Thursday, February 16, 2017

Speaking Science: Why do I blush at the start of a speech?

Several readers of the blog have been asking about blushing at the start of their talks, with comments along these lines:

"What can I do about suddenly turning red right before I start to speak? It makes me feel terrible and unprofessional, and I don't understand why it happens when I don't feel nervous otherwise! Most importantly, how can I stop blushing like this?"

Blushing is one of the most mysterious things that people do, and unfortunately it is mostly out of our conscious control. Blushing is fueled by the body's autonomic or unconscious nervous system--the same one that tells your heart to pump and your stomach to digest.

The mechanics of how a blush happens are straightforward. Underneath the skin of your face and neck is a lacework of tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which dilate under the influence of adrenaline to allow more blood and oxygen to flow. And a blush isn't something you can fake. Unlike most human expressions, you can't force a blush to appear on your face. (Or, sadly, demand that your capillaries shrink back to size.)

But you're in good company if you don't understand why you blush, because scientists from Charles Darwin onward have been perplexed by what Darwin called "the most peculiar and most human of all expression." The research on blushing covers a wide ground, and its findings match most of what we already know from novelists. Blushing can signal embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness, pride or guilt.

The good news, however, is that more recent studies about chronic blushing and blushing and social anxiety have offered some insights that may lead to less blushing, and less worry about your red face.

What does a blush mean?

Duke University social psychologist Mark Leary suggested in a 1992 study that there are four main types of attention that can cause blushing:
  1. some sort of "threat to public identity," which could be anything from tripping on a street curb to clapping at a performance when the rest of the theater is silent; 
  2. an openness to scrutiny, or a situation that makes you the center of attention; 
  3. praise or positive attention; and
  4. accusations of blushing. 
All of these situations seem to trigger the body's "fight or flight" response that unleashes face-flushing adrenaline.

Public speaking can involve all four of these, of course. You may think of speaking as a threat to your public identity because you are fearful that your words may displease your audience. For women especially, historically taught to be silent, the very act of public speaking may make you feel as if you are violating normal behavior. Speaking does put you at the center of attention. And if you've ever had anyone comment on your blush, you may have felt yourself feeling hotter and redder by the second.

But blushing isn't all about you, and your feelings. Some evolutionary biologists think that blushing has evolved like other emotions in that it serves as an important signal. For instance, a 2009 study led by University of Amsterdam clinical psychologist Corine Dijk suggests that a person who blushes after committing some sort of social blunder--knocking over a grocery display, for instance--is more likely to be forgiven for the act by observers if she blushes. Dijk says that in this case the blush makes the person appear more sympathetic, and is taken as a signal that she is genuinely sorry about the social "mistake."

Other researchers have found that blushers tend to think their red faces are more noticeable than their observers do, and frequently overestimate the social consequences of blushing. Some scientists have noted an unfortunate side effect of these misperceptions: worrying about whether you blush and how obvious your blush can actually lead to further blushing that is measurably more intense.

Handling the heat

Given all this, is there any way for a speaker to minimize blushing?

"Since the blush is an automatic response, one can only get rid of the blush altogether by modifying one's concerns about one's public self-image, or become less concerned with the impression one makes on others," says Peter J. de Jong, a clinical psychologist at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

De Jong and his colleagues have conducted several studies of blushing, often in the context of treating it as a symptom of social anxiety disorder. The steps that one can take to reduce the fear of blushing "typically also result in less frequent blushing," says de Jong, who is also the co-editor of The Psychological Significance of the Blush.

In a 2011 study by de Jong and others, for instance, the researchers asked participants to practice cognitive behavioral therapy techniques over seven sessions as a potential way to reduce their fear of blushing. The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy, sometimes called CBT, is to change patterns of inaccurate or negative thinking so that a person can respond more effectively to challenges. The study used therapies such as concentration games and relaxation techniques, which reduced the fear of blushing among the participants up to a year later.

If blushing before a speech is bothering you, a CBT technique such as mindful breathing might be a good place to start--even better if you make these kinds of relaxation practices part of your regular routine. If you are a speaker with a diagnosed social anxiety disorder, your health care team might be able to recommend other more intensive types of CBT as well.

For public speakers prone to blushing, de Jong suggests, it is also useful to "learn how to focus more of their own attention on their task at hand" instead of worrying about what their audience sees.

"The ultimate aim would be to become a bit more indifferent--and probably also more realistic--about the social implications of your speech or performance, and also about the social impact of displaying a blush," he notes. "During the Dutch training we use the flash card Negeer en concentreer, which roughly means 'ignore'--the blush or your ideas about a negative evaluation--and 'concentrate'--on the task at hand, which implies an outward instead of inward focus."

(Freelance science writer Becky Ham contributed this post. Creative Commons licensed photo by Ryan Somma)

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