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Holly Erskine

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Public speaking anxiety is common. It comes in different forms. Given my choice of audiences, I love a small group where I can see everyone's reactions. Big audiences, radio and TV are venues I still wrestle with internally. Some friends tell me they prefer the anonymity of a big crowd or a camera in their face to a small group. It is all a matter of what you get used to! And if you really want to get over a fear, you have to slowly get used to doing what you are afraid of, sometimes with baby steps.


Dr. Holly Finding Love for Students

teaching chemistry to nursing students


I haven't had a panic attack for over 20 years now, but I clearly recall how they are not fun, as you feel like you are dying from a heart attack. (And in public! How embarrassing for me to die in public! That was my thought process. Isn't that silly?) Even though I've long stopped worrying about having panic attacks, I still love learning about anxiety, and what you can do about it, because there is actually so much you can do, without medication.


One of my favorite tools for dealing with anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Basically it involves logically thinking about your thinking, and that's a gross oversimplification for something I have no room to write more extensively about here. For example, you can ask yourself, "Will the audience really hate me if I start stammering?" You have to be logical, skeptical of your own thoughts, and motivated to make CBT work, and it helps to work with someone trained in CBT to help you sort out your thinking.


As much as I love CBT, it doesn't always work. The problem with cognitive behavioral therapy is that it only works when your cognition is working. But your thinking goes offline at times, like when you are really, really scared. It is important to recognize when this happens. When a major fear center of your brain, the amygdala, takes over the rest of your brain, I call it an amygdala hijack.


No amount of logic can soothe a frightened animal. Ever get really frustrated with being unable to persuade an angry or frightened person with logic? They might be having an amygdala hijack. They can't think. That is when I use another technique. Not logic. I use love. If you find that too woo-woo, you can call it stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. In either case, it involves real molecules moving around and doing things. It is therefore an exercise. It is jumping jacks for your vagus nerve.


With Valentine's day approaching, I realized, of course, I had to talk of love. I am going to possibly embarrass myself for the common good, by revealing my favorite trick for public speaking. If I am nervous about a performance of some sort, I work ahead of time, practicing to put myself in a mind frame of love. I learned this, ages ago, when I first started teaching college. Most of my public speaking has been in college classrooms.


In my very first classes, ages ago, my anxious pre-med students were angry and frustrated. I was frustrated back! Why couldn't they grasp that a sodium atom was drastically different than a sodium ion? And yes, it does matter whether or not you write a plus sign next to the Na symbol. One is explosive and rare, the other is required for life and common as dirt.


I would toss and turn at night, sleepless, rehashing over and over what to say to my class the next morning. How could I push this knowledge into their angry little brains? A fellow chemistry professor once commiserated with me. "They can smell fear," he said. For some reason this line stuck with me. Sure, we are animals, of course we can sense fear, I realized. If we sense a speaker is afraid, we automatically get nervous, and look for the threat. It's involuntary. And I realized I felt afraid of my student's ignorance. They were just echoing back my fear. I had to not be afraid in front of them, I realized.


Students are supposed to come to you without knowledge. Why hold that against them? It's like a doctor getting angry that their patients are sick. I asked myself, OK, if I knew absolutely nothing about molecules, how would I want to be taught? Suddenly I felt a flood of sympathy. That was the mode to stay in. It made a dramatic difference, right away, in my classes, that first year. Everyone relaxed, everyone's confidence mounted. They could feel my love. I practiced feeling it, and then it became easy. I realized, I really did care about them! Each class felt like my children. And some of them were older than me.


And what if I made a mistake in front of them? That was another initial fear. Well, that was easy to deal with. I make mistakes all the time. Tons of them. It was great. Each time I did, I would hopefully catch it, or they would, then I can point at it and laugh, and say, Look! Look what I did! See how easy it is to make this particular mistake! Now can someone tell me why it is a mistake, and how to avoid it? They LOVED this. I would always cringe a little, sure, and secretly curse myself, but it was well worth it for the look of satisfaction on their faces when they got the chance to explain exactly how I had screwed up. It also taught them to be careful. After all, if I could make mistakes, and I was a fancy schmancy doctor of medicinal chemistry and all, they certainly would, too.


My mother often told me that you can't feel love and fear at the same time. "Love and fear can't coexist," she would say. I'd love to find time to read up on the physiology of this, and verify it, with hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin and references to sympathetic and parasympathetic, but it feels right, anyway. Feeling love relaxes you. The trick, then, is to feel love for your audience. This takes practice.


Just as an audience senses fear, they sense love! They will relax if you can find a way to feel love for them. This may not be easy. This is an exercise. The more you do it, the easier it gets. "I am on your side!" I would say to my students, because it was true. It didn't mean I would be easy. "I feel badly for all the work you have to do and it won't be easy," I would say, and that was also true. "We must learn all this material extremely well, so your patients don't die!" And they would laugh nervously, but they knew I also was telling them how I genuinely felt. If you love them, they will love you back.

1. First of all, realize how everyone you are addressing also has a big, busy, complicated life, and they are struggling just like you. Suffering is universal. You want to ease their suffering. Put yourself in a place of love.


2. Think of a person or child or pet that you can not help but automatically love! Tim, for me, of course! And when I see my kitties kindly washing each other, snuggling with each other. Keep that good feeling going. And then practice your talk.


3. Practice and learn the relaxation response. You can train yourself to relax with a favorite cue, and deep breathing. I often cheat and use a galvanic skin response monitor (GSR) as a biofeedback device, which tells me exactly how relaxed I am, but really, you don't need that. You know.


4. Silence is golden! You don't have to fill the air with words. If you talk continuously, you can come off as frenetic, disorganized. And you will wear people out. Think of classically trained, famous actors. Some of the best speak...with....pauses....that....emphasize a thought!


5. A long pause is respectful. It allows your audience to digest what you just said. Ask a question, and then wait. And wait. And smile. Let the silence be your potent friend. This took me a long time to learn how to do, I confess, in teaching. I wanted to jump in and answer my own question immediately! Resist the impulse. It's magic.


6. Tara Mohr, in her book Playing Big, discusses two words for fear from the Old Testament. Pachad is self-protective fear. It makes you feel constricted, like you want to move away from something dangerous. Yirrah is an overwhelming sense awe, of wonder, of stepping into a new realm, onto a new planet. It has a sense of energy and expansion, and is positive. Maybe what you are feeling is yirrah, and you are mistaking it for pachad.


7. One of Tim's favorite tricks is to tell himself that the excitement he feels is anticipation, not fear. "The pulse racing, the sweating, that is all because you just can't wait to get out there!" he says.


8. Be honest. If you forget something, say so. If you get off topic, say so. Everyone has done this! Ask for help, and your audience will love you for it. Admitting your mistakes makes you human.


9. Practice. Unfamiliarity makes you nervous, and familiarity makes you comfortable. I like to make use of different neural pathways. Don't just think about a topic, don't just read about it. Hand write and type notes, even if you never look at them again. Speak ideas out loud, even to an empty room. Practice speaking in front of a friend. Record yourself. This is practicing using different brain pathways. The pathways get rusty and feel awkward when you don't use them.


10. Know your topic, and find a way to love it. You are a messenger of something really important! Knowledge is power! You are giving a gift! Focus on the message, and the gift it brings people. It isn't about you. It's about the message.