If you have social anxiety, or suffer from social-related phobias such as public speaking, you’ll probably have heard the following advise from well-meaning people trying to support you:
“Just throw yourself into it and you’ll get better as you go.”
“The more you do it, the easier it will get.”
“Just prepare and you’ll be fine.”
“You’ll feel loads better once you get going.”
It was with this in mind nearly a decade ago, that I signed up to teacher training. At the time, I knew I was incredibly shy (social anxiety wasn’t something that I’d really heard of at this point) and would do pretty much anything to avoid public speaking. But I felt just brave enough to give this a go, telling myself that I’d learn to be confident as a speaker just through the sheer amount of exposure I’d get.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, body language, behaviour and symptoms, the opposite actually happened. With every presentation, my symptoms, feelings and performance worsened.
I’d go into a presentation, feeling that I was a terrible speaker and afraid/waiting for everyone to see what I pathetic impostor I was; how I didn’t belong amongst them. Then the symptoms would start – trembling, detachment, shaking lips, shaking voice, heart palpitations, dry mouth, dizziness. All of this was accompanied by dread and terror. I feared these symptoms more than the presentation. I’d race through a presentation, trying to avoid what I imagined were looks of horror or pity from the audience, before breathing a sigh of relief that it was over. Relief yes, happy no. I felt like I’d been through hell. It was utterly exhausting and my self-esteem was rock bottom.
So why didn’t throwing myself in result in things getting easier?
Because I hadn’t taken the time to address my negative thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. With each new ‘exposure,’ I actually reinforced my long-held beliefs and fears, as well as the intensity of dread that I felt in the days/hours before. The more I worried beforehand, the worse my symptoms were in the next presentation, resulting in an even worse performance, and even lower self-esteem at the end of it. I was spiraling into darkness.
Somehow, I made it through my training year, but with anxiety running rampant throughout every area of my life, I decided to go to the doctor and was booked in for a course of CBT. It was only then that I realised that while ‘throwing yourself into it’ might work for some people, for someone like me, with deep-rooted beliefs and thoughts, it would only seek to prove what I already thought true. I was looking for evidence to confirm what a terrible public speaker/human being I was.
When facing terrifying situations that you’ve avoided for a lifetime, a gradual, well thought-out approach in best. You need to think long and hard about the beliefs that you’re clinging onto, and decide whether these are rational or not. You need to consider whether the thoughts going around your head are realistic: find evidence in support or against them, and maybe change this thought to a more sensible one. Consider the physical side-effects of anxiety, reminding yourself that they’re not fatal, just uncomfortable, and figure out a way to focus your mind elsewhere.
I’ll be looking into public speaking anxiety and ways to best approach this in future blogs. For now, just remember that doing things that scare you is awesome, but only if you’re actually using this as a means of getting/feeling better about it through a structured approach. Throwing yourself into something simply because you think you should be able to do something (remember… I’ve binned that word this year!) can be counterproductive and harmful. Tackling something that you’re afraid of is incredibly admiral, don’t let this become an exercise in self-harm as I did.
Have you had a better experience than me when ‘throwing yourself in?’ Or have you had success with gradual exposure therapy? I’d love to hear your stories: