First off, why does this happen? Basically, your sympathetic nervous system kicks your body into fight-or-flight mode. That releases a cascade of chemicals all over your body, one consequence of which is the blood vessels in your face dilating (amongst other heart-pounding, eye-opening, stomach-churning effects). There are typically two ways this gets triggered:

  1. You’re scared of the situation you’re in or the one you’re thinking about. When you start worrying about something bad that could happen, parts of your brain panic: “We’re about to get attacked by a tiger!” So your brain gets you ready to run away or fight the tiger.
  2. You’re walking into an environment/situation where you’ve had a negative experience in the past or that you associate with things that previously scared you. When you enter that situation, parts of your brain panic: “We’re in the place where we got attacked by a tiger!” So your brain gets you ready to run away or fight the tiger.

Your brain is trying to help you. It doesn’t want you to get eaten by tigers. It might seem strange that your brain is worried about tigers when you’re giving a presentation in front of a group of people, but it’s because we’re social animals. Maintaining social connections helps us stay alive. If you were a caveman and you gave a terrible cave drawing presentation about buffalo hunting, and then all of the other cavemen kicked you out of the tribe because of it, what would happen to you? You’d get eaten by a tiger.

So how do you deal with this? Well, there actually is a surgical option, that gets discussed in this episode of This American Life. But it doesn’t always work and doesn’t help with the blotchy blushing you can get on your neck and chest.

Like the subject of that episode mentions, she knows that she’s the one causing the problem. She knows that when she starts worrying about work or she’s under stress, she starts blushing, even in the shower at home. Getting over this takes the same types of practices that are helpful for overcoming any anxiety issue:

  • Do more presentations! As long as you avoid them, that sends a big signal to your brain that these are terrifying things to avoid. So it’s only natural that your brain get nervous and your face flushes.
  • Accept the consequences that frighten you. It’s often not the redness that’s the issue, it’s the fear of what we think other people will think and do: we’ll get fired, we’ll end up broke, nobody will hire us, everybody will say nasty things about us, etc. Instead of trying to avoid those experiences, accept that they are going to happen–welcome them! And then continue on with your presentation. It’s the last professional presentation you’ll deliver, anyways 🙂 Be happy about that. When your brain sees you’re not afraid of the consequences, it’ll eventually stop worrying about them. Your brain only worries about things you want to avoid.
  • Practice not judging other people. If you put in lots of practice judging how other people look, what they say, how they work, what they write, whether it’s positive or negative, that practice helps your brain get skilled at judging. The more you practice, the easier it gets. If you invest lots of practice in judging others, it’s only natural for your brain to continue that practice on you.
  • Stop checking! If you’re checking to see if you’re blushing, you’re inevitably going to find something that makes you think you are starting to blush, which will make you more nervous, which will lead to more blushing, etc. Whether you’re checking how your gut feels to see if you’re about to pee your pants in front of your audience, or your checking in the mirror to see if you have anything in your teeth or you’re already turning red, those are all examples of compulsions that only reinforce the message to your brain that you need to be scared.
  • Tackle all compulsions related to what you think others think about you. It can help to see anxiety as a practice. The more we practice trying to control a particular fear in many different areas of our lives, the more anxiety we experience. It’s a natural result of practicing compulsions. So if you want to deal with blushing during presentations, don’t only focus there. Cut out all of the compulsions you engage in, throughout your life, as an attempt to control your fears about what others think about you. You have many opportunities throughout your day to show your brain that you can accept what others think about you, that you don’t have to react to those fears with coping, checking, or controlling compulsions, and you can do the things you value, even in environments that once frightened you.

This does take time. I don’t recommend looking for a quick fix, like this. Building your capacity to handle stressful situations is a practice, just like anxiety, and it’s going to take consistent effort to make these changes. But it creates possibilities to do the things you want to do in life. Enjoy that!

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