Managing Anxiety

Jan 16 2019

Reading through a Public Speaking book

Today’s reading comes from a second chapter in Feldman’s Public Speaking for Psychologists.

Anxiety! This is a constant concern.  I wouldn’t say I handle it well, but that it is…handled.  I’ve been better at stopping anxious thoughts mid-spiral with either a stern ‘No, we’re not engaging with this,’ or ‘Oh, you’ve embarrassed yourself worse than this and survived’, even though the latter means reliving the previous embarrassment instead.  In terms of public speaking, it’s a little different. I did a ton of plays (church) and recitals (ballet) as a child so I’m not unfamiliar with a stage.  However, I still don’t like a spotlight on just myself and so the anxiety comes out.  Things that have gotten better with practice: the shaky voice and the fidgeting. Hearing the shaky voice happen with people who I know are much more confident and well-spoken than I am is reassuring as well; it happens to all of us! Things that haven’t gotten better yet: talking too quickly.

David B. Feldman, “Managing Anxiety,” in Public speaking for psychologists: a lighthearted guide to research presentations, job talks, and other opportunities to embarrass yourself, (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010), 23-41.

Subsections of the Chapter


“Anxiety is evolution’s way of keeping us safe.” - David Feldman.


Okay, I see where he’s going when linking anxiety to the flight or fight reflex, and that the high level of alertness can help us perform well.  However, while he gives a nod to the idea that being relaxed is probably better than panic, there’s a sly attempt to suggest that this adrenaline provides the motivation to do well.  I can pressure myself to do well even without the anxiety, thank you very much.  I do like that his techniques aren’t to erase the anxiety but to manage it, though.  There is very little use in telling me not to worry, as if I would never have thought to just not do it. What helps more is telling me why I shouldn’t be worried, helping me to ground myself in reality instead of fearful hypotheticals.

Acceptance of anxiety reminds me of two things I’ve come across recently.  Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a layer of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which you can work with your difficulties; there’s a distinction between pain and suffering in which you can accept the former so that you don’t have to live in the latter. It’s kind of fuzzy, and I’m still learning about it. More relevant is a recent blog post about a study in which biology students were asked to write a reflective paragraph before taking a test.  Low-income students showed substantial increase performance improvements with this intervention, and the reflections themselves were ways to acknowledge test-taking anxiety without dismissing it.  Students could either write for 10 minutes about their thoughts and feelings, or they could read and reflect on a passage that talked about anxiety in both positive and negative scenarios; in the passage, the authors describe the body’s reaction to caring about something, and how these responses can result in feelings we associate with anxiety.  I really like this approach of taking a time in which I would think “I’m shaking already? I’m doomed!” and normalizing it in a way that acknowledges “Yes, I care about this presentation and want to do well.”

Feldman reiterates the need for planning and practice to both deliver a good presentation and for combating anxiety.  Yes!

The imagery exercise he recommends is actually pretty interesting, and I think I might try it next time.  I am pretty quick to imagine worst-case scenarios so this is right in my lane.  In what he called “mental simulation, ” you are to envision exactly how you plan to behave during the presentation.  Feldman describes it as “practicing in your mind” in which you imagine exactly how the presentation will go.  But before you can do this, he recommends having a working knowledge of your talk so that you can imagine giving it, and then make a script for the simulation itself.  To me, this sounds more like a kind of pros and cons list.  Two columns: left is for things you fear might occur during your talk; right is for how you could realistically deal with each of these obstacles.  Now, envision the talk.  Each time, envision one of the fears occurring and then yourself dealing with it.  Don’t skip anything! And finally, end by seeing yourself finish the talk feeling satisfied with yourself.

Regarding relaxation, Feldman recommends progressive muscle relaxation.  He acknowledges the connection between emotion and the body.  I forget where I first heard it, but it’s echoed across medical and philosophical literature:  trauma is stored in the body. This technique is to relax your body, so that you can relax your mind. After finding a quiet place, you slowly move through the parts of your body by first tensing them (creating that tightness as you feel anxious) then physically releasing it by relaxing that body part.  For next level new-agers, he also recommends envisioning that warm glow to help relax any remaining tension.  It’s a meditation, or meditative act.

Lastly, Feldman turns to self-talk.  I am my oldest, toughest, opponent, and it is difficult to stop my train of thoughts.  To combat this, he recommends another list in columns, in a way that resembles what might be called a worry log or other anti-anxiety thought-logging tool. This time, we have three columns:  all the negative thoughts you experience; how each thought might not be true (or what type of cognitive distortion it stems from); and finally your response to this distorted thought now that you can deal with it on its own. Feldman lists some common cognitive distortions such as magnification/minimization, all-or-nothing thinking, and mind reading (which are three that I often use against myself). Self-talk is much, much easier to handle when you externalize it, such as Feldman does here.

I do appreciate Feldman ends the chapter with a note on the difference between “normal” levels of anxiety and unmanageable anxiety.  If it’s interfering with your ability to function, your own techniques haven’t handled it, or if you just want extra help, see an expert.  Yes.]]></content:encoded>