Thought Trap #8: Emotional Reasoning
Continuing on in the series on Thought Traps.
You allow your negative feelings to color how you see the world by thinking, "I feel it, therefore, it must be true." You mistake emotions for reality: "I feel nervous about flying, therefore it must be dangerous."
Now here we get to the heart of many anxiety issues, not just public speaking. Emotions are powerful. They create physical sensations in the body that convince us that we should be afraid. Emotions and physical sensations together will often override the logical brain that knows there's no danger. We basically become prisoners of our emotions.
For example, after my car accident 18 years ago, I suffered from panic attacks for several months before I was able to get them under control with the help of a therapist. One of my triggers was claustrophobia.
I might go to a movie and end up in a middle seat in the middle of a crowded theater. In my mind, I would start thinking, "It's awfully crowded in here..." Physically, I would feel my adrenaline rising; my arms and neck and chest would feel hot and cold at the same time; the hair would stand up on the back of my neck. I would start looking around for an exit. Logically, was I in danger? No, but my fear and anxiety about feeling trapped, together with the physical results of the adrenaline rush would convince me that I needed to flee.
As someone with public speaking anxiety, you might feel similar sensations. Or you might feel shaky in the knees, or your heart might beat fast and your breathing might be shallow. Whatever your symptoms are, remember that your emotions are not fact. They feel real, but they are lying to you and creating a physical sensation that is not necessary -- because you are not in danger.
First, allow your breathing to slow down. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to a slow count of six for each breath.
Tensing and releasing your muscles can be very helpful for relaxing your body; even tensing and relaxing your hands and feet can work, especially if you're sitting at a table and your hands and feet can't be seen.
Reframe your thinking; it's important that you listen to what your logical brain has to say. It's okay to feel the negative emotion, but say to yourself, "I feel scared, but it's just a feeling, not reality. It's uncomfortable, but there's nothing to be afraid of."
What's the likelihood that you really will pass out or do something embarrassing? Very little. Allow your logical brain to have a say in this. Tell yourself "I'm not in danger. I'm nervous and my body is reacting to my fear, but I can handle this."
Are you making assumptions, for example, that you need to be perfect or that you need to be completely in control? These kinds of assumptions will add to your anxiety, by creating more fear about letting down your audience or allowing them to see you as human and flawed.
Depending on your level of anxiety, these practices may not be easy, but the more you use them, the more you will be in control of your emotions and your body, and the less your emotions and body will control you. I recommend the book, Overcoming Panic, Anxiety, & Phobias: New Strategies to Free Yourself from Worry and Fear, if you want some good strategies to combat more serious anxiety.
Here again, are some additional suggestions on how to approach these negative thoughts once you become aware of them (from a Mother Jones article about cognitive therapy and thought traps):
1. Write it down. Writing automatically provides perspective and helps reveal distorted thinking.
2. Identify the distressing event. What's really bothering you?
3. Identify your negative emotions.
4. Identify the negative thoughts tied to your emotions.
5. Identify distortions and substitute the truth.
And my addition:
6. Take action. What will you do differently next time?