to experience less physical discomfort about giving a speech, that positive reinforcement may begin to chip away at a life-long dread of public speaking."

Witt PL, Brown KC, Roberts JB, Jessica Weisel J, Sawyer CR, Behnke RR.
Somatic Anxiety Patterns Before, During, and After Giving a Public Speech
Sthn Communication J, 71(1):87 - 100. [Abstract | Full text]


Hey thanks for this!!! It is very interesting and now I'm wondering which group I would fall in. It's really interesting because I have been so scared of public speaking my whole life and tried to avoid it, but now that I'm doing it, I kind of like it (although i'm not good at it). It's really kind of a rush and it's pretty cool that everyone is there makes you want to have something important to say.

I think my anxiety peaks during the anticipation of the speech. At the beginning it is a little rocky and my voice is a little shaky, but by the end it's like, yea I made it, I'm cruising 8)

One thing that really helps too is that now that I know all of the people in my speech class it is WAY LESS scary. But it makes you realize, probably all audiences are really nice, you just don't know them yet...

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
I long ago learned two very important lessons about public speaking:

1. When I started teaching, I used to get very nervous before a lecture. Then, after a couple of months, one day I didn't feel nervous at all. That day i gave the most boring class of my entire career. Even i was bored. I ended up cutting it short. After that I realized that at least part of what i was labeling as anxiety was actually adrenalin - and it was necessary to get me pumped up to do a good job. I could start to see it as an ally instead of an enemy.

2. There was one psychologist I really admired as a speaker when i was a graduate student and early in my career. He always seemed so smooth, relaxed, funny, exciting as a speaker - I wanted to grow up to be just like him. After a while, once I graduated, I began to hang out with him and a couple of other psychologists at conferences, drinking Scotch, etc. One morning, I was waiting to hear him speak - I decided to go grab a coffee before he started and passed a little sort of cloak room area near the conference room where he was to talk. He was in there pacing around looking absolutely wretched and agitated. I stopped and asked if he was OK and if there was anything I could do to help him. He looked a bit surprised at first and then said, "Oh! No. I'm fine, rally. I always get really nervous before I give a talk." Honestly, in all the times I saw him speak, I never would have guessed that. It made me realize that as nervous as I was sometimes other people probably could not see it.

Over the years, the more I did it, the less nervous I was about doing it. But I never forgot the importance of a little adrenalin jitters before starting.

It IS a rush, though. :) I've done some musical performances in the past and it's a very similar feeling.


Those are great lessons! My teacher said something to that effect too...she told us that there are certain medications out there will calm your nerves (ironically I was on the medication at the time) but basically she said that when you lose your edge you lose your message. And like you were saying, she also said that the best speakers get nervous before a speech. Maybe because it means that what you are saying and who you are saying it to are important.

I have a really good friend that is here over from Africa and he is also in a speech class. I was talking to him about taking the Ativan for the speeches, and he looked at me and said "It would be better to get up there and pass out in front of everyone than to take tranquilizers". I've known this guy to be pretty insightful so his comment really stuck with me. I know that it's not the case for everyone, but the more I think about it, the more I think it would be HUGE for me not to take anything. It would be like conquering my all time biggest fear on my own.

And more importantly it would be turning my all time biggest fear into my all time biggest accomplishment.

I think where I start to slide downhill though is when I feel like my speech isn't perfect enough and that's when I start to stress.


Dr. Meg, Global Moderator, Practitioner
I was always petrified of public speaking, but I've kind of had to get over it this year. Forced exposure :D . Three of the subjects I am taking this semester are student-taught - in other words, the lecturer sits up the back of the classroom while we take it in turns to do the hard work! I'm glad I'm not paying them!! Anyway, this one semester alone has taken me from being terrified of it to coping with it without too much stress.

I think you're really brave for doing a speech class, Toeless :eek:! Good for you, it sounds like it's been helpful.



Hey Meglet,

I have heard that about the psychology doctoral program here too. My friend was telling me about how they had to each take turns teaching an hour class, but at least they were allowed to show Power Point and short videos. Although, it's good practice for when you have to do the oral defense for your dissertation, right? I guess it's best to nip these phobias in the bud so they don't hold you back!

I do agree the class has been very very very good for me. There really is nothing to be afraid of with public speaking and I just hope that I can remember that as the speech draws closer ;). I think my problem is expecting perfection from myself, like not to mess up on a single word, etc. The thing is, that to err is human and the most interesting speeches are the ones where people do strange things!!

My speech only has to be 8 minutes so compared to what you have to do it's not really that bad...


Dr. Meg, Global Moderator, Practitioner
Hi Toeless,

The teaching is good experience, I'm sure. I don't plan on doing much of it once I finish uni, though. I do have to present my research, but I've never heard it referred to as an 'oral defense' before! That's a bit of a scary-sounding thing to call it! We just call it a 'proposal presentation' or a 'results presentation' :)

It's easy to develop unrealistic expectations of ourselves when there are people watching, isn't it? I have found that it's helpful to look at it from the audience's perspective and whether they care if you make a mistake. I totally agree that speeches are more interesting when they're more animated and the speaker seems more down-to-earth, even if they make a few mistakes.

I don't think it matters how long you have to talk for, it's the fact that you have gone up there and done it at all that is the achievement. 👏



I used to be terrified of speaking if there were three or more people (including myself) in the conversation. I decided that I really needed to get over it. I started with coaching gymnastics. I remember my first day - the kids' previous coach introduced me and all of a sudden my only thought was "oh my, there are 16 eyes on me right now waiting to say something. Say something FAST". It was a wretching moment. I started there, and then eventually moved to judging dog shows where you have to give a talked before a hundred or more people before every run - that was agonizing at first. After nine years I got to be really good at it :)

Now, as long as I'm talking about something I actually know something about, I'm ok. When I do my dog training orientations I get a little nervous about that - I'm afraid of giving too much info, or not enough, or it won't flow together and make sense, or I'll make it sound so complicated that nobody will want to clicker train their dog, etc!! But so far I'm ok with that too.

At this point, I find it *much* easier to speak to a large group than a small one. I find it's easier to engage them, get feedback, and have some fun with them. I moved from doing orientations for every class of six to doing one great big one for everyone. It works far better for me now and I put far more energy and enthusiams into a big one than a small one.

So, my advice is start small, and as you gain skills and confidence (because part of it truly is a skill), start working up to larger groups. I always ask myself after "how did that go" and not to be self-critical, but see if I can do anything better next time.
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