Fascinating research by Hugo Critchley at Brighton and Sussex Medical School has demonstrated that the severity of your anxiety response is reduced by synching your heartbeat with when you are exposed to your fear-eliciting source. Before explaining this effect further and how it can help nervous speakers, a quick primer on systematic desensitization — also known as exposure therapy — is warranted. Systematic desensitization changes unconscious associations between some aversive stimulus and your anxiety. It works like this: Over time you expose yourself repeatedly to the thing that makes you fearful, with each successive exposure becoming more real or immediate. Eventually, you get to a point where you can do the thing that frightens you like flying, walking across a high bridge, or delivering a presentation without being nervous.
Dr. Critchley’s research builds off of earlier research that found the body’s threat arousal varies based on if exposure occurs during a heartbeat or between. His research shows that phobic research participants showed lower physiological arousal and reported less anxiety when the aversive stimulus (in his research, exposure to spiders for those afraid of them) was presented during a heartbeat, not between.
How can you apply this research to address any public speaking anxiety that you might experience? With the help of a heart rate monitor and systematic desensitization, you can work to reduce your fear of public speaking by timing your heartbeat with when you expose yourself to a public speaking situation that invokes anxiety (e.g., looking at your slides or going into the room in which you will be presenting).
April 23, 2019