How to Keep the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response in Check

By Alyson Connolly

One evolutionary trait that truly doesn’t help us when we’re getting started in public speaking is the fight, flight, or freeze response. If you remember from science class, this response is the central nervous system responding to protect you from some external terrible thing: a tiger coming through some bushes, a branch cracking above your head, or — nowadays — your name being called to give a speech at your daughter’s wedding.

Evolution doesn’t know or care, but one of those things is not like the others. If you forget your words to your only daughter’s wedding, you’re not going to be seriously injured. (Depending on how you raised her, I suppose.) But that fear on a hair trigger is deeply ingrained, and your body responds in the same way. It perceives a threat, and a cocktail of adrenaline and other hormones gets pumped throughout that tell you to

  • Get ready to fight.
  • Get ready to take flight.
  • Freeze.

None of those, especially that last one, is particularly helpful when called on to say a few words. But you may be surprised to learn that you can use that adrenaline to actually help you.

Say yes to adrenaline

First, a little science lesson. The nervous system consists of nerves and cells that carry messages to and from the brain and spinal cord. The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (often called the “rest and digest” system) is responsible for the “freeze” response. When we detect danger, the amygdala in the brain sends a message to the hypothalamus, an important control center. In turn, the hypothalamus sends a message to the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline.

Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a hormone that the body sends to your muscles when you encounter something that seems like it might mess you up. It’s commonly known as the substance your body produces to get you energized — that special superhuman elixir that can supposedly help you lift a fallen tree that has trapped your hiking partner’s leg, for example. And that’s partly what it is. It increases your heart rate and makes your lungs work harder, which brings more blood to the muscles in case you have to fight off a bear that’s sniffed out your basket of berries. We all know the physical sensation adrenaline causes: a tingling feeling in your body and, potentially, a wave of anxiety.

The anxiety is a good thing in the case of threats. It makes you hyper alert and ready to respond. You’ve gotten to the point in human evolution where you’re far more worried about abstract social concepts and their implications than you are about a cougar attack. It will take many thousands of years for our nervous systems to figure out that we’re not going to die when the stage lights come on.

What can you do in the meantime? Well, what about taking adrenaline and putting it to good use? I tell my clients to use adrenaline like serious athletes do. When you start to feel that tingly sensation and you don’t see a bear in the audience, try using that extra energy. Bring it into your voice and your presentation. That’s one way to use a natural system in your body to enhance, rather than hamper, your speech. Of course, if there are actual bears in the audience, reconsider your booking agent.

Stop cortisol in its tracks

Cortisol is another stress hormone coming out of your adrenal glands. Whereas adrenaline gets you ready to run away or start fighting, cortisol is there in case you have to fight or flee for a long time.

As adrenaline is working on your blood delivery system, cortisol is supplying energy to that blood through glucose. It’s there for the long haul, and when you’re stressed for an extended period of time, cortisol suppresses your immune system and encourages the production of more cortisol. It’s a cycle of stress — not good if you’re trying to keep things together.

Here’s where you’ve got to do some mental gymnastics. You have to trick yourself into believing that this audience isn’t going to eat you like a bear would, or like a lion would, or like — well, the audience isn’t going to eat you. There’s a process used in cognitive behavioral therapy that works wonders in cases like this. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach to treatment that focuses on how people think and act. Every time your mind has something pesky to say like “I’m going to fail,” you tell yourself, “No, stop it.” Then immediately repeat a positive comment like “I am a great speaker.” Repeat it a lot, until you start believing it. Every time. Eventually, you can break the stress cycle by retraining your mind.

Think like a caveperson

Okay, it’s time to go back to our roots. There are things that can be gleaned from how our ancestors (or caricatures of them) used to act:

  • Owning the room: Society is an important part of everyone’s identity, and that involves one kind of hierarchy or another. At work, your place on the hierarchy is in your job title. In your family it might be established by generation or birth order. For our ancestors, the top position was more fluid. The biggest club and the strongest swing might be all it took for a caveperson to become leader of his little clan.

Just as your ancestor “Grog” owned the cave, you must own the room. I’m not talking about clubbing anyone, unless that’s what your speech is about. But try visualizing yourself as leader of the pack. Think of it as everyone watching you not to be convinced of something, but for direction.

  • Being big: When Grog turned a corner and came face to face with a bear, what did he do? Well, he tried to look bigger than the bear. He put up his arms, puffed out his chest, growled, and hoped to hell the bear was dumb enough to believe the transformation.

You can use a similar method during a presentation. You’re not trying to scare your audience into believing whatever it is you have to say (although wouldn’t that be wonderful?). But by appearing and feeling as big and as confident as you can, your message will carry further.

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy talks about adopting a high power pose that makes you feel more confident. In an experiment, she had participants put their hands on their hips like a superhero or up over their head in a V shape. Another group adopted a “low power pose.” After just two minutes, the low-power posers felt low self-esteem and self-worth, and the high-power posers felt confident and ready to tackle the world. (See her TED Talk.)

  • Letting go of control: Grog lived in a dangerous world. Saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, the Flintstones’ encroaching suburbia. There were no safe days for your prehistoric cousin, so fretting about the small things was not the type of activity that Grog and his pals were into.

In that same way, while you’re up on stage — and while you’re preparing your talk — remember that things may go wrong and there’s nothing you can do about them. A light fixture may fall and destroy the stool where you’ve put your water. A cell phone may go off, and someone may well answer it and start talking. Grog knew a cougar might sneak into his cave any night.

There are things you can control and things you can’t. Of course, we know rationally when we think about it that we can’t control everything in the world. You’ve got to remember it. You can prepare as much as possible, and something still might go wrong. So, worrying about such things, before or during the show, is fruitless. When we let go of negative thoughts and things we can’t control, we feel relieved, which leads to feeling happier.

  • Living in the moment: Grog didn’t have a 401(k). He lived day to day, always in the moment. And although our economy (and life expectancy) has improved since his time, it’s good to act like Grog when you’re up onstage. Plan meticulously before you get up there — but once you’re onstage, it’s time to give in to the moment. I’ve heard so many people say that when they presented for the first time, it went by extremely fast. Before they knew it, they were done presenting the thing they’d been preparing for such a long time. That moment, believe it or not, is short. Once you’re up there, you have to make the most of it because it will be over before you know it.

When you’ve finished your presentation, reflect on how you did. Did you keep your mind focused on giving your presentation — or did you lose your focus when the dishes crashed in the kitchen or a cell phone rang? When you think of what went “wrong,” can you let it go and not judge yourself for making a mistake?

Yes, you made a mistake. Learn from it and move on.

Leverage the power of neuroplasticity

As much as our brain tries to call the shots on its own, we can fight back. Well, we can work together. One of the biggest problems I see in people is the perceived inability to work with what they’ve got upstairs. They can control the mind in all the ways that they think they need when it comes to a presentation. They can write one, they can speak it. But the anxiety, nervousness, and fear are traits that many people have just accepted as a cost of business.

That’s where the concept of neuroplasticity comes in. There is a perception that an old dog cannot learn tricks, that, when once we hit a certain age, we can’t do anything about the bad habits that have plagued us our entire lives. Well, simply put, that’s not true. Turns out our brains are more moldable than we thought. Neuroplasticity is the ability to change our brains, even as adults. It can occur when we suffer a brain injury or when we learn something new. Neurons do form new synapses, scientists are finding.