Sweating Before an
Audience—Working to Control a Phobia
A beginning advertising executive starts to sweat profusely when she
starts her presentation in front of her boss and the staff. A
graduate student stammers and is barely audible when delivering a
seminar paper. His thoughts of an academic career, like his speech,
Fear of an audience. Suddenly the words aren't there. They are
replaced by fear—a phobia that leads to paralysis.
Prof. Marilyn Safir of the Dept. of Psychologist is experimenting
with virtual reality and with people's imaginations to lessen this
fear. She is working with two colleagues, a clinical psychologist
and a psychiatrist, through the University's Center for the Study of
Psychological Stress on a series of therapeutic treatments.
The therapies are based on cognitive-behavioral techniques that have
been tested around the world, but never before used to compare CBT
techniques to combat speech anxiety. Safir's colleagues have
voluntary appointments with the University's Laboratory for CBT and
Family Therapy, which she co-directs.
One of the experimental treatments involves donning a virtual
reality helmet that gives the patient the simulated feeling of
facing an audience. The patient enters into this experience
gradually, learning to control his or her thoughts and to develop
skills at overcoming the fear.
Another treatment employs the patient's imagination to determine
what situations bother the person. A hierarchy of such situations is
formed. The therapist advances from one to the next only after the
patient, imagining the particular setting, feels no anxiety from it.
According to Safir, these treatments are much more effective than
other psychological and medicinal treatments for alleviating fear.
"Drug treatments," she said, may lessen fear, but they do not help
to develop coping skills." Both the virtual reality and the
imagination technique, she continued, are meant to treat this fear
for the long-run, not just for the moment.
The psychologist is also trying to determine which of the two is
better and for whom.
The aim, she explained, is not to reduce anxiety to zero, but to a
level that the person can do something with it. A certain amount of
anxiety, she pointed out, actually pushes people to act. It cannot,
though, take over and cause people to overlook their own competence.
"It is difficult," Safir acknowledges, "but not the end of the world
to suffer from some anxiety. For that reason, it is important to
examine the thoughts producing anxiety." She said that it is the
person's interpretation of a situation, not the situation itself,
that brings on the fear.
At present, there is no charge for the 12 treatments, since the
techniques are still in the experimental stage. So, if you are
between the ages of 20 and 35 and you fall apart just thinking about
having to face an audience, you might want to get in touch with
Marilyn Safir or the Center for the Study of Psychological Stress at
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