There I was, standing in front of a room full of people, when I had an anxiety attack.
I tried to hide it by doing a loop of the room. Only this set off unnerving paranoia and I became increasingly convinced that the students were whispering about me.
They could see inside me, they could see the fear, the nervousness, the uncertainty rippling through my body and the ache that was threatening to take hold of my throat.
As I stood there confronted with a sea of faces, my vision started to go blurry and I thought I was going to topple over. My hand automatically felt for the desk to my left and I placed it down in an attempt to steady me. I was so aware of how I was behaving and wanted to crawl away and hide, but there was no time. In fact, the most pressing thing was the rising tide of nausea that seemed to be surging through me and I thought to myself ‘This is it, I’m going to faint … or vomit … or both.’ With that, I said ‘excuse me, I don’t feel well’ and left the room.
As a holistic coach and mentor, I have worked with a range of people who, at some point in their lives, have experienced anxiety. This is what I know:
Anxiety, like everything else we do, is a strategy.
What this means is that we ‘do’ anxiety. At some point in our lives, whether it was when we were two years old or even a bit later on in life, we chose to do it. The first time, it may have actually served a purpose. Say, for instance, that you are a small child and you are in an unpredictable environment. There may be adults around you doing things that you can’t control. Let’s pretend there’s alcohol or drugs involved and you don’t feel safe. As a child, you start analysing what is going on around you in an attempt to control an uncontrollable situation. Over time, what was once a strategy to keep you safe has developed into a habit and before long you have slipped into a pattern of anxiety where your thoughts are forever moving to the future – worrying, planning, or fretting about possible scenarios. Only, this no longer serves you, as these things are not actually a physical or immediate threat to your current self. They are instead images, thoughts, and scenes created in your mind.
Whether anxiety is a conscious decision, or an unconscious one, we move through this strategy, even if it results in a negative outcome, like stress. Maybe it’s because that is all we know, or maybe we don’t even know we’re doing it.
Since I was little anxiety has been ever-present. I remember at the age of five going to school and standing behind my parent’s legs, hiding from the other children on the mat. Scared to come out and face the other children I didn’t know. Scared of the unknown. In my teenage years, anxiety bubbled away inside me as performed musical recitals, terrified of messing up in front of a room full of people. It was my shadow sitting beside me at school every time I talked to a boy. Anxiety, or fear, was present for so long that if someone had come up to me several years ago and said ‘How about you do something else now?’ I wouldn’t have known how, or what, to do. It was such a habit and so ingrained that I didn’t know how not to do it. So while it may be something deeply ingrained, there is always a strategy involved. The amazing thing though is that we can unscramble that strategy at any time.
Take the example I gave above when speaking in public.
Here is how my strategy unfolded:
- I noticed the people in the room
- I became aware of the sensations in my body (dizziness, foggy vision)
- I told myself “Something is wrong, this shouldn’t be happening, I need to abort. Abort! Abort! Abort!”
- I felt my beating heart, my throat constricting and the overwhelming desire to puke
- I exited the room
While the coaching part of me knows about strategies and how these play out, when it came to speaking in front of a room full of people several weeks ago, the same thing happened. Although this time I scrambled the strategy, practiced mindfulness, and didn’t leave the room – enter new strategy 🙂
While my initial tendency was to want to exit and avoid the fear, my years of experience with that little critter has given me enough knowledge to know that when we resist, grasp or avoid fear it simply comes back twofold. Instead we can choose to welcome emotions and feelings in our body when they arise and tell ourselves a different story. The following week, I created a new strategy that allowed me to master this fear and so I wanted to share it with you.
Here is a 5 step mindfulness strategy for mastering your fear of public speaking that really works:
This would also work for stage fright (with musicians, actors, or artists), having anxiety attacks in general or having to talk in front of strangers for a presentation or workshop.
1.Set an intention
First off, here is a tip that was passed onto me by my partner Anthony who has done his fair share of speaking in front of others. Before you do your talk, or run your workshop, go and find a quiet spot and stand in a power stance for at least two minutes repeating an intention to yourself over and over. Think superman, wonderwoman, or a powerful person and how they might stand, or watch Amy Cuddy’s amazing Ted Talk ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’. This intention needs to be something that takes the focus or pressure off yourself and gives your talk a greater meaning. For my last talk I repeated to myself ‘May my gift of teaching shine through.’ Or it could be ‘I will move my audience to take action’ or ‘I will serve with love.’ Hold your intention in your awareness and imagine it coming up through the ground and out of your heart. It is important to acknowledge that if this step is missed, for whatever reason, you must be able to centre yourself in the moments before speaking. Even if it is 30 seconds where you repeat this mantra to yourself, that is enough. Bringing conscious awareness to your talk and the overarching message will transform how you approach it, I guarantee it. There are other intentions you can also set (such as visualisations and imagery), but for now we will focus on the mantra.
2. Focus on your audience
When you are standing at the front of the room, become aware of the people around you, and focus all of your attention on them. Notice what they are wearing, saying, and doing. See them as people; living, breathing, and thinking their own thoughts. This means taking the attention off yourself, as this is where the ego resides, and instead focusing your attention on them and all that they do. When you are able to be fully present with those around you the attention will be off yourself and the thoughts in your mind.
3. Breathe mindfully
If you notice the sensations in your body, there might be a racing heartbeat or dizziness, then breathe. Make a conscious decision to pause (even if you are talking) and bring your mind back to the breath. Take several long, deep inhalations and exhalations as anxiety often exists with shallow breathing. It’s the sense of breathlessness which can start our minds racing, so taking long breaths will change our body on a physiological level and bring about relaxation (regardless of what is going on in our minds).
4. Tell yourself a different story
Choose in this moment to tell yourself stories that are going to soothe you and allow you to work through whatever is happening. This means practicing self-compassion as identified by Kristen Neff in her book by the same name. Treat yourself with kindness, compassion, and the same love you would give to others. Rather than judging your thoughts or attempting to push your thoughts or feelings away simply notice them and tell yourself a different story too. So, for example, when I started noticing my heart beating faster and dizziness starting to rise, instead of judging this and saying to myself ‘Oh no, this shouldn’t be happening’ I told myself the following:
“Everything is fine”
“Just breathe and relax”
And I repeated these things to myself (in my mind) over and over again.
5. If it is ongoing, repeat these steps over and over.
This is a strategy that welcomes feelings in the body, rather than resisting them.
This is a strategy that involves accepting that you are an imperfect being.
This is a strategy that involves being okay with having fear and experiencing the bodily sensations associated with ‘anxiety’ and simply being mindful of them.
This is a strategy that involves love over fear.
This is a strategy that involves compassion, over judgement.
This is a strategy that involves mindfulness, rather than avoidance.
This is a strategy that works.