An interesting pilot study conducted by my lab found that people preferred to administer small but uncomfortable shocks to themselves than give a 5-min speech about their personal attributes. It might seem shocking (no pun intended) that people would choose physical discomfort over public speaking, but fear of public speaking tops death and spiders as America’s number one phobia.
Although very few of us actually enjoy public speaking, individuals with social anxiety disorder (SAD) find such evaluative situations unbearable. Imagine every time you took an exam, faced a performance review, or asked someone out on a date you automatically expected and perceived negative feedback. These negative expectations would certainly make me want to avoid evaluation at all costs. Avoidance is one way to mitigate negative feelings associated with evaluation, but this strategy does nothing to improve well-being or help people cope with future instances of evaluation. What are the options for coping with stress when escape or avoidance is not possible? What can people do in the moment to improve the experience of stress?
Recent research I conducted in collaboration with Dr. Wendy Berry Mendes at UCSF and Dr. Matthew Nock at Harvard University sought to answer these questions. To do so, we recruited samples of research participants meeting the criteria for SAD and others without SAD. The first thing participants did after reporting to the lab was rest quietly for 5-min so we could get an accurate baseline recording of their biological signals. After baseline we asked participants to perform a stressful public speaking task: the Trier Social Stress Test which was developed by Clemens Kirschbaum and colleagues. This task requires speakers to deliver a 5-min videotaped speech about their personal strengths and weaknesses to a panel of two evaluators. As if giving a self-relevant speech isn’t stressful enough, the evaluators also provide speakers will negative non-verbal feedback (frowning, brow furrowing, etc.) throughout the speech. Predictably, this research paradigm is one of the most effective ways of activating biological stress systems in the laboratory (if you are interested in learning more about evaluative stress responses please refer to a 2004 review written by Drs. Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny that appeared in Psychological Bulletin). But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves…
Before participants delivered their speeches they were randomly assigned to one of two experimental groups. The “experimental” group heard instructions that informed them about the functionality of stress. For instance, they learned about the sympathetic nervous system and reviewed material that specifies how acute stress responses help us perform well. The goal of these instructions was to encourage people to reappraise what stress meant to them. By highlighting all of the good things that stress can do we hoped that signs of stress arousal (sweaty palms, racing heart, etc.) would be interpreted in a more positive light. The other half of participants was assigned to a “control” group. Participants in this condition did not receive any instructions before beginning their speech. Our research team compared the cardiovascular responses and public speaking performance of the experimental group to the responses and performance of the control group.
Confronted with the stressful public speaking situation, both SAD and less anxious participants who were prepped about the benefits of stress exhibited better outcomes than controls. The reappraisal group reported feeling better about their speaking assignment, their cardiovascular systems pumped more blood to their brain and periphery per minute during the speech, and they gave better speeches than participants in the control group. Surprisingly, we found no differences between SAD and less anxious individuals in cardiovascular functioning, but those who suffered from SAD subjectively reported more negative emotions than less anxious individuals. This suggests a potential disconnect between biological responses and cognitive appraisals in SAD, which might help account for why cognitive-behavioral therapies (or CBT) are effective for SAD.
In fact, our arousal reappraisal approach shares the same underlying theme—changing cognitions produces downstream benefits—as CBT, but does differ in some important ways. Most notably, the aim of arousal reappraisal is not to encourage socially anxious individuals to distance themselves from threats or to “relax.” Rather our perspective focuses on altering the type of stress. Other research I was not directly involved with indicates that people experiencing “good stress” (think excitement) perform better in acute stress situations than those who are calm. However, the clam individuals outperform those who experience “bad stress” (think fear or threat). Lots of the advice out there for anxious people focuses on promoting relaxation techniques (deep breathing, etc.). These calming techniques are helpful in situations that do not require peak performance, but when gearing up for a speaking engagement reframing how we think about stress may be a better strategy.