Definition of Glossophobia: Fear of Public Speaking

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Glossophobia is an intense fear of speaking in public. This term comes from the Greek words “glōssa” (tongue) and “phobos” (fear). Glossophobia is commonly referred to as public speaking anxiety. If a person fears a number of social situations, not just public speaking, the person may have generalized social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder).

Glossophobia is classified as a specific form of Social Phobia within the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). This phobia is characterized by an intense or unreasonable fear that they will be scrutinized and criticized by people while speaking in public, resulting in humiliation and embarrassment. Public speaking, or even thoughts of public speaking, will often lead to significant distress and anxiety symptoms, such as feelings of dread, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, increased heart rate, dry mouth, and even panic attacks. While in public speaking situations, people with glossophobia may experience blushing, trembling of hands, a shaky voice, stuttering, and difficulty concentrating on their speech. People with glossophobia may limit or avoid any public speaking engagements, which may lead to problems with their academic, occupational, or social functioning. For instance, a student may be unwilling to meet the course requirement of giving a speech in front of the class, or a person may not be able to give a toast at his daughter’s wedding. Some people may even have a hard time talking in conversations in group settings or with people they do not know well.

The majority of people report some anxiety or fear related to public speaking, and glossophobia is one of the most common types of social phobia. The most common explanation for glossophobia is that a person develops a negative perception of their abilities and believes that other people will scrutinize their poor performance, so people begin to avoid speaking in public. However, research finds that people’s perceptions of their performance are usually much more negative than their actual performance. People with glossophobia report that their fears are generally focused on the fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in public. Some people with glossophobia also experience test anxiety and fears of other social situations (generalized social phobia). Speech disorders, other anxiety disorders (e.g., agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder), and substance abuse disorder may commonly co-occur with glossophobia.

Celebrities who reportedly have had a fear of public speaking include Reese Witherspoon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Donny Osmond, Barbra Streisand, and Harrison Ford.

Cognitive-behavior treatments are the most common and effective treatments for glossophobia. Exposure treatments, such as systematic desensitization, can help a person gradually gain confidence and reduce their fear of public speaking. Given that people with glossophobia have negative cognitions about their own performance, treatment often involves some cognitive restructuring work (e.g., changing irrational negative beliefs to be more realistic). Social skills training can be helpful for people with glossophobia who may need help learning how to interact in social situations. Virtual reality treatment and Internet-based self-help treatments have also found to be effective for glossophobia. Medications, such as beta-blockers and anti-anxiety drugs, may also be used in conjunction with psychotherapy. Although medications can help a person manage their anxiety symptoms, they will not treat the underlying negative cognitions. A person with glossophobia should discuss treatment options with a trained counselor or healthcare professional.

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