Persistent Fear of Public Speaking?

By Betsy Crouse, ACAP-EFT

People who dread the spotlight marvel at those who don’t. For every one of those bold souls there are droves who would rather cut three acres of tall grass with a push-mower than address an audience. And among those droves are people who would rather cut the three acres with a pair of scissors – small, dull, scissors – than stand in front of a group and talk. This article is for the scissor-snippers.

There is one clear difference between mowers and snippers, and it isn’t their level of fear. It’s their relative ability or inability to overcome their discomfort with will power and conscious effort. Members of both groups energetically avoid spotlight situations. But if and when push-mower people eventually decide to address their fear in a systematic way, it diminishes. Careful preparation, rehearsal, coaching, visualization, repetition – these things work for them. What seemed entirely unthinkable turns out to be doable for the mowers. In time, even comfortable! Unfortunately for the snippers, it’s a whole different story.

Snippers folllow those same prescriptions, to no avail. They may get better at going through the motions, and may even be told that they appear more confident. But the inner chaotic discomfort persists, and may get worse. It is frustrating, discouraging, and can defeat even a determined will to succeed. If you’re in that boat, read on, because understanding this phenomenon sets the stage for dismantling it.

If you’re reading this as a mower or snipper you have felt nervous about speaking, and you’ve felt some of the symptoms that go with that nervousness – rapid heart rate, tension and stiffness, unsteady voice, a knot in the stomach, some shortness of breath. This is what you feel when your body’s “fight or flight” response kicks in. It’s your subconscious mind’s way of saying “OH NO!!”

But why? In the great majority of cases, you know you’re not in any danger. So why the pounding heart, and all the rest? To explain, let me start with this important fact – your physical body cannot tell the difference between a real threat and one that’s only in your mind.

Imagine this: Over the past two weeks, there have been three nighttime burglaries in your area, and a neighbor was assaulted and stabbed. No suspect has been caught and the whole neighborhood is on edge. Now, it’s 11:00 at night. Walking from your car toward your house you hear a noise to your left. You glance that way and see someone hunched over in the dark, moving quickly.

What happens?  Inner survival alarms trip. Stress hormones surge through your system. Heart rate skyrockets, blood flow is routed from organs to muscles, immune and digestive systems shut down, vision changes, circuitry in the brain is altered. Your body feels electrified; no part of it is unaffected.

Then – the neighbor’s friendly dog bounds out of the shadows. You lean on your car, weak-kneed and shaky, as your body calms down and you replay the moving shadow in your mind, linking it to the tail-wagging dog next to you.

That massive bio-physical reaction was triggered by your imagination. You imagined the figure in the dark to be a villian intending you harm, and your body instantly prepared you to confront the danger or run for your life.

So, how does that relate to public speaking? Do you stand in front of a group imagining that someone might leap up and attack you? No. But anyone with noticeable public-speaking fight-or-flight symptoms has been, sometime in the past, in a spotlight situation that went badly. Perhaps VERY badly. Perhaps multiple times. The subconscious mind records the circumstances related to these events and then, in future similar situations, it activates a warning that rushes through the body.

From scolding parents and teachers to teasing siblings and peers to those oft-dreaded school performances, uncomfortable early-life spotlight experiences abound. And all too often, they stick with us like glue. But here’s another important fact, to add to the one about the power of the imagination. It’s not natural for us to be left with lingering, recurring fear after being threatened, even following a life-or-death situation.

How can that possibly be true? The answer lies in the little-known story of what happens after our fight/flight response gets triggered.

Imagine again. A young rabbit, nibbling grass. A fox stalks her, crouching low. Slow as molasses he moves, then lunges! The rabbit explodes, streaks toward her burrow, fox on her tail.  He’s so close he grabs a mouthful of fur as she bolts down her hole.

At the tunnel bottom, she collapses. She lies motionless for a bit, then starts to tremble. Her whole body shakes, muscles contracting, breath drawn. And then she relaxes. A few minutes later she is sitting up, calmly grooming herself.

That was a freeze response (her collapse), followed by a discharge response (the vigorous shaking). The presence of the freezing (to a milder degree) without the benefit of a subsequent discharge is what produces the difference between push-mowers and scissor-snippers.

Over the past several decadess, pioneering research about the role the freeze/discharge plays in trauma has been conducted by Peter Levine, PhD (doctorates in psychology and medical biophysics), and neurologist Robert Scaer, MD. Here is a simplified explanation of how it works.

When fight-or-flight fails and doom (whether physical or, for humans, perhaps emotional) seems certain, like when the rabbit felt the fox’s teeth tug on her fur or when a child is confronted, far from help, by a bully, the brain-body system “freezes” – shutting down some of its activity, perhaps to lessen anticipated pain.

In this state, perceptions are altered (e.g. “my life passed before my eyes”) and the subject may even go unconscious, as when someone faints on hearing calamitous news. If the subject survives, the discharge response completes the cycle. In effect, it flushes the physical and emotional intensity out of the system and lets the brain process the mental part of the event as a learning experience (Scaer,  p. 99, 8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance).

It makes sense – how could the rabbit, who runs for her life every day, survive if she became afraid to go out and eat grass? The discharge lets her “shed” the fear and body-reaction, while retaining useful information like “don’t graze too far from your burrow.” The discharge is what you experienced in our late-night scenario, as you leaned on your car, trembling, while you mentally processed the fact that the lurking shadow had actually been a dog.

So what goes wrong, when we end up with persistent fear following a negative experience? The answer is: although we are equipped to release the trauma of a nasty event via the discharge response, it is often interrupted, especially in social situations.

We don’t like to feel shaky, we don’t like awareness of the unpleasant thoughts and images of what we just went through, we don’t like the feel of strong emotions like horrified embarrassment. All of that is very uncomfortable, especially in front of others. We were never taught how to process all that discomfort. So, we often do our best to pull ourselves together, shut the door on that unpleasantness, and move on to what’s next as quickly as possible.

That is a mistake.

When the discharge response is prevented, our memory-creating process is altered. As Dr. Scaer puts it, when this happens the memory “gets corrupted.” He writes that during a discharge the brain “relegates [the event] to the past as a survival learning experience.” But without the discharge, the experience is stored “as if the threat still exists, and thereafter, any cues linked in any way to the experience of the unresolved threat will trigger the fight-flight response” and the body will react as if the original event were happening now (p. 100, Scaer).

That is why our hearts beat faster and our knees shake when we stand up to speak in front of friendly people! It’s because at some time in the past we felt threatened while in the spotlight, we couldn’t fight or run, doom descended, our freeze response kicked in, and our system never got a chance to shake it off later.

The tremendous news, for people who would rather cut grass with dull scissors than speak in public, is that even after decades of dealing with the miserable symptoms that accompany their fear, freedom from those symptoms is attainable. Along with other techniques in the new field of Energy Psychology, the acupressure-based Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a gentle but powerful tool that supplies the benefits of the missing discharge response. Skillful application “rewires the mind/body system,” breaking the cycle of tension and apprehension. In the process, a would-be speaker is freed from the triggers related to spotlight situations, becoming able to experience those circumstances in a different way – with new or reclaimed calm.

I know of this freedom first-hand. I was a scissor-snipper myself, now seven years free of 35 years of unrelenting public-speaking fear-symptoms. EFT does not replace the development of speaking skills, but it frees us snippers from the clanging inner alarms that make it impossible to benefit from experience. Once free, we join the ranks of the push-mowers, who are able to improve with the help of practice, coaching, and repetition. In time, we can become comfortable, competent speakers.

And how sweet that freedom is!

The testimonials below illustrate the use of EFT to dissolve extensive, longstanding fear of public speaking:

“My experience with Betsy was wonderful.  She was prompt, caring, and focused during each of our sessions.  I have struggled with public speaking for as long as I can remember, and I was willing to try anything.  Working with someone who understood my pain and frustration put me at ease, right off the bat.

“My fear of public speaking affected my ability to speak in so many situations: weddings, funerals, work meetings, interviews, and social settings – any situation where I was the sole speaker.  I turned people down when I was asked to speak in front of a group (including my boss!) because of my fear; this in turn made me feel incompetent and abnormal.  I wanted so much to feel comfortable speaking in any situation.

“Betsy was able to lay the groundwork with me, walk me through the process of doing EFT.  Together, we were able to uncover key things from my childhood that were affecting my confidence level, things that I had no idea were still affecting me.  Through tapping, Betsy was able to help me erase those internal thoughts and those feelings that had woven their way through my life, stealing my confidence.

“Work meetings are so much better for me now.  I can actually speak with ease instead of hearing my voice shake, feeling my heart beat out of control, and fretting about what I am going to say.  I’m comfortable in my skin. When I interview people, I feel in control and like a leader should.  I’m in command of the interview and I’m totally at ease…something I’ve never experienced prior to EFT.

“I would highly recommend Betsy – she can really tap into finding and erasing the negative energy.”


“I had a debilitating fear of public speaking for as long as I can remember. As a child in elementary and middle school, I would plead with my teachers to let me give oral reports before the other kids arrived to class, so I wouldn’t have to stand in front of my classmates to speak. In high school and college, I had a tremendous fear of raising my hand to ask questions during class, so I frequently found myself staying afterwards to ask the teacher without an audience.

When I started working, I would lose sleep over giving presentations at work. I had to memorize each presentation verbatim to have any chance of making it through the meeting. My fear of public speaking was a huge problem, and I never thought I would be able to overcome it.

“When I first heard about EFT, I thought it sounded crazy! However the more I learned about it and the more I tried it, I found that it truly worked. Betsy is so knowledgeable and well-versed in the theory and practical application of EFT, that she was able to explain everything to me in a way that made sense. She worked with me with such empathy that I always felt completely comfortable and at ease with her. She truly understood the pain and anxiety that speaking was causing me, and she helped me to overcome my fear. I don’t feel nervous about speaking anymore!

“EFT had a huge impact on my life.”


“I was not familiar with EFT at all before working with Betsy. The process was intriguing.  It seemed a bit different but I was desperate to try it out because of the issues I was having, especially at work.  I was relieved that it works, and I am ecstatic about how much it has helped already.

 “My symptoms were drastic. I would get very moody before a presentation, including during all the preparation, to the point it was disrupting my relationship with my fiance and children.  High anxiety, fear and frustration. Since starting with EFT I am no longer moody as I prepare my material and practice. I have slight anxiety but its nothing like before and my fear and frustration only occurs right before I speak, to a smaller degree. I look forward to being free of even that!

“Betsy has been great to work with and really knows how to go about getting to the root of the issues.  She was very thorough on explaining the process and how it would be beneficial.  I have felt very comfortable explaining my issues even though I was uncomfortable talking about them.  I feel I am in a safe environment.”

Jennifer S.


Top of Page

Content copyright Betsy Crouse, 2010-2014