THE BLOG

Speaking of Mindfulness...

08/06/2014 23:00 BST | Updated 08/08/2014 10:59 BST

One of the things I didn't expect when I took the job at Headspace was the amount of public speaking I'd have to do. Until recently, most of my talks had been to groups of 30-100 people. But a couple of weeks ago I gave a keynote speech on mindfulness to an audience of 4000 people at the ExCel Centre in London. It was only 15 minutes long, but it was by far the largest audience I'd ever spoken to, and involved me pacing about on my own on an enormous stage with a microphone clamped to my face.

My colleagues watched the live stream on the internet from back at the office, and afterwards someone commented to me that I hadn't seemed very nervous. And in truth I hadn't been. Why?

Well, immediately before taking the stage, I listened to day 10 of Take10, and then did Amy Cuddy's Power Pose (see below).

And after the talk I was genuinely surprised about how little fear I had felt, and I even ended up enjoying the whole thing quite a lot. Which got me to thinking about the fear of public speaking, where it comes from, and why these simple things had made such a difference.

Interestingly, some experts estimate that up to 75% of all people experience some degree of anxiety or nervousness over public speaking. (Hamilton, C. (2008/2005). Communicating for Results, a Guide for Business and the Professions (eighth edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth)

Fear of public speaking - also known as speech anxiety or glossophobia - is considered a subset of social phobia, which is a diagnosable condition defined in the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Disease.

Olivia Mitchell gives a great explanation on her website about where this fear comes from in our brains. Very simply, it boils down to 3 distinct fears:

1. If I'm not part of a social group, I'll die. And if I don't impress these people they'll kick me out of the social group

2. I've been in a (vaguely) similar situation before and something happened that really left an emotional scar

3. I absolutely have to perform well here otherwise...

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to work very well for anxiety. The technique centres around identifying what psychologists call 'unworkable' thoughts, usually containing tell-tale keywords, and substituting more appropriate self-talk. But this has always struck me as somewhat implicitly judgemental and harsh - "my thoughts are wrong, I must replace them with better ones" - and also forceful in that you have to overpower one thought with another. Before you knew it, you could easily get yourself in a bit of a pickle: "I must not think sentences containing the word 'must'. (Damn, I've done it again!)"

But mindfulness combats fear and anxiety in a different way. With mindfulness, we're not judging ourselves or our thoughts, and we're not trying to intercept the 'bad' ones and superimpose the 'good' ones. Just like in the animation with the cars on the road, we're simply noticing their passage. And when we do that, our amygdala pipes down, our Fear/Fight/Flight response recedes, and we regain control of our faculties. It's that old tug-of-war thing again!

The added benefit of a quick mindful moment is that you put yourself in a frame of mind where you're open to and curious about the present moment. When you do that right before you go and do something you've never done before, you're much more likely to actually enjoy whatever it is you're about to do next. Imagine living a life where you could pretty much always enjoy new experiences!

The other thing I did just before I went on stage was the Power Pose. I learnt this from a TED talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, who explains that the mind/body link is so strong that not only does the mind influence the body, but the body also influences the mind. So by adopting an innate bodily position associated with success or victory, your brain responds accordingly, and your level of testosterone (key to performance and libido!) goes up 20% in just 2 minutes. At the same time, the level of cortisol, (the horrible stress hormone) reduces by 25%. And, as Amy explains with some experiments she did in her lab, in evaluative 'social threat' situations you'll be perceived much more positively because you feel more confident.

So before I went on stage to give my talk, I disengaged my Fear/Fight/Flight response, I put myself in the mindset to appreciate the moment, and I boosted my confidence. And all it took was 10 minutes of mindfulness and winning the Olympic 100m sprint!

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This is a blog series produced in partnership with Headspace, a project designed to demystify meditation. With scientifically proven techniques that are easy-to-earn and fun-to-do, Headspace can be used every day to experience a healthier and happier mind

You can try it on for size with the free Take10 program by visiting headspace.com