Everyone has experienced the infamous fight-or-flight response. The phenomenon was documented and named back in 1915 by researcher Walter Bradford Cannon, a Harvard physiologist. Studying the reaction of animals to acute stress situations, Bradford realized that it all came down to how the body’s nervous system manages a perceived threat.
That word perceived is key. What’s so strange about the fight-or-flight response is that the vast majority of the time it’s not even necessary. It is designed to help animals (us) react to critical threats. Yet, it’s fairly rare that we face battles with predators or the need to escape an oncoming bus.
That’s why so many researchers study how to preemptively disable the fight-or-flight response before it disables us. But what happens when the preemptive strategies don’t work?
What if we’ve done our breathing exercises beforehand, we’ve practiced our content, and we’ve done our visualizations, and still the fight-or-flight response kicks in? Or, what happens if we’ve neglected all of those preemptive strategies, and now it’s too late? We’re in the middle of a report and our voice becomes shaky, our mouth gets dry, our hands begin to tremble, and our eyes start darting around.
One client I spoke with recently expressed frustration because 9 times out of 10, he is just fine. But, randomly, about ten percent of the time, his body just goes into panic mode, even when he is just trying to make a casual comment in a meeting. At that point, the preemptive strategies are out the window.
I recommend two very simple practices to send the fight-or-flight response back to where it came from.
The first is to use direct eye contact.
I’ve spoken of the benefits of eye contact before. And the best research continues to show the benefits of making real eye contact. Most of the research discusses the benefits in terms of how you are perceived by the listener, but it is also true that there are benefits to how you perceive the situation.
You will find that when your eye contact darts around, your panic gets triggered and/or becomes worse. If you flood your field of vision with a lot of fast-moving chaotic data, your brain is going to assume you’re in distress. If you hold steady eye contact, you remind your brain that you’re in control.
When you make real eye contact with individuals, you remind your brain that you are in a non-threatening situation. You’re just having a conversation with a person. You show your mind that your adrenal medulla is full of lies, and that it can save its panic hormones for another time. Your pace, volume, inflection, and body language will modulate to fit the reality of the situation.
The second piece of advice is to imagine speaking to someone you know, love, and trust.
Literally, picture their face smiling at you as you speak. I like to imagine my young child. They’re old enough to pay attention to me and root for me, but young enough to believe in me and have whole-hearted faith that I can do great. They think I’m smart, funny, and competent. That’s why I DON’T imagine my teenager. Hah! The point is to think of someone you’re sure is in your corner. It might even be yourself!
I tried this technique when I was presenting on camera, and it worked like a charm. I suddenly felt more relaxed, and almost immediately my energy, expression, tone, etc. improved. I have found it’s a little more difficult to use this technique when I am speaking to a live person because it’s not easy to imagine a live person to be someone else. But it still helps.
In short, the trick to disabling the fight-or-flight response after it has already kicked in is to do the things that convince your brain that you are in a non-threatening situation. It’s about changing what the brain perceives. The advice above is designed to do just that. But do not neglect your other delivery skills: slowing down, smiling, and using open body language and gestures. All of the traditional delivery skills are designed to send a confident message to your listener and to your own brain.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.