Barbara Kanegsberg, now president of an independent consulting company, was a shy little girl who wasn't comfortable talking in front of a group. Her discomfort grew as she got older. "I had a fear that if I spoke up too much I would not have a good social life, that guys wouldn't like me,'' she says. Her fear became so powerful that she decided to major in biology in college because she thought it would lead to a career in research, which would not require any public speaking.
The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, is one of, if not the most common of phobias. Its sufferers are often unusually concerned about being humiliated. Not all fears, however, are provoked by insecurities or negative thinking. Fear is our psychological and physiological reaction to risk or danger. It comes from the flight-or-flight response, a basic survival mechanism that evolved to protect us from harm. You probably recognize the signs: racing heartbeat, faster breathing, sweating, blood rushing to the muscles - all things that prime your body to either do battle or escape. That comes in handy (and in fact, can save your life) if you're trying to outrun an angry grizzly bear.
The problem is that even imagined dangers elicit this response. When a relatively common experience, like flying in an airplane, is perceived to be a risk to survival, the body reacts as if it's under great threat. In some cases fears get so out of control that they turn into paralyzing phobias. For a phobic person, any exposure to the object or situation in question, or even the mere thought of it, can trigger feelings of intense anxiety or nervousness, often resulting in avoidance of the object or situation altogether.
Maybe your fear doesn't meet the clinical definition of a phobia. But is it holding you back from reaching a goal or from doing something you want? Say, for instance, you have to take yourself out of the running for a promotion because it means giving presentations, or you don't see your children as much as you'd like because they live far away and you can't get on a plane. Then it's time to learn how to stop your fear from stopping you.
Barbara knows what that's like. Early in her career, she skirted all opportunities that involved public speaking. Then, several years ago, she was asked to give a speech at a major conference - an honor usually reserved for Ph.D.s. She was scared out of her wits, but she also realized this was an opportunity to get recognition for the work she had accomplished in her field. So Barbara decided to take the plunge. Or as she puts it, "I knew I had to jump into the deep end of the pool, and swim."
She wasn't alone in her fear. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 19.2 million American adults have some type of phobia, a marked and persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation. Phobias are usually linked to a traumatic experience or a learned reaction (really, a learned overreaction). But even just witnessing a traumatic event, during which another person experiences harm, can cause a phobia to develop. Many people developed a fear of flying, or aviatophobia, after seeing the horrific images of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Victor Vinuela, a translator from Seville, Spain, was one of them. He'd attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in the late 1980s and often flew back home to Spain during school breaks. "No problem, I flew all the time," Victor says. On September 11, he was at home in Seville, eating lunch, when on his television, he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Victor was very attached to the U.S. and the friends he made here, and he reacted strongly. "It was very hard for me. I lived 9/11 very closely," he says.
A year and a half later, Victor booked a flight to Rome, Italy, via Madrid, with his wife. As the plane for Madrid took off, his heart started beating faster and faster, until he thought he was having a heart attack. "I was sweating so much my clothes were soaking wet. It looked like I peed in my pants," Victor says. "I thought I was going to die." The 45-minute flight was so harrowing for Victor that he and Maria never made it to Rome. Instead they took the train back home to Seville.
The next time he had to get on a plane, Victor took sleeping pills and knocked himself out. Since then, however, he has succeeded in taking 15 flights throughout Europe - no sleeping pills or other medication, just sheer determination. "My life without flying didn't make any sense," Victor says. "I needed to fly again." He hopes to embark on a trip to New York next year. But he is not 100% over his fear, and says the experience of flying is still far from an easy one.
You don't have to be like Victor and overcome your fear on your own. There's plenty of help out there. One form of treatment that's particularly effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is designed to help people reduce their anxiety by eliminating the beliefs, thinking patterns and behaviors that maintain the anxiety. "The basic concept of cognitive behavioral theory is that there is a reciprocal interaction between what we think, how we feel, and how we behave," explains Marlene Cooper, Ph.D., associate professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Services. "Our thoughts determine our feelings, which then determine our behavior."
CBT works in a very different manner from more traditional psychotherapy, which looks into a person's unconscious conflicts or dreams. A cognitive behavioral therapist will instead gradually expose clients to what frightens them, until their fear slowly begins to fade in reaction to positive experiences. The idea is that by engaging with the thing that you're afraid of, you desensitize yourself to it and train yourself to take that learned overreaction down to a more manageable level. For a person with a fear of flying, this may include watching movies about flying, going to the airport, walking around the terminal, and eventually boarding a plane.
CBT "is a very structured approach, wherein the therapist acts more as a collaborator than as an authority," Cooper says. The therapist tries to see the particular events from the client's perspective, and then helps the client develop different interpretations of the same events. "It's an active, directive and strategic process. The process may include keeping daily thought records that help people look at their emotions during a particular situation and what their automatic thoughts are," Cooper says.
The next step is disputing or challenging those thoughts. Together with the therapist the client works out what might be a more rational or balanced thought that could lead to a different, more positive outcome. For instance, if you're struggling with a fear of public speaking, you might think when you stand in front of an audience, These people are here to judge me. This makes you feel anxious and jittery and causes you to freeze up. A more realistic thought would be, These people are here because they want to learn something. You'd feel some anxiety, but also a desire to help them. This more positive attitude will be reflected in your speech, and it's likely to go more smoothly. Finally, the therapist may give the client homework - to practice questioning and changing unhelpful thoughts as they come up in everyday life - and teach him skills he can use to accomplish his goals.
Hypnotherapy is another option. A therapist guides a client into a relaxed state then gives her suggestions or detailed visualizations about how she is going to succeed at getting over her fear.
Prescription medications can help to temporarily reduce the crippling anxiety brought on by phobias. Benzodiazepines are tranquilizers that slow down the central nervous system and thus blunt anxiety. Another class of drugs, beta blockers, block adrenaline and the fight-or-flight response, and are often taken by performers to combat stage fright.
Barbara Kanegsberg was able to overcome her fear of public speaking by going out and doing it anyway. She convinced herself to speak at the science conference by practicing her speech relentlessly and continually asking herself: "What's the worst thing that could happen to me? I'll forget a slide? I'll bore the audience? So what?"
The technique proved successful. Giving a speech still arouses fear, but now, instead of letting herself be paralyzed by the feeling, she turns it into a thrill. "It becomes a mental sport. I put on an imaginary mask, like in the musical The Phantom of The Opera, or I pretend to be the lead singer with the band Aerosmith," Barbara says. "It gives me a little more of an edge."
She also joined Toastmasters, a nationwide organization that helps people become better speakers. By going to biweekly meetings, where she has the opportunity to practice in front of other members and learn by doing, Barbara has continued to hone her skills. She now speaks in front of audiences for her work all the time.
That's just the obvious practical benefit that comes from facing down fear: You can do something that you never used to be able to. There are more far-reaching effects too. Overcoming fear is tremendously empowering. When you have proven to yourself that you can do one thing that scares you, the next thing that's daunting isn't going to stop you. Change careers in mid-life? Try dating again after a divorce? Write a novel? Start your own business, the one you've been dreaming of since you were a kid? Why not? You're up for the challenge of leading the fulfilling life you deserve!