The 'negativity effect' keeps us from performing our best, especially when it comes to speaking confidently in front of a group. Once you understand the psychological effect, you can control it before it takes over your life.
Roy Baumeister is a psychology researcher who won the William James Fellow award, the highest recognition from the Association for Psychological Science. He was among the first scientists to discover the negativity bias. I talked to Baumeister recently about his new book, The Power of Bad, and how negativity--the brain's 'inner demon'--can hold back our success.
"The mind has a strong natural tendency to overreact to negative things as compared to positive things," says Baumeister. That means we can feel a panic attack coming on just by thinking about speaking in front of an audience.
But there are ways to train the mind to be fearless in almost any situation that causes anxiety. Just ask Felix Baumgartner.
Baumgartner is the skydiver who accomplished a free fall from 24 miles above Earth in 2012. Although he was an experienced daredevil, the thought of spending hours in a pressurized space suit and helmet sent him into a panic attack. Michael Gervais, a clinical psychologist, was called in to help.
According to Baumeister in his book, the steps they took together to overcome Felix's anxiety can be followed to conquer almost any mental barrier--especially one of the greatest fears of all--the fear of public speaking.
1. Talk about it.
Talking about fears is a remarkably effective way of helping people conquer anxiety.
In my work, leaders and business professionals will confide in me about their terrifying fear of public speaking. Many of them have passed up career opportunities because their fear holds them back.
Like Gervais reminding Baumgartner that many share his same fears, I tell them about others who have struggled with the fear of public speaking. When they hear that famous entrepreneurs from Warren Buffett to Richard Branson have publicly acknowledged a fear of public speaking--and successfully conquered it--they know know that they're not alone.
2. Map the 'runaway train' and throttle it.
Anxiety often starts well before the event takes place. The trick is to identify the 'way points' in your mind, imagine yourself along the route, and don't proceed until you're calm.
It's an imagination exercise. Close your eyes and imagine yourself going through each step of creating and delivering a presentation: building slides, practicing, driving to the meeting. It's likely that each step raises your anxiety level. You'll feel your heart rate faster. As your anxiety level starts to rise, take step three to calm yourself down before taking next step on your imaginary journey.
3. Breathe slowly.
Take long, deep breathes from your diaphragm slowly. The process of breathing in and out should take about 30 seconds. It's a way for your mind to concentrate on something other than your fear.
Breathing also sends a signal to your brain that all is okay. It reduces the 'fight-or-flight' response that elevates your heart rate and makes your palms sweat.
4. Recite a mantra.
Coping statements are words you repeat over and over to overwhelm irrational negative thoughts; statements like 'You've Got This.'
Remember that Felix Baumgartner felt anxious at the thought of putting on his helmet. His psychologist taught him to take deep breaths for thirty seconds at a time and repeat the mantra: This makes me a superhero. Within weeks, he could spend hours in the suit.
The steps worked for Felix. In October of 2012, he set a free fall record of 119,431 feet. His psychologist said, "Once you extinguish the fear, you're looking at a whole world of possibility and freedom."
If Felix used the steps to overcome the anxiety of free falling at the speed of 844 miles per hour, then the steps can help you get through your next presentation.
By learning more about the negativity effect and how it influences your thoughts, "you see the world more realistically--and less fearfully," says Baumeister. "You can conscious override the impulses that cause crippling insecurities, panic attacks, and phobias, like the fear of heights or public speaking."