What It’s Like to Have an Anxiety Attack when Speaking in Public
Not that long ago I had an anxiety attack in the middle of a meeting. It’s not the most pleasant of experiences, not least because it feels awful at the time and embarrassing afterward. Two emotions I’m not a fan of, in the least.
But, I’m also not afraid to say: I had an anxiety attack in the meeting, lost the plot, and then recovered. Because that’s what you do when you have generalised anxiety disorder and you have to do public speaking.
You would think that as someone that runs online events with over 200 people attending – who is happy to stand on a stage and talk about social media, careers, and, in one case, sex toys – that I wouldn’t get anxious. But I do, and it can come out of nowhere. As was the case with this anxiety attack.
I don’t tell people in advance: oh, by the way, I have generalised anxiety disorder and therefore might have a panic attack in a meeting. Because for the most part, I don’t have anxiety attacks. In fact, I enjoy public speaking.
However, when they do occur – often without warning and for no real reason at all they suck.
What happens during an anxiety attack
Well, firstly my face goes exceedingly red and I start burning up.
I used to get called ‘lobster’, and often be stopped midway through speaking when I was younger because people thought I was having an allergic reaction. No, I’m having an anxiety attack, not breathing properly and therefore my veins are widening to get blood flow to my brain.
Also, as someone that already speaks a mile-a-minute, good luck getting a word in edgeways when I’m anxious. I’ll waffle on about nonsense (regardless of the topic we’re discussing) until either someone shuts me up or I have the sense to say – ‘over to you’ or ‘actually, can you take over for a second’.
I won’t be able to focus so if I’ve got a script or a perfectly memorised plan that goes out of the window. Everything gets jumbled up in my head so that I lose my train of thought and constantly second guess myself.
And, worst of all, in my opinion, I feel like everyone is laughing at me. Or at least, pitying me – whichever is worst. That kind of ‘cringe-moment’ and ‘oh no, she’s lost the plot. Thank God that’s not me.’ kind of feeling.
What actually happens during an anxiety attack
It turns out, that in the past whenever I’ve had anxiety attacks – major or minor – it’s not as noticeable as I fear. I’m one of those people that feels the need to watch back videos of me speaking, not because I’m a narcissist, although… but because I want to see how noticeable my anxiety was. More often than not, it’s not noticeable at all. At least, not beyond the norm of nerves regarding public speaking.
Sure, I get a little pink in the face and I talk fast. But as someone that blushes at the littlest thing, and talks fast anyway, anyone who knows me will think I’m fine.
I’m well-practiced now at getting myself back on track when I start to lose the plot because of anxiety. Mostly because I have done public speaking for a while now.
When I’m struggling with anxiety be it on stage, on a call, or online, I also know the benefits of passing it off to someone else. However, when there is no one else to pass off to, I tend to make a lame joke and ask for a moment to have a drink of water. At that moment I can collect myself enough to start over or move past the moment.
How to control an anxiety attack when speaking
Having an anxiety attack while speaking in public sucks, not going to lie. But there are ways to handle it.
Firstly, take that moment to have a drink of water (or other beverage) and breathe in. I’ve once faked a coughing fit in order to take a few seconds to collect myself – not the best idea, but if that’s what you need to do to take a moment go for it.
In my experience though, no audience will ever blame you for taking a moment to recollect yourself. Particularly, if you’re presenting or teaching them something. They’re there to listen to you, and it’s hard to do that when someone is unable to breathe on stage.
Handoff to another panelist, staff member, or guest. Pass the baton to them for a minute, but be sure to get it back when you next have a point as you’ll regret it if you don’t.
That latter tip is the most important of all: start again.
Don’t keep going as that’s not going to help anyone. Take a second and then start over. You’ll feel calmer when you make your point and get through the moment. If you just stop talking altogether, run off-stage, or quit then it will make the moment 10x worse! Leaving it a minute and coming back to it will help you push through the moment. Which lessens the feelings of embarrassment later.
Following up on an anxiety moment
As I said before, a lot of times anxiety during public speaking is barely noticeable. Barak Obama has spoken about his experience of anxiety when giving public speeches to the entire country, as well as Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. Not to mention Gandhi and Laurence Olivier – two famous men KNOWN for speaking.
Public speaking is the most common phobia in the UK. Over 73% of the population has a fear of public speaking. For most of those, it will incur a bout of extreme nerves. For others such as myself, it triggers anxiety attacks. And for some, it can cause a more extreme physical reaction of fear.
And it’s all a fear of being received negatively. The way to combat it, at least in my experience, is to practice what you’re saying. Then practice again, then again and again… you get the picture.
I also think it’s best to open with a joke or some sort of light chatter. This is what I do when I run my #MarketYourMarketing workshops. A joke breaks the tension and lets you relax a little into the chat. If you go straight to business, be it in a presentation, a lecture, or a panel you’ll be incredibly tense and nervous throughout. Lighten the load at the beginning and it’s just a chat, regardless of the numbers of people watching or listening.
And remember, before you do any public speaking if you’re concerned, practice and implement some self-care. Relaxing beforehand and reminding yourself it’s just one speech or conversation, can help immensely.
If you have an anxiety attack pass the baton and take a breath. No one will blame you for taking a moment to make the speech as best as it possibly can be. It’s not fun, but it’s manageable. And only you will remember it! Trust me, no one catalogs who had an anxiety attack when.
You’ve got this. Channel your inner Obama and go for it. That’s what I do.