Personal experiences of anxiety: presentation edition

I, like so many other people, deal with anxiety on a daily basis. It creeps its way into so many aspects of my life. As I write this, anxiety is preventing me from calling my local medical centre to book an appointment. But the topic of this blog post isn’t about something I do on a daily basis, or even with some regularity; in fact, it’s about something that’s quite rare. It’s about the experience of anxiety that consumes me whenever I have to give a presentation.

I was inspired to write about this because a couple of days ago, I was talking to my husband about being invited to present at an event focused on making a positive difference, be that for patients, or for the workforce (I work in the NHS – see my introduction post for context). That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Someone wants me to present the work I’m doing that is having, or will have, a positive impact on others, to a room full of interested people. Well… I was taken aback by how strongly I reacted to this conversation, physically and mentally.

The simple thought of standing in front of a crowd of people made me feel sick – an intense, negative version of feeling “butterflies” in my stomach. The feeling where you are convinced that you might actually throw up. I became shaky, trembling, uneasy. Fear and dread began to take over my entire body, to the point where I felt frozen in my chair. I felt regret for bringing this topic to the conversation, as it made me feel so unwell. And all of this happened just because I thought about presenting; what would happen if I were to do this for real?

Well, I have recently had to give a presentation at work, on a much smaller scale, about a project I am working on which focuses on “evidence-based practice” (I will discuss this topic in a future blog post). Incidentally, this would likely be the topic of my presentation at the aforementioned event. But in this instance, I had to present some data to five other people, all of whom I work closely with for four days of the week, every week. The experience of presenting to this group actually went quite smoothly, as I felt I had a good grasp on the data and had prepared fairly well. Before the meeting, however, I was a bundle of nerves; I experienced sleeplessness the night before, and physical sickness on the morning of the presentation. I put myself under a great deal of stress, and worked overtime, to ensure I was prepared for this one-hour meeting. For one hour of my life that went quite well, I made myself physically and mentally ill in order to “prepare” myself for presenting. It doesn’t seem to add up.

Previous experiences have also resulted in me feeling unwell. I distinctly remember (and re-lived it on social media, thanks Timehop) the anxiety that accompanied preparing for and giving a presentation based on my undergraduate dissertation six years ago. Part of our dissertation grade was based on this presentation, and even though it was a small part, it still amped up the pressure on final year students at the time. I remember waiting in a corridor, outside the room I was going to present in to two people; my dissertation supervisor, and another colleague of his – both lovely people. And despite the pleasant nature of my small audience, I was absolutely overcome by fear. Once again, I felt physically sick, and was legitimately worried about needing to throw up before, during, and after my presentation. I felt faint, weak, as if I were fighting to survive. This time, these feelings didn’t stop while I was presenting, and were revealed in physical actions; I was audibly shaky, stumbling over my words, and became clumsy using technology which I was usually so familiar with. I left the presentation thinking, “was that even worth it?”

While I do acknowledge the benefits of presentations, and therefore practising the skills required to present successfully, in my experience the negatives outweigh the positives. As I was formulating my next sentence for this post, I thought to myself, “sure, but the negative consequences of presenting do not last forever”, but perhaps in my case they do. As I stated near the beginning of this article, even the thought of presenting causes me distress, and at this moment it feels like it’s something that I might never overcome. Only time will tell, but it is something that is likely to affect my career and future opportunities; presenting is a skill that often is highlighted as part of “essential” criteria on job applications, and will particularly impact me if I continue down my chosen pathway of research. On the plus side, there are always poster presentations…

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with presentations, or find them a breeze? Have you found ways to cope with any anxiety brought on by presenting or the thought of presenting? Let me know!