Stress in public speaking. What is stress? Why are we stressing? Why do we need stress? How does stress work?
What is stress?
According to the definition of Hans Sely, stress is a non-specific reaction of the body to any requirement imposed on it1 or according to another definition stress disturbs the state of equilibrium and puts us to the test or even exceeds our ability to deal with it.
A stressor is a stimulus event requiring the body to do some kind of adaptive reaction3, e.g. entering the stage in front of the audience, and even the mere information about the need for a public appearance.
Biology and physiology of stress
Stress can generate three responses in our bodies: fight, flight or in some cases play dead. During the threat our body produces noradreanaline and adrenaline. 1 Walter Cannon has observed this relationship in both animals and humans. In principle, this reaction is the heritage of our ancestors. In their time it was justified and needed stress. In ours it is often a curse. Let’s take a look at the situation in which we feel stress during public speaking, singing or playing on stage, taking an oral exam or interview. Will an unsuccessful presentation cause a direct threat to life, i.e. death? No. Can something physically happen to us during the event? No. Basically, in most cases, we bear the biggest consequences by our own stress, not by the actual occurrence. We are often afraid of being judged and ridiculed by others, loss of a chance for further career or failure to present 100% of our capabilities. You can read about coping strategies here.
Is stress bad?
The creator of the concept of “stress”, Hans Selye, distinguished two types of stress: eustress and distress.
• Eustress – positive stress, which means that we get up in the morning, we perform tasks on time and mobilize ourselves to act in general
• Distress – negative stress which is devastating and sometimes even pathological in nature5
Eustress is a positive phenomenon. Some describe it as pleasantly stimulating, challenging, generating a flow state, mobilizing for action. We need short-term stimulation for life. Something we should avoid is distress.
Long-term and short-term stress
In a stressful situation, our brain secretes cortisol – a stress hormone. It helps us to mobilize energy to deal with some difficult situation. In the short run, it is beneficial to health.6 In primitive times it was a situation in which a person had to run away from an animal, for example, to save his life. However, prolonged blood cortisol levels are very harmful.
Effects and consequences of stress
In 2004, Gregory Miller and Suzanne Segerstrom conducted an empirical study that showed that stress directly affects our immune system. In an emergency, our body leaves the functions necessary for survival, e.g. breathing, creative thinking, sex drive and digestion are automatically cut off. In fear, blood drains from the face and is pumped into the limbs so that you can be ready to run. Our body is alert and sensitive to stimuli.
Effects of long-term stress:
• Peptic ulcer (an increase in the heart rate reduces the secretory activity and the frequency of its contractions. Then there is increased activity of the empty stomach and an attack of the lining of the stomach itself)
• Heart disease (temporary ischemia of the heart leads to abnormal contractions)
• Migraines (an increase in endogenous amine pressure leads to a contraction of blood vessels in the brain. When they relax, our brain interprets them as pain)
• Hypertension (norepinephrine and adrenaline lead to increase in pressure, as well as reduced immunity making it difficult to prevent blood clots)
• Obesity (increased appetite and then “eating” stress)
• Weakening of the immune system (increase of blood sugar levels, lower protein synthesis in the immune system)
• Mood deterioration or depression
• Memory impairment9 (stress hormones cause hippocampal degeneration)
• Muscle tension (stiff neck, back pain. Muscles become stiff, lose elasticity due to impaired muscle blood circulation and uncontrolled muscle contracture)
• Metabolism disorders (activity in the pituitary gland, adrenal cortex and hypothalamus cause diabetes, abdominal obesity or insulin resistance)
• Asthma (stress can affect the nerves and cause muscle contraction in the lungs, making breathing difficult)
• Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism (cortisol damages the adrenal gland that affects thyroid function)
• Increased risk of dementia (the risk of senile dementia is 65% higher in women who have experienced severe stress)
• Faster aging (the chromosomes responsible for the aging process shorten with each subsequent division of the cell)
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Development of Alzheimer’s disease
The list of consequences of chronic stress can be even longer. Interestingly, the feeling of stress increases with social development. Participants who participated in the study on stress in the 60s declared a significantly lower level of perceived stress than their peers in the 90s. It is worth taking care of yourself and take a look at our lifestyle and stress that accompanies us every day. It can take our joy and health.
More about physiological responses to stress here
How to deal with stress? click here
If you want to make an appointment for a public speaking coaching or mentoring session, please contact me:
1. J. Kalat, Biologiczne podstawy psychologii, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2006, s. 364
2. R. Gerrig, P. Zimbardo, Psychologia i życie, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2006, s. 399
3. Jw., s. 399
4. Jw., s. 400
5. D. Rock, L. Page, Fundamenty coachingu. Neurobiologia a skuteczna praktyka, Warszawa 2014, s. 165
6. J. Kalat, Biologiczne podstawy psychologii, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2006, s. 367
7. D. Rock, L. Page, Fundamenty coachingu. Neurobiologia a skuteczna praktyka, Warszawa 2014, s. 166
8. D. Goleman, Inteligencja emocjonalna, Media Rodzina, Warszawa 2005, s.44
9. J. Kalat, Biologiczne podstawy psychologii, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2006, s. 364-369
10. J. Gibas, Pokonaj stres z Kaizen, Helion, Gliwice 2004, s. 64-72
Hello. Welcome to my blog. I work as a public speaking trainer, mentor and head os speakers for TEDx Warsaw and I am certified coach at PCC level. I also help, among others, lawyers, vocalists, actors, lecturers and business people in preparation for their speeches in front of hundreds of people in the audience, as well as in conducting small meetings or presentations.
My professional path has led me through many years of music education, but also SGH and psychological studies. As the only Polish woman I performed in the Cuban musical “Conoce mi Cuba”. For many years I worked on controlling the stage fright that kept me awake at night. I have always wondered how to manage the internal critic, not to worry about the opinion of others, and how to build a real sense of confidence on stage. Now I know the answer. Recently, I have given countless interviews, which made me aware of the importance of confidence in front of the camera.