August 12, 2009

Avoiding public speaking intensifies your fear

I've written before about my own experiences with panic attacks, about thought traps that mistake emotions for reality, dealing with setbacks, and letting go of the negative.

All of those articles include helpful tips for dealing with anxiety, but here's the most valuable of all: Avoiding the thing that triggers your anxiety is the best way to keep it hanging over your head and controlling you. And the longer you avoid the scary thing, the bigger and scarier it gets.

From the book, "Overcoming Panic, Anxiety and Phobias:"

"When you experience anxiety or panic, you may adopt a variety of strategies in order to avert disaster. You may attempt to avoid the situation; you may focus extensively on it; or you may try to distract yourself. We call these maneuvers 'security moves.' Although they make you feel temporarily safe, you need to let go of these security moves as you learn to face the situations you fear.

Some of these security moves can be very subtle, so much a part of your reaction that you're not even aware you're making them. But when you use one of these strategies and the danger you had predicted doesn't occur, you have the feeling, often without being aware of having it, that your security move saved you. This encourages you to practice the same strategy again. Unfortunately, it does not free you from fear.

The role of avoidance -- a type of security move -- is complex. It is responsible for perpetuating your fear of certain places because the longer you avoid a place, the more likely it is that you will begin to believe that avoidance is what's keeping your fears under control. So the longer you avoid a place, the harder it becomes to go there again.

By avoiding specific places you are attempting to avoid the frightening sensations and thoughts you predict you will experience. By trying to eliminate the sensations of anxiety or panic at all costs, your fear of having these feelings ultimately intensifies."

For me, the strongest tool against panic attacks has been not to avoid the things that trigger them! If I have to sit in the middle seat at a concert, so be it. If I have to ride in a packed elevator, oh well.

The strategy of facing the scary thing served me well and helped me overcome the worst of my anxiety. Of course, I also have the tools of relaxation, breathing, calming myself, and other tools that help me face the anxiety if it does rise up. (For severe anxiety, I recommend the book above for more helpful tools.)

I have a client who has avoided public speaking for more than 20 years. Because of this, he has developed no skills, no tools for dealing with his anxiety, and no experience. He is literally starting from scratch, having to learn the basics of public speaking while also facing his fear. But he's doing it!

He's taken the first step to facing his anxiety, by setting himself up to be in a position to speak in front of a group. This might be his biggest fear, but he knows he can't get over it without doing it, without developing tools and strategies to then practice in a speaking situation.

It takes a lot of courage, and willingness to put yourself in an uncomfortable and scary situation -- to say the least.

But people do it. And so can you.

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9 comments. Please add yours! :

Jorge Herrera said...

Hi Lisa! great article. I joined toastmasters to improve my speaking skills and I found that the fear to speak in front of a group is similar to the fear to fly (I am a pilot); and the most effective way to conquer it is by actually getting up there. So when ever I feel uneasy about an opportunity to speak, I challenge myself by taking on the speaking assignment.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Jorge. It's not easy to take the challenge, but the alternative -- a lifetime of fear -- is worse!

Sandra Zimmer said...

Hi Lisa
I'd like to confirm your ideas about facing the fear of public speaking. I was terrified to speak or be the center of attention, even though I was trained as an actress. A little over 20 years ago, I began to create a method to transform stage fright into authentic presence. The secret is to let yourself feel the fear. As you suggested, avoiding makes it worse. But when you allow yourself to feel the tension of being the center of attention in a safe environment, it dissolves and energy starts to flow through your body that feels exciting and energizing! I'd love to share that I have recently published a book about my system for overcoming fear of public speaking. It is called It's Your Time to Shine. Any way I can support your efforts or those of your readers, would be a pleasure.
Sandra Zimmer

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Sandra. To me, it's also about reframing the perception of fear and the physical feelings of anxiety. Not perceiving them as negative, but perceiving them as a tool that someone can use to propel them forward. To use the adrenaline the way an athlete uses it to jump higher or run faster, only in this case, to give your audience 100% of your energy and focus.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you, Karim!

Anonymous said...

Good article. I wonder if people have similar fears over teaching? I have to teach my first ever college class (only one time) and normally I find that teaching is different (less anxiety-provoking) than giving a presentation in front of peers. With teaching, you're in control. However, I'm also being observed by another instructor who will be sitting in the room, watching and analyzing me, so it's like a double load of anxiety!
But I will try your tips....

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I'm not sure why teaching would be different than other kinds of speaking, except that you probably have more confidence in your knowledge, because you've been hired to teach!

Perhaps the relationship between student and teacher is not as nerve wracking as audience and speaker, because students are not expected to know the material, whereas it's possible that your audience already knows something about your topic.

So the other instructor, who does know the topic, is more intimidating to you because you fear being judged by that person more than you fear being judged by students?

you be the bank said...

I just thought this was a great article. I think everyone suffers a little from this anxiety, but I can attest to it! Just as I think I'm getting over it I fall right back into it. Great Article!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, YBTB! It's frustrating sometimes to feel like you've licked it, only to have it come back. But if you've beaten it before you can beat it again. That's practically my motto!

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