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Defining, Explaining, and Treating Public Speaking Anxiety

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2609 words Published: 18th May 2020

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 Arguably known to be the root upon which the discipline of communication was built, the study of public speaking has evolved from its grassroot beginnings into a vast collection of experimental and expositional studies. The focal point of research on public speaking has been mainly to discover the antecedents, causes, and consequences correlated with the preparation for public speech and any treatment likewise. The purpose of this literature review is to provide a comprehensive knowledge of public speaking anxiety (PSA) to develop a foundation to further the theory and practice of public speaking and anxiety that occurs with it. Nearer to the end of the review it is clear how PSA is defined. Then using this constructed definition of PSA the review explores the etiology of PSA. Following this are techniques used to reduce PSA.


Scholars have researched PSA under multiple labels such as speech fear, social speech fear, speech anxiety, audience anxiety, and performance anxiety since early studies on “stage fright” (Clevenger, 1956), often used interchangeably and described in different respects. The variation in words and specific meanings “seems to represent the expectations of critics for a particular term or sentence” (Schlenker & Leary, 1982). PSA can be classified as a kind of social anxiety in the most general sense, the hallmark of which is “the threat of unsatisfactory audience evaluations” (Schlenker & Leary, 1982). A study using both public-speaking and other personal activities to cause depression report respondents demonstrate greater rates of anxiety for public-speaking assignments (al’Absi et al., 1997), suggesting that PSA is a distinctive social anxiety, one that is more novel, structured, rule-based, and often self-focused. Although public speaking has been categorized as a subgroup of social anxiety disorder the latest version of the DSM says that “anxiety for success, stage fear and shyness in personal circumstances involving unknown individuals are prevalent and should not be diagnosed as personal phobia” (p. 455). This paper uses the public-speaking fear label because doing so demarcates PSA from more particular definitions such as stage fear or job anxiety that can refer to anxiety encountered when performing, practicing, or singing in public. Each of these kinds of anxiety may constitute distinctive constructs that deserve to be studied by themselves (Leary, 1983). Thus, PSA is described here as a situation-specific social anxiety resulting from an oral presentation’s actual or expected implementation. Although apparently simple, the existing literature makes two wide distinctions — that between characteristic and government PSA and that between three parts of PSA (biology, mental, behavioral)—which not only opens up several feasible etiological interpretations of PSA but also several treatment choices.

Summary of Literature

Trait-State Distinction

Clevenger (1979) distinguishes between anxiety encountered in a specific environment at a given moment (condition) and a general inclination to experience anxiety across circumstances and space (characteristic) was “one of the most useful conceptual advancements” (Cox, B. J., Clara, I. P., Sareen, J. and Stein, M. B. 2008), also allowing for more concentrated and possibly more effective remediation methods. Research constantly discovers that PSA is affirmatively viewed as a trait — some people are usually concerned about public speaking, while others are not. The expectation phase was further segmented into three distinctive events directly before the assignment was received, during lecture preparation, and shortly before the lecture was given.

Three Systems Distinction

The three system model suggests that people react in three ways to stressful circumstances including public speaking, physiological, cognitive, and behavioral situations. The “physiological system involves the core, neurological and autonomic nervous structures as well as the cellular and humoral structures that control the human body and its reaction to stress” (al’Absi et al., 1997). Although there are several physiological measures, “in empirical PSA research, only one subset has been used” (Schlenker & Leary, 1982).

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Autonomic nervous system (ANS) findings are the most common, especially cardiovascular reaction measures such as blood pressure (BP). Autonomic nervous system stimulation is “associated with fear or anxiety reactions in communication settings” (Leary, 1983). The ANS is a Peripheral Nervous System component. The PNS mainly allows the brain and spinal cord to work together, and the PNS processes are rendered feasible by a significant spinal and cranial nervous system. The ANS regulates body operations that are usually considered to operate outside deliberate command (e.g. blood pressure), the primary role of that “is to keep a constant body environment in the face of internal or external changes” (Andreassi, 2007, p. 65). The Parasympathetic Nervous System is used when an individual is at rest and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated when an individual is moving or agitated. Heart rate and BP are both subsystem measurements, while SC is only an SNS metric. The nervous system organization is not that straightforward, parts of the ANS are stored in and under the influence of the central nervous system, and the processes of the ANS and its systems are far more intricate. However, some studies report the use of variables such as brain temperature and activity as well as salivary cortisol, which are believed to be a more immediate internal activity measurements.

The cognitive system includes “information from the [ speaker ] obtained through interviews, self-report, self-monitoring, and related assessment strategies” within the standard trilateral structure (Schlenker & Leary, 1982). Using a range of methods, most of which are strongly associated (Leary, 1983), an indirect approach has been created using the Stroop Task. Subjects are primarily subjected to three sets of five words “a practice set, a public speaking set (audience, presentation, public stage, and speech), and a control set”. Each term is written in a distinct color and it is requested that respondents identify the word color. High-trait PSA people reacted more quickly to the public-speaking phrases than low-trait PSAs (Clevenger, T. 1959) ; the high-trait anxiety PSAs associated with public-speaking is believed to conflict with handling ability and therefore delay response time. Free response scaling, such as thinking aloud protocols, was also used to identify the particular beneficial and bad cognitions produced during speech preparation and presentation. Furthermore, this open-ended study created several self-report measurements

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Behavioral speech anxiety (BSA) is described as “the degree of alleged voice anxiety experienced by participants based on actual speaker conduct” (Ruscio, A. M., Brown, 2008 p. 176). When participants of the crowd notice BSA, the confidence and prospective effect of the speaker is affected (Ruscio, A. M., Brown, 2008). Although textbooks (Cox, B. J., Clara, I, 2008) and common PSA treatments (Kelly, 1997) concentrate strongly on suitable (and inadequate) talking habits and many conventional BSA measurement scales, BSA findings stay underused in PSA studies. There may be at least two reasons for this. First, BSA is often combined with the reliability of the speech, a more generic term that eliminates anxiety from the emphasis of study. Second, a choice on who assesses BSA — the presenter, the public, or a qualified coder — arises with a BSA criterion. While BSA scores of observers were associated with self-reports of speakers, BSA scores of speakers and audiences were not extremely correlated (Cox, B. J., Clara, I, 2008). The difference among speakers ‘and commentators’ BSA scores is most pronounced for high-trait worried speakers who easily judge their own output harder than qualified coders.Subsequently, BSA evaluation is based on assessment genesis, an issue not experienced when evaluating physiological or cognitive PSA. Ultimately, as physiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses, PSA can be defined as a trait-like attitude and a transient and speech-specific response. Different operationalizations have also been suggested for each scheme, and the most prevalent ones are mentioned above. “The two conceptual distinctions made above can be crossed to form a 2×3 categorization of PSA” (Barlow, 2008). The ranking, was first proposed by Clevenger (1984) to clarify the essence of overall social anxiety, can be logically implemented here, as PSA is a variant of social anxiety. Current studies acknowledge the categorization, and numerous published studies have taken steps to describe the complex relationships between these elements.


PSA therapy has been a concern of scholars and teachers for many years. Based mainly on anecdotal school experiences, early journals concentrated on learning suggestions and events in the school as well as overall instructions for the fundamental speech. Several methods have since been established and evolved, the most common of which were developed from psychotherapy (systematic desensitization [SD], cognitive modification [CM], and skills training [ST]) and thus “were primarily designed to treat high-trait anxious speakers” (Daly 1978). Each method implies a distinct cause of proximity and seeks to concentrate on that cause. While SD believes that PSA is the consequence of a desire to become hyper-aroused, CM believes that the root of PSA is difficult cognitions; ST implies that PSA arises from the insufficient repertoire of a speaker’s abilities.

 There are several treatments available for PSA, many of which can be modified and finished in the learning environment, thus limiting the need for additional space or special equipment. Moreover, public-speaking educators should be aware of the personal and contextual limitations that can minimize the effect of therapy with PSA and the unintentional effects of therapy. For example, educators should be aware of student input responsiveness, the degree of input negativity, and the timing of some feedback. Similarly, consideration should be given when evaluating at the start of a course as participants who are evaluated at the start of a course and consequently allocated to a specific therapy alternative may become stigmatized for their anxiety record. In addition, extra study on PSA remediation with specific focus on the causes underlying therapeutic effects should be carried out.


This literature review attempts to put together a varied literature on PSA’s essence and how it relates to it. Also the therapy component is meant to serve as a basis for the construction and exercise of future hypothesis. As demonstrated by the two significant differences in the PSA literature — that between country and personality PSA and between physiological, mental and behavioral reaction systems — it is critical for future study to obviously conceptualize and operationalize the multiple PSA elements. In addition, the impact of future study depends on a stronger and more detailed understanding of the relations between the different components of PSA and how treatments can (or can not) affect these components. Research is advancing on an ongoing basis, and with this we are better prepared to define PSA’s different person and situation factors. Configuration of these factors is not only an undertaking that advantages the theory construction, but also a manner to use the highest accessible proof to field therapy. Public speaking instructors now have a variety of choices for handling PSA. Some study indicates equivalence between remediation methods, perhaps indicating that as soon as learners are handled in a way that reduces PSA and improves efficiency. Attention should be paid as the exact processes surrounding the efficacy (or lack of it) of treatment alternatives are still unknown and the unintended effects of treatment are unexplored. As students and teachers, we have a duty to help our people overcome their fear of talking. As researchers, we have a duty to make the finest data accessible to support this mission. In doing so, we can make sure that presenting a eulogy is actually less terrifying than sleeping in a coffin.


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