Three stages of anxiety applied to public speaking – how you can intervene at each stage to stop the panic.
I am always looking for new ways to help people reframe their anxiety about public speaking, so I was thrilled to come across this TED talk by Lisa Damour – "3 steps of anxiety overload -- and how you can take back control".
She explains the three stages of anxiety and how we can intervene at each stage to stop ourselves from overreacting. The stages are:
I apply Lisa's three-stage framework to public speaking anxiety in this article. I look at some things we can do at each stage to prevent or minimise progression to the next.
tage one – Reduce the intensity of the reaction.
Let's say that you are about to give a presentation and feel sick to your stomach. Your heart is racing, you feel short of breath, you may have tingling hands and feet, and perhaps you are shaking.
You feel this way because your sympathetic nervous system is activated! Stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin, are pumping through your body, preparing you for action. But you are not about to enter a boxing match or run a sprint, and so your body is overreacting in terms of providing the energy you need to get up and speak well.
We would all love to be able to make the feelings go away and produce instant relaxation. That is not going to happen, but there are things that you can do to help take the edge off the nerves.
Try taking a walk, doing yoga or some other light exercise. Movement provides an outlet for that pent-up energy and should take the edge off it. Plus, many people find that walking in nature relaxes them. If exercise is not practical, even pushing hard against a wall will dissipate some of your energy.
Like Lisa, I used to be somewhat dismissive of breathing as a calming technique. "Just take a deep breath" felt like trivial advice. But also like Lisa, I now recognise the value of breathing properly. Instead of deep breathing, think about slowing down your breathing and lengthening the out-breath. Lisa explains how slow breathing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for relaxation and sleep).
Laughing, singing, humming, and cold water can also have a relaxing effect.
Close your eyes and focus on the physical sensations in your body. How many different things can you feel? Where do you feel them? Focus on the feelings rather than the thoughts. If you catch yourself dwelling on thoughts, bring yourself back to the feelings. Don't try to repress the feelings or push them away. Let them occur naturally – even allow them to overwhelm you.
The feelings themselves may be unpleasant, but they won't hurt you. And although you are not trying to get rid of them, you may even feel a bit calmer after spending a few minutes paying attention to the physical sensations.
Amy Cuddy popularised power poses in her TED talk – "Your language may shape who you are". Amy's research shows that people who adopt open body language, such as the Wonder Woman pose, feel more powerful in stressful situations. Practice 5 minutes of power-posing before you speak. And avoid closed body language- crossing legs and arms, and slumping in your seat.
Stage two – Find a different label.
Hopefully, these techniques have made the feelings less intense, but I am sure they are still there! It is tempting to call this anxiety – but that is not your only option. I have just described the feelings we associate with anxiety. But think about what excitement feels like in your body. Remarkably similar?!
Anxiety is a 'dread' mindset where you are worried about what is about to happen. Excitement is an 'opportunity" mindset where you look forward to it. So opposite mindsets but similar feelings!
Tell yourself that you are excited or experiencing anticipation (if excitement feels like a stretch!). You could even label it as 'apprehension' – much less intense than anxiety. You are not trying to make the feelings change or go away – but you are putting a different and more positive (or neutral) interpretation on them. This is a cool little trick that works well for many people.
Stage three – Stop thoughts spiralling out of control.
Now turn your attention to your thoughts. Even if you are still feeling anxious (and labelling it as anxiety!), it does not have to impact on your performance. I have seen plenty of people give awesome presentations when they claimed to feel extremely nervous!
Avoid catastrophising – which might go something like this:
"OMG, I feel so nervous. Everyone is going to see how nervous I look. What if I forget what I want to say? What if I panic? The last time was terrible. This is going to be a disaster!"
Lisa describes catastrophic thinking as overestimating the risks and underestimating our ability to manage them. And unfortunately it makes the things we worry about more likely to happen. A few nerves are performance-enhancing but blind panic - not so much..!
Here are some ways of reframing or neutralising those catastrophic thoughts.
OMG, I feel so anxious. Everyone is going to see how nervous I look
I do feel quite nervous, and it is possible that people might notice a bit, but how bad would that really be? It is also likely that my nerves are way more noticeable to me than to other people. After all, no one can see my heart pounding!
What if I forget what I want to say?
I will try to get through without relying too much on my notes, but I have them with me in case I forget.
What if I panic?
If I feel panicky, I will try to slow down, pause and even take a sip of water. I always worry about panicking, but usually, when I get going, it is not so bad.
The last time was terrible – this is going to be a disaster!
The last time wasn't great, but I feel better prepared this time.
Notice how catastrophising makes it sound like everything is outside your control. You focus on 'what ifs' and assume the worst-case scenario. In contrast, neutral thoughts are more moderate. They focus on likely outcomes rather than the worst case and on some things you can do to ensure the worst doesn't happen. Be systematic about identifying your thoughts–even write them down and practice reframing.
While I have made these sound like three separate and clearly identifiable stages, they tend to follow in rapid succession. It is easy to go from a hammering heart to total panic in a matter of minutes, even seconds! You may need to take yourself through each of these interventions several times.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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