A Simple But Effective Strategy to Overcome a Public Speaking Phobia
Do you think a public speaking phobia can be overcome? Neither did I.
The year was 1995 and I’d just had my first “rat” class. You see, at the university I attended, one of the required courses for the psychology program involved running rats through mazes and tracking their progress.
Ironically, it was not the rats that scared me. It was the fact that I would have to do a class presentation.
Back up to about 1990 and I remember my first “anxiety attack.” It wasn’t even a formal public speaking experience!
It was first-year English at high school and the teacher had asked the class to read a paragraph aloud each from a book. I was the last seat in the class, and as I watched each of my classmates read their part, I felt my panic grow.
By the time it was my turn I was in full fight-or-flight mode. I’m not sure what I looked like, but the teacher actually said, “You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a terrible thing to say.
Strangely enough, through public school I’d never had a public speaking phobia. We’d done speeches every year in class, and I don’t ever remember being afraid. In Grade 8 I VOLUNTEERED to speak in a debate about abortion.
Something happened between Grade 8 and 9 that I’ve yet to figure out. And the horrible thing was that at the time, I had no idea what was wrong and no idea that I should be asking for help for the public speaking phobia that I’d developed.
I struggled through five years of high school.
I dropped a music class because I couldn’t handle doing the performances anymore.
Later in university, I dropped another class because of a group presentation – ironically it was ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY.
If only I’d taken that course, I might have learned that I had a public speaking phobia, which was a diagnosable illness with available treatments.
Remember – this was before the Internet. The best I could do was go to the library and look up books on shyness.
They didn’t help me.
Whether or not I was shy, this wasn’t what I was experiencing during those panic attacks.
Shy people don’t shake, hear their heart pounding in their ears, feel unable to catch their breath, or have an intense desire to flee.
Back to that “rat class.” At the end of the class, the professor told us that he would be having office hours afterward if anyone had any questions.
I’m not sure what got into me, but I went to his office and told him I felt I needed to drop the class. When he pressed me on it, I admitted it was because of the presentation. I’d hit some sort of rock bottom, and I didn’t care anymore.
Call it serendipity, or whatever you like, but that professor also taught a behavior therapy class in which students conducted therapy for simple phobias including public speaking phobia.
About 12 weeks later, and I’d completed behavior therapy, which involved systematic desensitization and progressive muscle relaxation.
I did that presentation in that class – and felt no panic or need to flee. Sure, I was nervous, but it was nothing like I’d felt before. I’d conquered my public speaking phobia!
From there I went on to do numerous other class presentations and stood before an examining committee for my final year thesis.
I then went on to GRADUATE SCHOOL, something I never could have done if it wasn’t for that chance meeting with that prof.
In graduate school I worked as a teaching assistant, often teaching classes with 60+ students.
After graduate school, I got a job in the business world that required me to give presentations to 100+ other employees and to strangers at conferences.
Again, I’d conquered my public speaking phobia. But you know what I realized? I didn’t enjoy being on stage. I was no longer afraid, but as an introvert, it just wasn’t my thing.
And so, I “retired” my public speaking career.
Today, I work as a freelance writer and editor. And I’m happy!
I know that if I need to, I can jump back into public speaking (though I may need to brush off my coping skills).
I know many bloggers do public speaking engagements and so I’m prepared for that if it should happen. I’ve also considered doing a podcast. Or going live in my Facebook group.
But for now, I’m content being behind the scenes, knowing that it’s my choice and not a public speaking phobia holding me back.
This isn’t a story I tell often (or at all really), but I want to share it with you, to let you know that 1) I know how you feel, and 2) that there is hope for you. I know it might feel like the end of the world right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Lots of people overcome public speaking phobias and you can too. Yes, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But I believe that there is help out there if you look.
If you aren’t sure where to find resources, start by signing up for my free weekly newsletter. When you join, you’ll gain access to my resource library that includes a CBT workbook for social anxiety, and other resources.
If you’re interested in doing the same type of intervention that I did as a self-help practice, the Pacifica app includes a progressive muscle relaxation component. For the systematic desensitization portion, this article describes how to do this on your own.
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