I’m seeing a psychotherapist weekly at the moment.
I wanted to run away from my first session. As soon as I got to the waiting room, panic set in. My body and mind were telling me to get out of there. As if I were waiting for a dangerous predator to come and kill me. My heart was beating fast, my head felt like it was spinning, I felt sick, and I felt short of breath.
“RUN. RUN AWAY. YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE.”
The feelings were probably exacerbated by the fact that I was out of breath from having to walk up four flights of stairs – and I’m not in the best shape of my life, that’s for sure.
The first appointment was only four weeks ago and I can’t really remember the whole session, but I know I did a lot of crying. I came out of the session crying and hoping that no one else would see me like that. People did, of course, as I had to walk out into public to get my bus home. There were also people in a different waiting room that I had to walk past, so that was hard too. And that made me feel really vulnerable.
I feel somewhat vulnerable now, just thinking about it. When you try to be strong all the time, vulnerability feels really scary. But I know that, in reality, it’s okay. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to process things, to help ourselves work through difficult situations and feelings.
My last post was very much just jotting down a small fraction of my feelings towards starting therapy, about a week or so before I actually went to my first session. One of the things I mentioned was about being scared that I would change, or turn into a person that people didn’t like anymore. This is something I shared with my therapist in the session, and it turns out that that’s a common fear about starting therapy. So if that also scares you, please know that you’re not alone.
I have a long way to go yet. I’ve decided to enter into a long-term therapeutic relationship, with no set deadline. I think that’s probably the best way to go about it; you can’t really put a time limit on recovery. If you try to do so, and don’t feel “better” by a self-imposed (or work-imposed, or other-imposed) “deadline”, you’re just going to be disappointed, and you may end up worse off than you were before. It takes as long as it takes.
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!