My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. I desperately search an escape route. I avoid eyes. Can they hear the thud? Can they see? This can’t be happening. Not now. I’m not ready. Soon it’s my turn to talk and I’m paralysed: I’ll choke; I’ll be exposed. This is too much to hide.
It’s 2012, around 3pm, an autumnal October afternoon in Sheffield. Second year of university has begun, and I’m in a workshop for radio production. Our group of around 15 are “going around in a circle” sharing ideas for our upcoming project. Uh. How I hate going around in a circle. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different.
One spot away from sharing, I stand up. I mumble an excuse and walk out. This is the first time I’ve fled, flight-mode too strong to ignore. I walk out of the newsroom and enter the toilet, hoping my escape wasn’t obvious. I stare into the mirror, my post-panic attack reflection tinged beige by off-yellow fluorescent lights. Fucking beige. Fitting.
I’m hiding. I’m actually hiding. Has it really come to this? Now comes the shame. Now comes the hopelessness.
My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. It’s 2018, precisely 6:30pm on a scorching September evening in Berlin. I’m at coworking venue St. Oberholz, minutes away from introducing myself as a member of an expert panel. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different…
I’m about to find my voice.
These resources and techniques helped me overcome public speaking anxiety
The short answer to what has changed in those six years would be: a lot. Even with an expanded self-awareness, public speaking is a terrifying prospect — some say it’s feared more than death. Fortunately, my recent experience allowed me to explore, from the inside out, the resources and techniques most useful in managing anxiety, helping me move beyond fear to deliver a talk I never thought possible. These tools, I’m sure, can be helpful for anyone facing a crowd.
Let’s jump back in time, again.
Resource #1: Grounding in the present when pulled into the future
It’s mid-August. I’m in Holy Coffee, Berlin. I’m calm. For a brief respite from work, I check my phone. A missed call and message from my friend, and fellow coach, Sanya. She’s been invited to talk on a panel organised by Vanessa, the founder of Word of Mouth. The panel — Breaking the Silence — is the first in a Deep Talk series. It involves an open discussion on mental health. Vanessa is extending the invite to me.
Immediately when I see the message I’m transported to what I’ll call the anxious place. Facing me, a sea of people, baffled looks etched on faces as I mumble inaudibly, voice cracking, words an anxious jumble. My body responds in the here and now. I’m living it. I’m sat in the same spot, but my stomach flutters as my brain reminds me of the times I’ve choked.
From this moment I begin practising the first resource. I bring myself back to the present by noticing the thoughts, images and sensations without judgement, indulgence or resistance. This helps me avoid being caught up in storylines of how I’m going to mess it all up, of how I won’t be able to cope. I breathe. I call Sanya. After words of reassurance and support, I begin to relax.
Resource #2: Embracing impermanence
“Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease.When we see this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.” — Joseph Goldstein, Insight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom
Unlike normal nerves, public speaking anxiety doesn’t begin an hour before the presentation. Or a day. Or a week. It can begin as soon as the event becomes a fixed point in the mental calendar. I emphasise fixed point because that’s what it becomes; though life flows freely and each moment is transient, when an anxiety-inducing event enters the calendar of the mind’s eye, that point becomes rigid and immoveable.
In the past, I’ve had moments where I’ve been paralysed by visualisations of events months away. A glancing thought would instantaneously transport me to the anxious place. The build-up to this panel was a promising sign. I was transported occasionally, but I noticed a number of visualisations had positive associations. Excitement was outweighing fear.
When those projections were anxiety-ridden, I called upon one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy — impermanence (anicca). I reminded myself the hour I’d be on stage was as transient and flowing as any hour I’ve ever experienced. Like all hours, this too shall pass.
That being said, the event did play tricks on my mental timeline. It was a hard for me to envision beyond the event — a common theme I’ve detected when the anxious mind fears a specific event. As well as recalling Resource #1 and grounding myself in the present, I accepted this fixed point was in my mental calendar. I didn’t try to fight it.
Resource #3: It’s not now… even now
Another common trait I’ve detected in run-up to aforementioned fixed point is obsessing over clock-time. This is a distinct focus on the passage of time, measured by calendars and clocks, not a mental projection of the future. However, it does appear to share a symbiotic relationship with future projection.
For example, I noticed my mind engaging in a countdown, seemingly subconsciously. Two weeks to go! 10 days to go! AHH — tomorrow! This is amplified on the day of the presentation, as days become hours. The closer the event approaches in clock-time, the stronger the pull of the future visualisations.
To accompany this, I notice myself occasionally resisting time. Resistance increases the closer the event gets. Of course, with resistance comes inner-tension, manifesting as anxiety, stress, despair. Considering the passage of time is a fundamental law of nature, resistance is like jumping from the top of building and trying to resist gravity. It’s futile. And probably dangerous.
The third resource cultivates acceptance of the moment and the inevitable passing of clock-time. I call it, it’s not now… even now. This is a reminder that even when the event is really close, it’s still not now… even now. It’s easier to ground ourselves in the present when we know we still have a few days to go. The purpose of this resource is to maintain mindful relaxation as the event gets closer.
It’s not now… even now is a useful mindful reminder hours, or even minutes, away from the event.
Resource #4: Let the adrenaline elevate you
This breaks a habit I’d long formed, based on a mistaken belief there is a “perfect” way to prepare. Go to bed by 10:27pm the night before, eat 75g of oats with blueberries and chia seeds in the morning, throw salt over shoulder, etc. This was linked another belief that the only way to perform well was to be on my A-game. In the zone. Amped up. The delusion is believing there’s a magic ingredient that would make everything okay. It’s superstition.
Believing in a perfect way to prepare causes unnecessary suffering because anything outside of the concept of perfection would cause stress. Plus, it’s not particularly empowering to believe the only way of coping is following a strict pattern in the build-up. Preparation morphs into an attempt to control the uncontrollable. So this time, I rejected it.
Instead I opted for a different technique. I put every ounce of focus into being present, courtesy of Resource #3. This was all the preparation I needed. I didn’t need to find my A-game — the event would do that for me. Knowing my adrenaline would kick in as soon as I was in position, I focused on being as relaxed as possible.
After years of believing I needed to get in the zone for events such as this, this approach felt counter-intuitive. But once I arrived at the venue, I knew it was a good call. The nervous-excitement of meeting the other panelists and seeing people fill the room one-by-one, naturally elevated me. Because I was coming from a relaxed state, this elevation wasn’t overwhelming.
No blaring Eye of the Tiger or running up the steps of Rathaus Neukölln whilst punching the air from now on.
Resource #5: Loving-Kindness meditation towards the audience
On the day of the event, I turned to meditation for sanctuary. Fortunately those of us involved met at the venue the evening before, so I could visualise the space. I practised a meditation tailored for public speaking, using the metta bhavana (loving kindness meditation) as a foundation.
The aim was twofold; I wanted to extend feelings of compassion and love to the audience and to cultivate self-compassion. I wanted to erode the barrier between me and the audience. A huge factor in public speaking anxiety is being the centre of attention, all eyes on you, rabbit in the headlights.
Instead of sponging up the attention and feeling overwhelmed, this meditation visualised cultivating loving kindness by sending energy into the crowd. This is a powerful tool because it eradicates one of the biggest barriers I’ve faced in connecting with people in the audience…
Resource #6: Undoing the cognitive distortion of labelling
Labelling is a common cognitive distortion. You could call it overgeneralising. I call it — Me Versus Them. Who’s them? Everyone other than me. Though it happens to all of us from time to time, I learned a harsh lesson in this distortion during a paranoid spell, where Me Versus Them became normality. This mindset is threatening and incredibly isolating.
It blinds you from reality, obscuring the texture in social situations that provide counter-evidence Me Versus Them is a mindset. I experienced this form of cognitive labelling on buses, in clubs, in lectures, in the gym. It was particularly palpable when preparing to give a presentation, such as the walk-out moment mentioned earlier.
Fortunately this mindset is rare now. But I was conscious it could return to some degree while sat on stage, microphone in hand, facing a group of people. Counteracting this possibility, I used the public speaking meditation to humanise each and every member of the audience. To connect, human to human. To cultivate the experience of seeing texture, and transforming them into us.
Resource #7: Vulnerability, surrender, finding flow
Back to the final countdown, September 2018, 6:30pm. I’m fortunate to be joined by Sanya, Isabelle, Meryl and Farina, with Vanessa in the wings. The sense of camaraderie and mutual support helps calm the nerves. However, familiar feelings kick in as the panel is being introduced. Oh, shit. This is the moment I’d anticipated, and I knew there was one thing left to do — surrender. I couldn’t control the situation. I had to stop resisting. I had to let go. I had to be vulnerable.
As it’s my turn to talk, I do the one thing I’ve tried so hard to avoid in the past. Each member is asked to introduce ourselves and share how we are feeling, encouraged to answer honestly. Those familiar palpitations thud in my ears. But this is a time for openness, a space to break the silence, a challenge to remove facades. I look up. I see the sea of faces. I’m handed the microphone.
I’m a Life, Spirituality, and Wellness Coach.
I’m an expert on depression and anxiety via experience. And…
…I feel nervous.”
Initial waves of fear subside. Palpitations cease. Then, something incredible happens. Rather than rushing to get it over and done with, I feel present. I feel a connection with members of the audience, like having 50 one-on-one conversations at once. I see nods of encouragement and attentive expressions. I find flow.
Years ago, I never thought this would be possible. I never thought I’d be able to talk this way in front of a crowd. But thinking is thinking. I’m moving beyond thought, moving beyond fear.
Finally, I’ve found my voice.