Phobia

Overcoming public speaking anxiety

Public speaking anxiety is extremely common – in fact, I would say that more of us are anxious about speaking in public than not. You can think about it as a hierarchy of anxiety: speaking to one person you don't know can make you a little nervous; two, three, four, more anxious still; addressing a group of people you haven't met, a bit more difficult; giving a presentation to a small room-full of strangers, just that bit worse; then finally, way up there on the anxiety scale, giving a speech to a conference, or appearing on live TV – too hard to even contemplate for some people.

The first thing to remember is that anxiety is a perfectly normal human response to situations we find scary or threatening. It's not bad or wrong, any more than joy or sadness are. In fact, anxiety is very important – if we didn't feel anxious when, say, we walked down a dark alley at 3am, or our toddler opened up a toolbox full of sharp objects, we would fail to prevent potentially bad things from happening.

But when we get super-anxious about giving a 10-minute speech to a small room of friendly, interested people, we are clearly feeling anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation. When we get this anxious we are likely to experience a racing heartbeat, get sweaty and dry-mouthed, possibly go blank or have trouble concentrating, think lots of worrying, worst-case-scenario thoughts... no fun at all.

The good news is that this form of anxiety is treatable, either with cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), which is very effective for anxiety-related problems, or using self-help techniques like this one, which I often teach my clients:

Change the movie

When we get anxious about something in the future, we usually play a movie (let's call it the Scary Movie) in our heads about all the things that might go wrong – we imagine ourselves drying up and having nothing to say; forgetting our speech notes, so we have to wing it for 10 horrible minutes; other people seeing how nervous we are and judging us for it; or our audience looking bored, yawning, fidgeting and talking among themselves because our speech is so dull. Play this movie in your head enough times and, guess what? You will succeed in making yourself extremely anxious and, ironically, causing the exact problems you are worried about on the day.

So let's change the movie to... let's call it the Problem-Solving Movie. First, write down all the things you think might go wrong and find solutions for them. Worried about being dry-mouthed? Take a bottle of water with you. Worried your speech is dull? Read it to a colleague and ask for constructive criticism. Worried about appearing worried? Practice deep breathing to calm yourself down before and during the speech.

Then play this new movie every day in your head, in which everything goes well – you solve any little problems that come up, imagine everyone looking interested and engaged, giving you a big round of applause at the end, then see yourself looking proud and happy after the speech. The more detail you can include the better, especially about how things look/feel/sound, because then your brain will believe it's actually real and has already happened (our brains have exactly the same response to imagery like this and real-life experiences). This will help you feel less anxious on the day. Incidentally, this technique also works really well for driving tests, first dates, meeting in-laws, job interviews...

If you would like some help with your public speaking problems, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

How does 'exposure' work in CBT for anxiety?

If you feel anxious about something, the most understandable reaction is to avoid it. If you're scared of heights, you will avoid tall buildings; if it's spiders, rooms that look cobwebby will be a no-no; if you're scared of dogs, you may avoid parks, and so on. The problem is that, although this is understandable, it's not helpful. Every time you avoid, you are giving yourself the message that the 'phobic object' (a high place, spider or dog) is a scary, dangerous thing to be avoided at all costs. In fact, it's only because you avoided that you didn't fall off the edge or get bitten.

So if you see a cognitive therapist like me for help with a phobia, a central plank of the treatment is 'exposure' – doing the thing you are scared of, even though it's scary. This may just seem mean, but in fact it's extremely effective and is backed up by decades of research. We know that every time you do something scary, your brain gets more and more used to the scary thing, learning that it's not in fact dangerous and nothing bad really happens. This is called 'habituation'.

If you are phobic of spiders, as well as working on your anxiety-provoking thoughts about arachnids, I will get you to look at pictures of spiders in magazines or on the internet. We will work up to having a spider in a glass jar in the room, then you holding the jar and, ultimately, touching or holding the spider. And if you go through this exposure process, your phobia will be completely cured – something that may have completely blighted your life will be gone forever.

The only way out is through 

That's why, even though it can be tough, it's so important to use some form of exposure in a CBT treatment of any anxiety 'disorder' (what psychologists call the different kinds of anxiety-related problem people commonly experience). This applies to panic disorder, agoraphobia, health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

As I often tell my clients, when you're treating anxiety the only way out is through. So if you're scared of the Tube, you have to end up taking the Tube. If it's pigeons, we'll need to look at lots of pictures of birds and maybe send you to Trafalgar Square. With OCD, you will need to actively imagine – and probably do – the things you try so hard to avoid thinking about and doing. With PTSD, you will need to run through the traumatic experience again as an imagery exercise with me, and visit the place where the trauma happened.

Exposure really works

As I also tell my clients, if I had a magic pill that would solve their problem, I would give it to them in an instant. But until that day, exposure is the closest thing we have to a magic cure, because I have seen it work miracles with people – if you stick at it, this treatment can literally change your life. And I will be with you every step of the way, encouraging, supporting, explaining the science behind it and problem-solving any difficulties you may encounter.

So if you or someone you care about has problems with anxiety, I strongly recommend you give CBT, and exposure, a try – remember that CBT is the only talking therapy recommended by the NHS for all anxiety disorders. That's because it works, while I'm afraid most other forms of counselling or therapy – while they might help with bereavement, say, or depression – really don't help with anxiety disorders.

If you would like some help with anxiety, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan