From Severe Public Speaking Anxiety to Giving a TEDx Talk:

Part 2 — Steps to Overcome Public Speaking Anxiety

After experiencing a full-fledged panic attack while giving a public talk I committed myself to overcoming it.

My first step was to understand what had actually happened. I researched everything I could get my hands on and arrived at a simple conclusion. My body had reacted with a fear-based fight or flight response to a falsely perceived threat. My naturally induced physical symptoms — heart racing, shortness of breath, over-heating, voice shakiness — amplified a strong emotional reaction. Essentially, I became afraid of the fear I was experiencing even though the initial trigger was ungrounded.

An analogy that describes this is to imagine that you are an insect with huge antennae. Normally, these antennae are facing out into the world and picking up external stimuli. When you have a panic-attack, the antennae turn inward and scan the body for any hint of a fear response. As soon as it senses a physical symptom (e.g., increased heart rate) it signals an alarm for more fear hormones to rush into the body to set off a five car alarm reaction.

In essence, the mind is inviting a fear response.

So knowing this, I came up with an overall new mental framework and a three-step process to overcome future attacks. The framework was to interpret the normal physiological symptoms as being good for me, not debilitating. As Kelly McGonigal shared in her TED talk there are ways to make stress your friend.

My three step process was the following:

1.) Acknowledge — when I first sense fear symptoms, I need to acknowledge them so my mind knows I know they are there. “Oh, there is my shortness of breath, I feel my hands are bit clammy, my heart is beating rapidly.” By identifying them, my body doesn’t feel a need to turn up the volume to get my attention.

2.) Assurances — to help me re-frame the context. I will remind myself that this is an audience of kind people who are simply here to learn. There are no saber-tooth tigers in the room looking to attack. There are no imminent threats or dangers I need to be fearful of.

3.) Coping Techniques — from a fear response I know I have some tools I can deploy to get through the initial heightened response period. I can ask a question of the audience and put the attention on them and take some deep breaths. I can do some grounding techniques like feel my feet on the floor or the chill of the bottle of water I may be holding. I can pause and take a breath. I can look out a window or at a plant and get connected to nature. I can make up a story about a person in the audience and feel empathy for them. All of these strategies help me get outside of my head to turn the antennae outwards again so I can regain my composure.

My experience has shown me that my strong stress reaction lasts no more than two minutes. So, if I can get through this short period by utilizing various strategies, I’ll soon be feeling back to myself and able to convey my message with passion, purpose and peace.

I hope this sharing helps others to get through their public speaking fears. I know you have an important message for the world that deserves to be delivered!

This is the second article of a three-part series. Coming soon:

Part 3 — Public Speaker in Training