Capturing the Butterflies Groups Help Take Some of the Fear out of Public Speaking

Article excerpt

Byline: Diane Dassow Daily Herald Correspondent

Barbara Stewart learned something at a national sales seminar that had nothing to do with sales.

Forced to make a brief presentation, Stewart came face-to-face with her fear of public speaking.

"I get very, very nervous," she said. "My stomach gets butterflies, and I can't eat anything that day."

Her mind focused on the fear that her listeners were going to judge her negatively, the Lisle woman said.

She's not alone.

"Fear of public speaking is probably one of the most common anxieties," said clinical psychologist William DuBois, executive director of DuPage Phobicare Inc. in Carol Stream.

"Everybody is afraid of death, but there are some people - few and far between - who are comfortable speaking in public," he said with a laugh. "It tends to raise anxiety in a large portion of society."

DuBois said he even knows ministers who speak frequently, but still experience anxiety.

"I think the fear of public speaking has to do with a performance anxiety, and the individual's fear they're not going to perform at the level they wish to perform at.

"There's an unconscious concert about how other people will perceive them," he said. "For some reason, being in the spotlight and talking in public brings this on."

Bob Happel, a Wheaton resident and a trained therapist, has seen the signs of anxiety.

"One woman's knees were so weak, she had to sit down," Happel said. "One woman started crying." He knew another person who had to bring a guitar and strum it while talking, he said.

"Doctors have found that when we get in front of a group, we're seized with fear," Happel said. "This happens to everybody, until we learn to control it."

The physical response to fear, if not controlled, can cause disease, he said.

Common symptoms connected with fear of public speaking include heart palpitations, dizziness, a flushed or warm sensation, sweating, trembling and nausea, DuBois said. However, most people don't experience all of these, and many folks will experience just one or two.

Sometimes that's enough to motivate someone, like Stewart, to seek help.

When a person begins to develop physical symptoms of panic just prior to speaking, and starts to think about canceling the talk, DuBois said, it may be time to seek treatment.

"They begin to get anxious about the speaking engagement and then the focus of their attention turns to this anxiety," DuBois said. "So the fear of what they're feeling becomes the focus. They think, 'How can I speak when my voice is cracking?' or 'What if I get so dizzy I can't stand there?' "

In the most extreme cases, this focus on the symptoms can cause anxiety to reach a level of panic, DuBois said. In his experience, though, most people never seek treatment with a therapist. They either cope with the anxiety or work around it.

Typically, people first attempt to deal with the problem when they feel they have to because of a new job or promotion, DuBois said. For those who do seek help from a therapist, understanding becomes the key to successful treatment.

"We help the individual understand what they're experiencing by showing them it's the anxiety they're afraid of," DuBois said.

"We teach them methods they can use to help cope with the anxiety, and part of that is to help them understand that they're really normal and okay."

One of the main methods of overcoming the anxiety is actually speaking, DuBois said. …