How to avoid having a panic attack when delivering a talk – Part 1

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"It’s about changing your reaction to panic attacks, understanding what’s actually happening in your mind and body and applying the right techniques."

Laying the foundations

For the follow-up to this blog, check out Part 2: 3 Steps to avoid a panic attack when delivering a talk, coming soon!

One of the biggest fears around presenting is not actually about presenting itself but about experiencing symptoms of fear or panic.
Unfortunately, once you’ve had an experience of panic whilst presenting, this can send you on a downward spiral, as the fear of panicking, or having a panic attack becomes crippling and overwhelming.

Fortunately, there are ways to cope, it’s about changing your reaction to panic attacks, understanding what’s actually happening in your mind and body and applying the right techniques.

Defining panic attacks

First let’s take a look at what a panic attack is. A panic attack is intense feelings of anxiety which can have a number of physical symptoms. According to the charity Mind, panic attacks are defined as:

‘A type of fear response. They’re an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to danger, stress or excitement.’

The truth about panic attacks

Perhaps panic attacks are new to you, you may even have a high pressure role at work and never had much anxiety but all of a sudden you find yourself having a panic attack.

This can be a really shocking and unnerving experience and one that you would rather avoid and also keep to yourself.

During the pandemic, I had numerous friends, colleagues and acquaintances ask me for advice about dealing with anxiety and panic, both with regard to doing presentations but also for life in general.

Many of them were people who, overall, didn’t experience much anxiety in their life until now.

They were asking me because they know I’ve learned to manage an anxiety disorder.

It never ceases to amaze me how so many people are so hard on themselves, at times when they’re suffering from mental distress such as experiencing panic attacks.

It’s the opposite to what’s really needed at that time, which is to be kind to yourself.

There can be a sense that you’ve somehow failed and that something has gone very wrong, but that’s really not the case at all.

The truth about panic attacks is that it can happen to anyone at any stage of life.

My own experience of panic attacks

I’ve had an anxiety disorder since childhood, although I was not aware of it until later in life. I’ve always dealt with high levels of fear, anxiety and panic, however, it wasn’t until my later 20s that I actually started to experience panic attacks.

During this same period, my late 20s, I’d started teaching meditation for a charity. My overall anxiety was reducing yet quite suddenly I started experiencing severe panic attacks. I really felt this was a big failing on my part and wanted to hide the fact this was happening.

In later years, when I reflected upon this period, I saw my panic attacks as being my body and mind telling me to slow down, be more mindful and start to heal aspects of my past that had caused my anxiety disorder in the first place.

Not surprisingly, things started to change once I accepted myself and my panic attacks. I realised I needed to seek support and heal, only then would I be able to understand and reduce my panic attacks.

In 9 years I haven’t had a panic attack, although I still experience anxiety at times, I know it generally won’t lead to a full blown panic attack.

How to deal with panic attacks: the initial stage

The initial stage which I also like to call laying the foundations is about changing your attitude towards panic attacks.

There are two stages to this:
1 Avoid judging yourself
2 Replace the phrase ‘panic attack’

Stop judging yourself
If you’ve recently started having panic attacks or had one in the past, did you tell yourself that you shouldn’t be like this? Or that you should be better than this, or there’s something wrong with you?

If so, then stop judging yourself for what’s happening. It’s not a failing on your part. It’s a normal reaction to circumstances.

Telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling this way can lead to further problems and actually heighten your chances of panicking again in the future.

There’s an inner conflict going on that overall raises the tension and anxiety within your own mind.

This way of thinking also leads to isolation as you hide your symptoms from others and therefore are less likely so seek the support you need at that time.

This inner conflict, increased anxiety and isolation are actually increasing the likelihood of you having another panic attack.

Instead of judging yourself, accept yourself, accept your panic and accept that this is ok. You are ok, there’s nothing wrong with you or the fact that you’re experiencing panic attacks.
When you do this, your body and mind has the opportunity to calm down and you become more open to finding solutions because you’re more relaxed.

Replace the phrase ‘panic attack’
The phrase panic attack is not a helpful name for what’s actually going on in your body and mind when you panic.

Think about other similar phrases such as, ‘shark attack,’ ‘acid attack,’ or ‘heart attack.’ This kind of phrase is generally associated with the kind of attack that will either kill you or seriously injure you. But this is not what’s happening in a panic attack.

The word ‘attack’ also suggests that you are a victim of some kind of external attack that you have no control over.

Once again, this is not the case when you’re having a panic attack, you’re in more control of the situation than you think. I go further into this in Part 2.
Sure, call it a panic attack when in discussion with others so they know what you’re talking about but then change the phrase in your own head and therefore how you relate to it.

The phrase panic attack sounds extremely intimidating. Change the words of this phrase – choose your own, but here are just a few suggestions:

• Momentary feelings of panic
• Uncomfortable, anxious feelings

Instead of thinking to yourself that you’re going to have a panic attack, what about replacing that phrase with “I’m experiencing some momentary feelings of panic”.

Do you notice the difference?

Try this out for yourself and see that the phrase panic attack actually is a cause of more panic whilst an alternative phrase can actually be a cause of calming your mind and avoiding having a panic attack.

Some practical first steps you can take right now

Take your time to really accept yourself and your tendency for panic attacks at the moment. There’s nothing wrong about you or the panic. It’s ok.

Then rename ‘panic attack’ in your own mind. Choose a name that calms your mind rather than creates further panic.

When you’re ready, learn what the 3 Steps to avoid a panic attack when delivering a talk are and how to apply them.

It all takes time, so be gentle with yourself, take one step at a time and enjoy the journey. You’ll learn and grow from it as a result.

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