As I mentioned in the first blog on this subject, one of the biggest fears around presenting is not actually about presenting itself but about experiencing symptoms of fear or panic.
Once you’ve had a panic attack you can unfortunately get caught up in a spiral of anxiety as you fear having a panic attack in your next presentation.
As someone who used to experience panic attacks here are some steps that can really help.
Step 1: Don't fear or fight your feelings
If you’re currently experiencing a tendency toward feelings of panic, then it’s important to focus on how you respond to those feelings when they arise.
There are two common responses that don’t help and in fact make it much worse by increasing the likelihood of having a panic attack.
The first unhelpful response is fear. Fearing having a panic attack increases the chances of you having a panic attack because you are fuelling the emotion that leads to the panic in the first place – fear.
So try not to fear your fear!
This fear can get overwhelming as you feel it’s out of your control. The thing to remember is that you can control whether your panic leads to a full-blown panic attack which feels out of control, or whether it’s just a few uncomfortable anxious feelings. How to do this comes in the next step, for now just be determined not to fear your fear.
Prepare yourself before the event and tell yourself you are not afraid of feelings of fear or panic because you are confident you can manage them. Then when you are about to present, if you start to feel panic, calm your system by relaxing your body and mind and focusing on slowing the breath down.
The second unhelpful response is to fight or resist your feelings of fear that arise. This can be either through getting frustrated, being fed up with the feelings and wanting to push them away, repressing them or judging yourself for having these feelings in the first place.
By doing this you again make your situation worse as you heighten the tension within your mind by engaging in inner conflict. You are, in that moment, at war with yourself. You just wanted to be ok in the talk but now because of all these nerves you feel panicky and so your mind goes off on a tangent and panics even more. This can lead to further feelings of frustration or helplessness and being judgemental towards yourself, as you tell yourself you shouldn’t be like this.
So as well as having to deal with being nervous about a talk you also have the stress of having to go through this internal warfare.
Telling yourself off or being frustrated with yourself makes it worse because in that moment you are just focused on the problem and not the solution which is to support yourself through this so that you can feel calm again.
If you find yourself resisting feelings of fear or panic, go through the same process as above. Prepare yourself before the event and encourage yourself to be relaxed about whatever uncomfortable feelings may arise.
Then when you are about to present, once again, if you start to feel panic, calm your system by relaxing your body and mind and focusing on slowing the breath down.
Step 2: Learn to accept feelings of panic
Once you’ve decided not to fear or fight feelings of panic that may arise, and you’ve tried to relax as much as possible, the next step is acceptance.
Accept whatever uncomfortable feelings arise within you, without fearing them, without resistance and without judgement.
Welcome them into your mind and truly accept them. This won’t happen overnight but if you make a determination to do this and practise it when you can, you’ll be able to keep calm no matter what feelings arise.
It’s about remembering that you’re in control of how you react to your own feelings. You can’t control what feelings may arise, but you can control how you react to them.
By reacting with more fear and resistance this will create heightened levels of anxiety and inner turmoil therefore making it more likely that you’ll start to panic.
On the other hand, if you relax, without fearing or fighting those uncomfortable feelings and accept them you’re creating a more relaxed mental environment which will not lead to feelings of panic.
In fact, what will happen is that those momentary feelings of panic will lessen and eventually pass altogether.
Step 3: Take control over the breath
Once you’ve decided not to fear or fight your feelings and you’ve accepted any uncomfortable feelings of anxiety or panic, the next step is to take control over your breath.
In reality, although I’m presenting these steps as linear, steps two and three do overlap. When you focus on accepting those uncomfortable feelings of panic, it’s also important to start taking control of your breathing.
By taking control of the breath, I mean to slow down your breathing and take deeper breaths. When you start to panic, your breathing will become quicker and more shallow and this can lead to heightened feelings of panic or even hyperventilation.
If you take control over your breath you can avert having a panic attack because it’s impossible to panic when you’re breathing slowly and deeply.
If you follow these three steps you will start to feel significantly more confident that you can manage your nerves and avert panic attacks.
Just remember once you feel confident about managing feelings of panic you can also feel confident that you won’t have a panic attack. The more experience of this you have the more the fear of having a panic attack will diminish until it becomes a distant memory.
If you missed the first part of this 2-part blog series, then check out How to avoid having a panic attack when delivering a talk: Part 1 Laying the foundations