How I overcame anxiety.
“PUBLIC SPEAKING SENDS ME INTO PAROXYSMS OF FEAR”
Beaver Creek, Colorado. It’s a sweltering July day and I’m at an invite-only gathering of polymaths and dignitaries. I’m being introduced to this audience of extraordinary people as the next stimulating speaker. I hate this moment. I can hear the anticipation in the air; I can see their eyes shining with expectation. Soon I’ll have to walk out, alone and vulnerable, to educate, enlighten and entertain. I feel confident with the education and enlightenment; I know I know my stuff. But the last, I fear, eludes me. I have flashbacks of misjudged, overly academic talks I’ve presented to silent rooms of people, their faces blue with the shine of their digital devices as they try to escape the drone of my words. Maybe that’s a false memory, but it’s the story that I tell myself about what happened. So it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.
Public speaking sends me – a woman who’s spoken in front of audiences since I was small, trained in and competed in ‘oral presentation’ in school, spent my 20s on camera and behind a microphone – into paroxysms of fear. Dread of public speaking came late to me. It was in 2010, after The Virtual Revolution series went out on BBC Two and around the world, that I found myself disassociating on stage, hearing my voice come from someone else’s mouth, my brain catching up with what I was saying several seconds after my body formed the words. It was as if I was being manipulated by an invisible puppeteer.
In the latest series of Digital Human, we speak to a woman named Jane Charlton. She uses similar words to describe her experiences with chronic depersonalisation disorder. But her feelings of being separate from herself occur all the time, rather than on stage. So she has learned to self-medicate by being with other people, using their physical presence as an anchor for her own being-ness.
For someone who experiences depersonalisation as a result of the most common social anxiety – public speaking – the last thing I want to do is be with people. I want to run away and sob. But there is hope for the many people who find themselves in this situation. Research published in the journal Decision in December 2017 pointed to mindfulness, the popular practice of meditation and just being, as an effective treatment. Another paper published in Behavior Therapy in March this year, said that momentarily becoming aware of one’s breath, a smell, or a sound is enough to reduce the force of fear. In that study, the researchers took a group of people who’d been treated for public speaking anxiety, and exposed them to more public speaking. They gave a stimulus – either a ball, the sound of white noise, or a peppermint scent – to half the test subjects. These sensations were intended to remind the person that public speaking is safe, and not going to result in some kind of hideous underwear-exposing outcome. These folks showed less anxiety – in terms of hearts pumping – than those who had to stand up in front of an audience staring blankly at them. Even writing this, I’m getting sweaty palms. Excuse me: I’m going to put my head in the mint plant to calm down.
Now, I’ve also learned to self-medicate. I started public speaking again a couple of years ago, but now I do it as if I’m doing a live radio show. I use props, clips of prerecorded interviews, a script, music and sound effects. It takes me out of myself. It’s the equivalent of a clinical herbal nosegay, and it’s entertaining for the audience. But, for those moments when the terror rises from the depths of my soul and grips my heart with its icy hand, I know that I can return to my body with a breath or a memory, and that public speaking can become as enjoyable as it once was.
Aleks Krotoski is a social psychologist, broadcaster and journalist. She presents BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human.