How to run towards danger: taking charge of your situational anxiety

rhinoceros' fight head to head

I have a situational anxiety problem, related to any kind of performative speaking at work – talking in meetings, on the phone, presentations. Of course, many people have a fear of public speaking. My anxiety is similar, just that my response is a bit higher on the ‘I’m in danger’ scale.

After struggling for 18 years, I’ve recently seen how I can destabilise the ‘pillars’ that have been holding up and sustaining my anxiety disorder (read more here). That is half of the battle. The other half requires an effort from me. I have to be ready to say ‘yes’, or even seek opportunities to do presentations. This isn’t necessarily about getting better at them (though it’s likely that practice will help), the biggest benefit is that I shift my mindset from sufferer to fighter; I have some sense of being in control, and a great deal of the burden is lifted.

If you face a similar challenge, I share with you this list of 10 points which have helped me to cope and prepare.

1. Breathing techniques

The psychologist I saw talked about practising deep (diaphragmatic) breathing techniques. Obviously, when we get into a state of panic, our breathing becomes quick and shallow. By seeking to take control of our breathing, we can send ourselves ‘signals of safety’. I have always struggled a bit with diaphragmatic breathing, but I have found it helpful to take a moment to collect myself before doing something which makes me anxious. I have an awareness of my body and try to be still, and relax my stomach and diaphragm.

2. Who this it for

I must remember that I’m doing this for myself. The shift in mentality from ‘not trying’ to ‘trying’ has tremendous benefits to me. But in order to do that, I need opportunities. I want to do this.

3. The run-up

Fact: presentations hang over you (anyone) before you have to do them. They spoil your life for a bit. You might find that you’re more impatient with others during this time, or more likely to feel overwhelmed. Personally, I try really hard not to think about them, but also make sure I do plenty of practice. Getting really familiar with what I need to say means one less thing to think about, but also helps me to think of the task broken down into smaller, individual elements.

4. Acknowledge struggle and resilience

I must re-think the story of how this all began: many other people just like me have found themselves in the same position. It’s not something personal to us, we just had one small moment of vulnerability and then did not get the help we should have had, leaving the seed to grow unhindered. It’s important to remove the sense of personal shame or responsibility and have compassion with our former selves.

5. Accept worst-case scenario

I must accept the possibility that I may have a panic attack in front of others, and accept that it is not the end of the world. I can take my time. I can sip some water. It does not need to perfect and it does not matter if people can tell that this is something difficult for me – what bravery, to be able to show weakness?

6. Dismantle fear of judgement

Something which definitely exacerbates my anxiety is speaking with/to people who somehow seem professionally impressive. Firstly, for all I know, these people may have many struggles in their lives or insecurities – maybe even inadequacies. Secondly, I have to remember that no one has to be perfect. We all bring our own strengths and that is what makes for an interesting and diverse workplace. Our best is good enough.

7. Everyone finds it hard

The vast majority of people find presenting stressful/worrying, or even say that they hate it. A senior colleague recently told me that when she had to present at a conference last year, it made her feel sick for weeks in advance. And still now, when she thinks back, she has no idea how she managed it.

8. Tell others about your suffering

I find it helps to tell people, all sorts of people, about how I’m feeling. I can tell them the story; why it’s difficult and how it hangs over me. But I can tell them that I want to be brave and try. If we share our vulnerability with others, they will most likely empathise, or they may even feel comfortable enough to share their vulnerability with us.

9. Remember reassurances or positive feedback

I remember the reassuring things my manager said: in particular, that whatever happens, we’ll find a way to make things okay.

10. Back-up

I consider back-up plans and safety nets, for instance, doing a presentation with someone else.

Once you’ve got through what you had to get through and it’s all over, you may feel a bit flat, or you may feel exhilarated. Or people might say you did well, and you may even wonder if you were being silly to get so anxious – but try not to. Don’t judge yourself like that. You have a story that’s put you where you are – it could have happened to anyone. It’s been hard and you’ve had to dig deep. Don’t downplay that.

The real reward for your efforts will come later, not in the form of a ‘high’ or a ‘low’, but in the knowledge that you are someone who can try.