Lower Anxiety: Eliminate the Small Things

When I was learning to speak in public, both the Dale Carnegie Course and Toastmaster Clubs emphasized the idea that speaking without notes is the best way to do it. Notes are amateurish, they said. I didn't want to appear amateurish, so I didn't use notes.

But a couple of times during a speech I forgot what I was going to say next. Those were terrible moments for me. The silence. The inability to think. Everybody waiting for me to talk. Time seemed to stand still. I probably paused for only a few seconds, but to me it felt like a long time.

It's a natural thing to happen. After all, it's distracting talking to a group when you're not used to being up there. You're not accustomed to looking at so many faces at once (trying to look at everybody and not just talking to one person). And standing up there, you wonder if you should move around more or are you moving too much? And what should you do with your hands? People are looking at you, so you're aware of all these things that you normally have no attention on and the thoughts are distracting.

It is also disconcerting to have so little response from people when you're talking. When you speak to one person, you get nods and smiles and sounds. The people in an audience just look at you for the most part, like they're watching TV. It is unnerving until you get used to it.

So with all these things throwing me off, of course once in awhile I was bound to forget what I was going to say. And when I did, it was very stressful for me. What made it even more stressful was seeing the audience feeling uncomfortable. They could see I was uncomfortable and it made them uncomfortable. And with such an overload of adrenaline, it was even more difficult to remember what I was going to say.

I began to be afraid it would happen again. This made me even more anxious about speaking. So to prevent myself from having a cardiac arrest, I decided to eliminate what worries I could. My goal was to reduce the number of distractions, and it worked better than I'd hoped.

I bought a tall bar stool to sit on while I spoke. I no longer had any brainpower devoted to wondering how to stand or how much to move or what to do with my hands.

I bought a music stand so I could keep an easy-to-see outline of my talk handy and if there were special facts or something I thought I might forget, I had those on the music stand too. Now I was no longer worried I would forget what I was going to say.

This got rid of some sources of extra adrenaline I didn't need. I still felt some nervousness about speaking, but rather than a seven or eight on a ten-point scale, it was more like a three or a four. Much easier to deal with.

My speaking improved right away and I never again forgot what I was going to say. I also became more comfortable just from experience. I became so comfortable, in fact, that a few times it wasn't convenient to bring in my bar stool or music stand and I did the talk standing up and without notes and had no problem at all. I'd gotten used to the strange situation. I wasn't as distracted by the circumstances and could relax and talk to the audience without extra worries to deal with.

I learned that when managing anxiety, it makes a difference to eliminate even small things. It can have a cumulative effect.

Another way to look at this is that you're lowering the challenge until it is something you feel you can do well. Then get used to that and increase the challenge a little more until you get used to that, etc. Jerilyn Ross, the author of Triumph Over Fear, said she had a client who wanted to get over his fear of speaking in public. In their first session together, Ross asked him to read a paragraph aloud to her.

"No," he said, "I can't do that. I'd be too embarrassed."

"Okay," she responded, "how about reading one sentence?"

He thought that was silly. Of course he could read her one sentence, but what possible good would that do?

After he read the sentence, she asked him to read one more sentence. And so on. She lowered the challenge to a level he could do so he could get used to it. That became something easy, and a higher challenge became possible.

The lesson here is to look at the situation making you nervous and try to find some sources of worry you can eliminate or reduce, no matter how minor. In the realm of anxiety, every little bit counts.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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