Aleks Kro­to­ski

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

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.

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