I am more than my public speaking anxiety

By Lauren Long / For The Pitt News

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If I had to rank my fears, public speaking would outrank lying on my deathbed tomorrow, sharing a tiny tank with a tarantula, getting caught alone in a pitch black forest with no flashlight and tiptoeing the top of the Cathedral of Learning.

I am part of the 75 percent of individuals who suffer from the most common phobia, “glossophobia,” or public speaking anxiety.

At 16, public speaking anxiety in the classroom sounded like “um,” “like” and long awkward pauses when I was called on unexpectedly. By 18, public speaking anxiety looked like red hazard lights flashing on my fiery cheeks during class icebreakers. By the time it was my turn to state my name, major, hometown and greatest fear, I forgot everything except, “My greatest fear is public speaking.” Everyone laughed except me.

At 21, a group of male students noticed the rosy red pigment on my face when they greeted me. One asked, “Are we making you nervous?” Another, “Are you anxious?” Another, “Your foot is tapping.” And another, “Your hands are shaking.”

It was not until then — when I realized my public speaking anxiety affected my academic and professional life — that I finally sought the help I had needed for years. In my first session, my therapist labeled it “good” anxiety.

But if “good” anxiety could make me stutter between my first and last name and forget my major, then what was “bad” anxiety?

I’ve since learned that “bad” anxiety is a mental illness called generalized anxiety disorder, and that my generalized anxiety disorder caused my public speaking anxiety.

It’s when your thoughts race to the beat of your heart. It’s a shortness of breath. It’s a fog in your head and sweat dripping down your brows. It’s forgetting everything you had to say when it’s time to say it.

Public speaking anxiety does not have rules or boundaries. It can hit whenever and wherever, which is why it’s important to be prepared for its onslaught.

I have to work with it. I know that I love owning the room, but I also know that if I don’t plan my whole speech ahead of time, I’ll have a panic attack and put myself and everyone around me in an uncomfortable situation.

According to Lori Drost, a social worker at the University’s Counseling Center, anxiety is a complex animal and, like any other part of your body or your psyche, one that you should get to know intimately.

“There is not one way anxiety presents itself,” Drost said. “To understand the nature of your anxiety, you must first identify what triggers you the most.”

After I’d identified my trigger — in my case, it wasn’t too hard to do — I decided to tackle my greatest fear the first term of my first year at Pitt. I registered for Public Speaking, a course designed to help students develop speech making skills through theory and practice.

The first assignment on the syllabus read, “Getting Your Speaking Feet Wet.” The second, “Speeches of Introduction,” and, in parentheses, “To be recorded.” I had to give a two to three minute speech to my classmates, professor and the man in the back of the African Heritage Room holding a video camera.

Somehow, I had avoided public speaking in high school, so this was my first speech. Although I thought it went disastrously because I was on the verge of a panic attack, after watching the tape over a few times, I realized those panic attack symptoms did not once meet the audience’s eye. The moment I realized I could conquer this fear, a weight lifted.

I did not get a handle on my anxiety alone, and neither should you.

The public speaking course introduced me to the Oral Communication Lab, housed in the communication department — 1124 Cathedral of Learning — which serves any member of the campus community to help with speaking skills.

I am a young adult with public speaking anxiety who has taken advantage of the resources Pitt offers, but I am also a full-time student, a writer, a master communicator with a high cultural competency, a tutor, a mentor and a future educator.

I refuse to let my anxiety define me or limit my career.

Having anxiety has taught me that it’s OK to have a mental illness, and it’s OK to ask for help. Starting college is a constant social experience — we often feel like we’re put on display, which can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but especially for those who live with an anxiety disorder.

Don’t give up on that in-class presentation or in front of new classmates — speak up. Your voice deserves to be heard.

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