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Overcoming presentation anxiety

Written by Kirsikka Kaipainen (25 Sep 2014)

I defended my doctoral thesis in May.

I was less anxious about the doctoral defence than I would have expected, knowing my own past. Of course my throat was dry at first and my hands were shaky, but nowadays I know it's normal, and the symptoms weren't too distracting. The audience was full of my friends and co-workers, which might have made the situation more difficult in the past, but now I appreciated them being there to show their support and interest towards the work I had done. My mind was still trying to whisper negative things to make me nervous, but I could let these thoughts just be and focus on the things that mattered.

Ten years ago a situation like this would have been almost unbearable. I was twenty years old, just starting my studies and awfully uncertain about my worth and my place in the world. Public speaking or even casual chats required a lot of effort and I tended to avoid social situations. I was the weird flatmate who escaped to her room and kept the door closed.

I've thought about my symptoms and problems a lot and found at least one major reason for them. I was bullied and ostracized at school starting from the the sixth grade. I was shy and quiet already before that, but the disdain my classmates started displaying towards me caused a steep drop in my self-esteem. I was never physically bullied, but I learnt that I was not welcome to be among other people and anything I said was a reason for ridicule. The schooldays became easier when I switched a class, but my tormentors were still sharing the school bus with me, so I experienced the same nasty words and looks every day. I reacted by building strong walls around me so that no one could see how vulnerable I was inside. I developed avoidant behavioural and thought patterns even though my social environment changed to be more accepting later on in high school and university. My healing process didn't begin until I studied psychology and understood how my reactions had developed. Then I understood that I could also overcome the symptoms with practice.

Imagination is a wonderful thing, but its downside is that mind is skillful in creating vague threats about drawing a blank or making a fool out of oneself. Avoiding situations where I had to present made my fear stronger and made future situations even more difficult. Feeling anxious about public speaking is perfectly normal and doesn't mean a failure. Now, when I have presentations and my mind is trying to make lots of excuses, I can just leave them be and take each presentation as a learning opportunity. Social support and encouragement have been invaluable in my development and I'm really grateful for them.

We want to add peer support in Headsted's services as well. Breathing and mindfulness exercises help to relieve acute anxiety, whereas sharing experiences and thoughts encourages to go on and opens the knots in the mind. Each year, 160 million Europeans suffer needlessly from anxiety, stress, depressive symptoms, low self-esteem or other invisible problems. The low-barrier services are really needed.