August 18, 2011

Two unconventional (okay, downright weird) anxiety techniques

While I'm moving this week, I've invited some of my favorite public speaking and communications bloggers to guest post here on Speak Schmeak. Please enjoy this post by Ellen Bremen, M.A., professor in the Communication Studies department at Highline Community College. Read her blog, The Chatty Professor, and follow her on Twitter: @chattyprof.

Two Unconventional (Okay, Downright Weird) Anxiety Techniques I’m Teaching in my Public Speaking Class That You Can Try, Too! 

It’s the first day of Public Speaking class and my college students bear various facial expressions ranging from shock, to concern, to sheer mortification.

At my college, and most higher-ed institutions, Public Speaking is a requirement.

So, do I tell my students, “Hey, just suck it up!”?


Instead, I hand them a pipe cleaner.

Why do I take this seeming elementary school approach with my college students? Because the pipe cleaners act as a catalyst to move students beyond their speech anxiety—at least on the first day of class when their fear is extremely high.

Here’s how this admittedly crazy idea works: I first say, “Pick a buddy. Interview that buddy. Ask their name, major, hometown, etc. so you can give a brief introduction.”

At this point, the “Oh, crap… I really have to speak in this class!” horror sets in. However, then I pull out the magic, or, “fuzzy” bullet: The pipe cleaner.

After some quizzical “Is she on some sort of drug?” stares, I say, “You’re going to turn the pipe cleaner into a shape that represents your buddy.”

Suddenly, speech fear turns into dismay. Students are certain that they can’t turn a pipe cleaner into, well, anything. I assure them that the shape can be literal or metaphoric—a pipe cleaner circle could tell of their buddy’s “well-roundedness.”

Within minutes, the entire class mood changes. Conversation buzzes as students’ fingers busily craft dollar signs, cars, nursing caps, laptops, initials, “stick” people, etc. When the student introduces their buddy, worry about the task seems nonexistent. Instead, when the pipe cleaner masterpiece reveal occurs, laughter and applause ensues.

A “therapeutic community” is born.

I then share why I’ve kept this activity for 13 years: Because when students’ minds are focused on a “present moment” task, particularly one that requires mental acuity and physical manipulation, they can’t delve into “What if’s?” Bending and maneuvering the pipe cleaner prohibits them from obsessing on their fear of what they might do in the future (like puke)… or of a negative public speaking experience they’ve had in the past (like spitballs thrown at them during an oral report in 3rd grade).

I wish I could say that my students’ confidence surge lingers until their first major speech.

It doesn’t. In fact, fear of public speaking is the number one reason that students drop the class or save it for their very last term before graduation.

So I pull out my next trick, the biggest anxiety-busting technique I’ve ever learned. I don’t know its official name, but as someone who suffers from anxiety (go figure… and I teach public speaking for a living!), a therapist once told me that social agoraphobics use this strategy to get themselves out of the house. I’ve relied on this anxiety-reducing method as one that works far more than the traditional textbook recommendations, such as visualization and deep-breathing.

I’ve always called it “cognitive reciting.” Here’s how it goes:

You wake up on the morning of your speech and an uneasiness sets in, along with the thought, “Oh, no! That speech is today!” Then, mind racing may begin, or physical symptoms, such as sweating, heart pounding, nausea, or that surreal “out of one’s body” feeling.

What do you do? Say everything you see out loud, like this:

“There’s my rug. It’s tan with shades of brown. There’s my dog. His name is Freddy and his fur is white. There’s my computer. It’s a Mac…”

After not even a minute of this exercise, I tell students to check in with their bodies. They will likely feel the physical or mental symptoms begin to dissipate. Then, they can tap into their logical minds and say,

“All right, I am just a little nervous about this speech, but that’s okay. I’m ready. I’m going to do the absolute best I can.”

Think about it, saying words out loud takes more effort than we realize: Humans can speak at about 125 words per minute, but we can think at about 500 words per minute. Speaking out loud requires physical muscles and thoughts, and, like the pipe cleaner bending, forces us into the present moment.

I tell students that they can do this technique anywhere: In the car, and even at the speaking venue (I say, “Hold up your notes and whisper and people will think you’re practicing.”).

One important note: No short cuts allowed of saying the words in your mind, rather than saying them out loud. ” Remember what I said about people’s rate of thinking—it’s fast, which means there is a ton of room for mind-racing oneself right into a frenzy.

The next time you have a presentation, now you have two unconventional, but effective options to help your anxiety. Either channel the power of the pipe cleaner if you have some lying around, or recite everything you see out loud. You may not end up with an art masterpiece, but you should have a quieter mind, a calmer stomach, and a normally paced heart.

Oh, and let’s not forget… an amazing, confident feeling going into your speech.

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