Hacking Your Speaking Anxiety: How Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help You Communicate Confidently
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Hacking Your Speaking Anxiety: How Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help You Communicate Confidently

Hack your speaking anxiety! Join me for the latest GSB Think Fast Talk Smart podcast episode where I speak with Stanford Professor Andrew Huberman about ways to leverage neuroscience to become more comfortable and confident in your communication.

“There’s no difference between the physiological response to something that you’re excited about and something that you’re nervous about or dreading,” says Andrew Huberman, associate professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University.

In this podcast episode, Huberman talks with host and lecturer Matt Abrahams about his research on the autonomic continuum, a spectrum between states of high alertness or fear all the way down to deep sleep, and shares how to use the system to your advantage. “If people can conceptualize that the anxiety or stress response is the same as the excitement response, they feel different,” Huberman says.

Full Transcript: Hacking Your Speaking Anxiety

Matt Abrahams: Imagine what it would be like to be at your best every time you communicated: alert, focused, engaged, and with minimal fear. Today, using research from neuroscience we’ll explore how you can hack your communication to maximize your impact. I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. I am really looking forward to speaking with Andrew Huberman, who is a professor in the neurobiology department at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Andrew’s research focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms controlling anxiety, cognition and performance under stress. Additionally, Andrew works diligently to bring neuroscience research to the public through his teaching, his videos, and his Huberman Lab podcast, which needs to be in everyone’s playlist. Thanks for being here, Andrew. Shall we get started?

Andrew Huberman: Delighted to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Like me, I know you’re fascinated by fear and its impact. As we all know, communicating in front of others in high stakes situations can certainly involve fear. From a neurologic point of view, what’s going on? What happens to our voice, our speech and our hand movements when we get nervous?

Andrew Huberman: Yeah. So when we get nervous, we are entering a state which is perfectly natural, but reflects one station along what’s called the autonomic continuum and really the autonomic continuum can be conceptualized as a continuum between states of very high alertness: think maximum excitement or fear all the way down to deep sleep, so that our states of mind and body are not discrete entities, they are along this continuum, this autonomic continuum. So when we are excited or we are nervous, we have a number of physiological responses that are purely autonomic, meaning they’re purely on an automatic.

The most important thing to realize is that it is a continuum. It has some features that are autonomic, meaning automatic, and that there’s no difference between the physiological response to something that you’re excited about and something that you’re nervous about or that you’re dreading. And so there’s an additional component there that we need to consider, but the most important thing above of all, and I guess if people are going to take away anything from our conversation today, it’s that despite these responses being automatic, there are direct control points through which we can control the autonomic nervous system, meaning that we can dial down the level of alertness or increase the level of calmness.

Those actually turn out to be two different things. So while it’s called the autonomic nervous system and the autonomic continuum, it’s a bit of a misnomer because there are two specific levers or entry points that we all have from birth that require essentially no learning. There’s you have to know what they are, but that will allow people to control voice level of alertness, level of shaking in their hands. So it’s a quite remarkable system in that it has this asymmetry — autonomic on the one hand, but with very powerful entry points for control on the other.

Matt Abrahams: I want to get back to the notion that you brought up about how we experience the physiological arousal that we get. You said in some cases it’s due to anxiety and fear. In other cases it’s due to excitement. You know, part of that I think, has to do with how we label what we’re experiencing and I know that there’s some research from my academic field that says one way to help manage anxiety is just to work on how you perceive the physiological symptoms that you’re having. So if you say, hey, even though my heart rate’s going up, I’m getting a little sweaty and shaky, it’s because I’m excited to share the information I’m sharing versus, oh, my goodness, everybody’s looking at me and I’m feeling nervous. So part of it, I think, has to do with how we frame the situation, does that ring true?

Andrew Huberman: Absolutely. When we are in a state of alertness, whether because of excitement or fear, the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, let’s just call it the alertness system, deploys a hormone from our adrenal glands adrenaline and it deploys the equivalent chemical in the brain where it’s called epinephrine. It’s actually the same chemically identical structure, but called two different things, because neuroscientists and physiologists like to make things complicated. Not simple, but the role of adrenaline/epinephrine is to create agitation in the body and to create focus in the mind. And this is an important concept because that agitation makes it harder to be still, which is sort of a duh, right? That’s the definition of agitation, but it was designed to move us, to physically move us so that we would be biased toward ambulation or biased toward shifting from one position to a new one. And so one of the toughest things for many people is to tolerate that level of adrenaline or alertness when they have to be still.

The simplest example — I can give you this that I think most people will be familiar with, as if in the days where we congregated in person, this is this traditional practice of going around the room and introducing yourself and saying something about what you do and most people actually find that to be very stressful, especially if they toward the end of the line. Now, why would that be right? Most people know their name and can say their name. Most people know what they do and can say that — it’s anything but a high stress circumstance and occasionally there are some social pressure where someone’s very funny before us or they say something in a particularly nice way than we feel like some additional pressure to do that as well, but it really has more to do with the fact that when we’re in a room listening to somebody, we can we’re comfortable with the fact that we’re not going to speak or walk or do much and we could just sit there and write or listen or text or whatever it is we have to do. As we are called on to say something the reason it’s easier to do early in the line is because we are holding on to a reverberatory circuit. There are circuits in our brain that anticipate action and prepare us for action and the longer we keep that in check, the more challenging it becomes when we are trying to withhold action. But we’re preparing for action. There’s a lot of reverberating, excuse me, active activity in our nervous system and it feels like stress.

Getting ready to go up to the podium is tough. When we get up to the podium, many people, including myself, find that if we rock back and forth a little bit or we can engage some movement in our body, suddenly we start to relax and that’s because adrenaline/ epinephrine was designed to move us and it wasn’t designed to move us in response to incoming large predators. It was, but that’s not its primary function. Its primary function was to move us from whatever position we’re into a new position, sometimes towards things, sometimes away from things, depending on whether or not we want the experience or we want to avoid the experience. But the actual inner experience, what we call interception, our perception of our internal landscape, is identical for something that we want to approach versus we want to move away from; absolutely identical — below that from the neck down then.

Matt Abrahams: That is really interesting. So if you can reframe the physiological response, you can see it very differently. And I find it fascinating that when we see somebody who is nervous moving one way versus the other way, as an audience member, we have very different perceptions. So if somebody steps up on a stage and then takes a step back as they’re starting to speak, it looks like they’re retreating and therefore may be nervous or shy. But if somebody actually steps forward, we have a perception that they’re confident in stepping into the challenging situation. So it’s not only what we perceive, it’s how the audience perceives it as well.

Andrew Huberman: Absolutely. It might be useful for people to think about the fact that there’s only three responses we can have to any circumstance. One is to stay still. One is to move forward or one is to move back. Back in two-thousand eighteen a graduate student in the neurosciences program did her thesis with me Lindsays Tillet, and I published a paper in the journal Nature. Lindsay discovered a brain circuit that controls the movement toward threats. Now, this isn’t the kind of movement that will get you killed. This is the kind of movement toward an intelligent way, an adaptive way towards something that in this case, an animal or a person wants to do, but feels a tremendous amount of autonomic arousal, of stress and nervousness about.

And the take-home message is the following: forward movement under conditions of anxiety or high levels of alertness, a case, stress triggers the activation of a circuit deep in the brain that releases the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine, of course, is a molecule that is most commonly associated with the sensation of reward and it is released when we achieve something that we want to achieve, but the other very interesting function of dopamine is to increase the probability that we will move toward similar types of goals in the future. So dopamine is not just the molecule reward, it’s the molecule of motivation and drive. And so Lindsay’s results have a number of different implications, but I think if people can just conceptualize that the anxiety or stress response is the same as the excitement response, they feel different because of some top down perception or verbiage that we introduced to it, but they’re actually identical physiologically. And that forward movement, provided it’s adaptive toward a goal, triggers the activation of chemicals in the brain and body that will make the subsequent pursuit of those same or similar goals more likely and more pleasurable.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really cool, so learning to take the stage and step forward, leaning in when you’re virtual can help and I believe in some of the work of yours that I read it doesn’t even… you don’t actually have to even physically move. If you simulate movement with your eyes, you can have a similar effect and I’d like for you to talk about that.

Andrew Huberman: Back in the early 80s, and someone actually in Palo Alto, a woman by the name of Francine Shapiro’s, a psychologist, developed a technique for it was actually developed for trauma treatment. She was a psychologist, did some work at Stanford, but also at a nearby clinic. And essentially she had found that taking walks was helpful for her anxiety and stress, something that everyone now I think says, OK, but we always thought that it was because of movement of the body, but she wanted to import some of that self-induced relaxation to her clinic. And she was clever enough to create this thing that they call EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, which simply involves moving the eyes from side to side. It looks a little goofy if you see someone do it, but moving the eyes from side to side, not up or down, but side to side eye movement actually triggers, we now know, suppression of the amygdala, this fear center in the brain.

And for years people would ask me about EMDR because I’m a vision scientist and I work on stress and I thought it was totally kooky and crazy and I didn’t believe any of it and I my response was in my mind anyway, it was sort of like, okay, take your EMDR and your magic carpet and right and head down to Big Sur and let’s talk later if you want to talk science. But I really I was really quite wrong because a couple of years ago, there were no fewer than five papers published in very high quality journals, including Nature in Mice, Non-human Primates and Humans, showing that these laterized eye movements lead to suppression of this fear center in the brain. So it’s a quite long lasting effect. It’s I should just mention, if people are going to use it to deal with actual trauma, that should be done with a real trauma service.

Sure, it worked best for specific circumstances, like public speaking. It’s not great for sort of reducing your stress about your entire childhood or your entire divorce or your entire 2020. It’s best geared toward specific circumstances, but here’s how it works. You move your eyes from side to side for about 30 seconds, which is actually quite a long time. You don’t do this during the event. Right. But that creates a state of reduced alertness, a.k.a. stress. Not so much you fall asleep in your system and then you’re able to better approach things with more ease and with less alertness.

Matt Abrahams: I’ve heard you mention on your podcast that there are two approaches to addressing stress. Can you share those with us?

Andrew Huberman: The two approaches are you can either reduce your stress in real time, things like this, eye movements right before you go into a stressful event like up on stage or hard conversation or even if you’re just experiencing anxiety, there’s a breathing tool I’ll share with you in a moment that’s grounded deeply in physiology as well. Or you can raise your stress threshold. So things like ice baths running up steep mountains, exposure therapy, those are actually designed to increase your tolerance, your cognitive tolerance for high levels of agitation in your body, increasing the probability that you will stay still, not say the wrong thing, not strike anyone, not lose your cool. Right? So it’s sort of learning to be calm and storm or what is sometimes referred to as being comfortable, being uncomfortable.

That is a distinctly different set of practices then things like the eye movements I described or the second thing, which is a real time tool for calming oneself that my laboratory is working closely on with David Spiegels laboratory in the Department of Psychiatry, which is we asked the question, what breathing approach is the best way to calm oneself in real time? Because meditation is wonderful. TM is wonderful. If you know, if you’re of drinking age and you can tolerate it without going into a nice glass of wine is also another way to activate the person. Right? So is a massage. So is a dip in the hot tub or a sauna.

Matt Abrahams: Sounds like you’re describing a nice date.

Andrew Huberman: Right? Yeah, exactly. Or you know or remember, it’s called the Resting Digest System for a reason. One of the powerful ways to shift your autonomic nervous system to one of more calm is to feel your gut with food that then the digestion of your gut sends signals through the vagus nerve to a little set of neurons right behind your ear called the nodose ganglia, which projects into your brain gives you a little bit of a dopamine hit. This is, well, well-established, as well as activating areas of the brain that are involved in calming you down. And so, you know, there are a lot of ways to control the autonomic nervous system slowly and indirectly, massage hot tub, big meal, et cetera. We’re talking about real time control fast. So the best way that we know or that and this is work that’s still in progress is to use what are called physiological size. So these were discovered back in the thirties. It turns out that when you are stressed, you are breathing less deeply. Most common, the most common advice is to take a deep breath. It turns out that’s exactly the wrong advice.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, no.

Andrew Huberman: The exhale emphasized breathing leads to much more rapid activation of the calming arm of the nervous system. And it turns out you don’t just want to exhale. You want to do a double inhale. So inhale twice through the nose. So inhale through the nose. And then before you exhale, sneak in a little bit more air and then do a long exhale. And you do this just one to three times. So it’s you know, inhale. inhale again. Even if you just sneak the tiniest bit of air, ideally the emails are done through the nose and then exhale through the mouth. Now, why does this work? Turns out that your lungs are not just two big bags of air. They are billions of little tiny sacs called the alveoli of the lungs.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Andrew Huberman: Those little sacs are or continue contiguous more or less with the vasculature, with the blood supply. So when you exhale, you offload carbon dioxide and a lot of the stress response is due to elevated carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. When, if you’ve ever been to a kid’s party and you’re asked to blow up a balloon and you blow in the balloon, sometimes it inflates right away, but if it doesn’t, you give to hard push pushes with air. One, two. And the same thing happens with the aveiloi of the lungs. As we get stressed, they start to collapse, they flatten out and to reinflate the double inhale brings maximal air into the lungs and then you offload the maximum amount of carbon dioxide when you exhale. So this is very simple, very fast. You can actually do it during exercise as well. So if you ever find that your heart is pounding and you want to calm down, first thing is exhale, then maybe try the double inhale and then exhale. Follow.

Usually at least what we find in our studies is that within just one to three of those cycles, meaning within about five seconds, autonomic nervous system starts to shift more towards calmness. And then if you like, you can start using your eye movements or whatever cognitive reframing. But one of the things that I think will resonate with people, and I hope it does, is that it is very hard to control the mind with the mind. When you’re stepping up to the podium and you are nervous, you can say, oh, yeah, that nervousness is actually excitement and I think and this is a must be really agitated because I really want to do this and but, in that moment of stress, it’s very hard to control what’s going on. So under conditions where your mind is not where you want it, use the body to control the mind.

Matt Abrahams: So you’ve just shared techniques for what we can do when we’re directly experiencing anxiety, what can we do to prepare for anxiety and advance?

Andrew Huberman: The other thing to do is the stuff that you do away from the podium, away from the big event or the hard conversation. And that involves deliberately taking yourself into states of heightened alertness. As my colleague David Spiegel likes to say, it’s not just about the state you find yourself in. It’s how you got there and whether or not you had anything to do with it. And what he’s really saying is that when you drive your nervous system into a state of high alertness and you learn to be calm there, you achieve a certain kind of superpower such that when real life puts you into those states without any warning and very fast…you, it’s like driving in fog the first time you do it. It’s scary as heck. The fifth time you do it, it’s still scary, but you you’ve been there before and so you’re now a good driver. So the way you do this can be you know of different practices. But one of the best ones is a very cold shower and trying to stay calm for one to three minutes in a very cold shower.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Andrew Huberman: That’s not something that’s I like. It’s not very pleasant, which is…and there you use a protocol of breathing that involves taking twenty five to thirty deep inhales for reasons that now should be obvious to increase your heart rate. And then a big exhale.

Matt Abrahams: Hyperventilating like.

Andrew Huberman: You’re hyperventilating and by the twenty fifth one you will be very stressed. Now, I want to say that if people have our panic attack prone or anxiety attack prone this is I do not recommend this is very uncomfortable. But then what you do at the end of that twenty five abreast is you offload all your air, you empty your lungs and then you sit for about 15 to some people can go longer, 60 seconds or so, the lungs empty and you try and feel peaceful with that heightened level of adrenaline in your body. Now, never doing this in your water. I want to be really clear because there is this thing called shallow water. I don’t even do it in a puddle.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Andrew Huberman: Because I don’t want anyone injuring themselves or worse. But if you repeat that for two or three cycles, what you will find, it’s pretty remarkable. There are a lot of there’s some nuance to these practices, but they all kind of start and end with vision or breathing.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And I love how you make them simple for us to understand so that the things we can do in the moment are right out before the moment of the anxiety. And then there are things we can do to, in essence, desensitize ourselves in advance. Now, we are all communicating in this virtual world these days. Is there anything from your experience of how eyes work that that would indicate what we should do? For example, people often say you need to look at the camera. So it looks like you’re looking at the person on the other end. Any insight you have about this virtual communication? We all do, huh?

Andrew Huberman: Huh. OK, well, first of all, it’s a very unnatural time because most of all, because we are not used to seeing a little picture of ourselves moving while we look at other people. Everyone’s carrying a little mirror around on their shoulder for us now in this world — so turn that off or get it out of the way because it will interfere with your presence to the conversation and other people’s perception of how present you are. The other thing that’s really important is there’s a lot of research on gaze and eye contact and frequency of blinking. The most powerful way to connect with somebody through Zoom or just in person is actually not to stare directly at them the whole time is a combination of direct gaze, averting gaze and closing one’s eyes. That’s, you know, a real conversation involves moments where we are looking away, trying to, you know, like I’m doing right now. I’m trying to grab a concept and say it in a way that makes sense, but then also where we re-engage.

And so a conversation is actually a process of of looking directly at the other person and then breaking gaze and then coming back again. The other thing that works quite well, if people are experiencing eye fatigue from looking at screens up close and there’s a whole other conversation is one thing that works well is to see someone’s face at the beginning. Say hello, because faces are a powerful you know, it collects a lot of context for the brain saying hello, but then going into pure audio and then going back to visual before you part ways that may actually be a more effective form of Zoom communication than pretending we’re all in the same room and trying to stare at one another the entire time and sometimes see that reflection of ourselves.

Matt Abrahams: And that’s that’s advice that others on this podcast have given, that you don’t have to show your video the whole time. So before we end, Andrew, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me on this podcast. Are you up for that?

Andrew Huberman: Definitely.

Matt Abrahams: If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would that be?

Andrew Huberman: Speak to inform and teach, not impress

Matt Abrahams: Oh I like that, so it’s about getting the information across and you are certainly a master at that and I encourage everybody to search out some of the work you’ve done. Your podcast is fantastic because you do such a nice job of something we talked about in an earlier podcast, how to make complex information accessible. You do a great job of that. You certainly don’t dumb it down, but you make it accessible as you’ve done for us today. Let me ask question number two, who is a communication that you admire and why?

Andrew Huberman: You know, I… there are two forms of communication that really appeal to me, and they will seem at odds with one another. I love poetry because really great poetry doesn’t really make sense at a cognitive level. It gets to a kind of what probably is some sort of deeper universal meaning, it probably is tapping into brain circuits that are more on an emotional level or that reside in the brain body connection. I really believe that. So that speaks to some sort of, quote unquote, truth. So I love poetry and I’m a big Wendell Berry fan. I’m also a big Joe Strummer fan you know, most famous for being the singer of The Clash for the things he said, not while he was on stage. So Joe Strummer was brilliant in terms of his offstage speech to people to check out some of the things that Joe said later in his life were really remarkable insights into human beings and humanity. There’s some real core truth there.

And the in the world of science, Claude Desplechin is a biology professor at NYU who studies insect vision and the only word that I can use to describe what it is to hear one of Claude’s lecture, whether or not you’re familiar with biology or not, is pure enchantment when he transports you into a world where, frankly, I don’t really care about dragonfly vision on a regular basis, but when I listen to Claude speak, I think about human vision, I think about love. He talks about the love spots of the dragonfly eyes that for pursuing mates and food and it’s just remarkable. And anyone that can do that for is incredible, but Claude is the world heavyweight champion of making biology fascinating and delightful.

Matt Abrahams: Well, I’m going to check his lectures out for sure. Last question for you. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Andrew Huberman: Passion. The speaker has to love the topic in organizational logic there has to be a structure to the information that just can’t be bullet points and beginning, middle and kind of thing and clarity. If people if people walk away understanding more than they did at the beginning, then you you won. It gets back to the most important thing to do is to teach your audience, educate them.

Matt Abrahams: Passion, structure and clarity PSC, we’re going to add that as another acronym to your list of many acronyms I’ve heard you talk about. Andrew, it was fantastic to have you here. I’m taking a deep breath to calm myself down from all the exciting information that you shared. Thank you so much. It is my true hope that all of us listening in can apply some of these tools and hacks to optimize our communication. Thank you.

Andrew Huberman: Thanks so much for having me.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to GSB.Stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)



May 18, 2021