Several weeks ago, I gave a talk with Dr. Sara Lazar, neuroscientist and researcher at Mass General Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital. Sara’s research is centered on changes in brain structures that result from meditation and yoga.
Her results are very interesting! Basically they show that regular awareness (or contemplative) practices like yoga and meditation thicken those parts of the brain that have to do with self-awareness, well-being and embodied presence and decrease the size of those parts of the brain that are most active when we feel anxious.
Now, those of us who do any of these practices on a regular basis already know this from experience. Personally, I’ve certainly recognized that after 20 years of meditating, doing yoga and practicing tai chi (another contemplative practice not currently part of Sara’s research), my general state of anxiety has significantly decreased.
This became very clear to me several years ago when I stopped my daily practices for about 3 months because of some health issues. I began to notice that a background level of agitation which had been so present when I was younger was beginning to resurface. It was only then that I realized just how much calmer I had become because of my daily contemplative practices.
A common principle that runs at the core of each of these contemplative practices is “Where we put our attention, that’s where energy flows.” If we become preoccupied with our anxious thoughts, we actually strengthen our anxiety. If, instead, we focus on our breath, the contact we make with the ground, a mantra (a calming phrase), or any other anchor for our attention, we begin to quiet the mind and become more present.
So, how can we apply this understanding to reducing the anxiety that comes from public speaking? I think there are two ways to support ourselves through contemplative practices.
First is to commit to some minimal degree of daily awareness practices. Many of my clients start out with 5 minutes a day of simple meditation (I might do another post some day on developing a meditation practice to support your public speaking). Meditating on a regular basis, even in very short increments like this, can help to calm that sense of floating anxiety that might always be there in the background.
The second is to practice what I call a relational meditation whenever you speak, whether it be at the dinner table with your family, in the check-out line at the grocery store, on a phone call, in a meeting with your colleagues, or in a formal presentation. Rather than focusing on the situational anxiety that can arise in a stressful speaking situation, we focus on our audience, asking ourselves how can we be of service to the people in our audience. In effect, we anchor our attention on the relationship and not on our anxiety. Paradoxically, this can help calm us down, steady us, and help us be more fully present in the moment and responsive to the needs of our audience.
By strengthening our self-awareness through our daily practices, and then regularly anchoring our attention on our audience when we speak , I believe we are actually making changes to the structure of our nervous system that can have a long term impact on our degree of comfort speaking in public.