My Early Years in School
Since kindergarten, I refused to participate in class activities/discussions and dreaded being called upon even though I often knew the answers. I was a very shy child and extremely anxious around people I didn’t know well and large groups in general.
In middle school, this fear developed into an intense phobia of public speaking when I experienced my first panic attack up at the podium in front of the class. The initial panic attack and the ones to follow were intense: racing heart, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, a complete loss of control. That is when my vicious cycle of avoiding any kind of formal or informal speaking in public began. I was especially terrified of being called upon to read aloud; I would fake coughing fits to get out of the classroom.
High School and College Years
In addition to having general social anxiety, I continued to avoid presentations to the extent of going to the guidance counselor’s office and requesting to be dropped down an academic level, falsely claiming I couldn’t handle the workload. I was lucky enough to have one teacher that let me do a one on one presentation after school with her, only for the other students to find out later and get upset.
In my psychology class in high school, I first heard about anxiety disorders and panic attacks (neither public speaking nor social anxiety had much awareness back then and were not specified in this context). Once I saw the descriptions, I thought that maybe I wasn’t the only one going through it; maybe I wasn’t so different than everyone else after all. Another recollection I have from that psychology class was filling out the sentence completion task. The sentence was, “Someday I would like to _____.” My answer: to be fearless! This response was based solely on this fear of public speaking or being the center of attention. While everyone else probably completed that statement with a dream, a goal, or a wish to win the lottery, my focus was on alleviating this life-consuming anxiety.
The anxiety and apprehension of attending college was more than I could bear. I spoke to my primary care doctor about it and luckily he knew that beta blockers could be used for stage fright and panic attacks. What a relief! I also had anti-anxiety medications to help me face the situation but the beta blocker literally blocked most of the physical side effects of a panic attack without clouding my mind. This was a huge help getting through school and graduating.
In college, I was very quiet in class and experienced a great deal of anxiety during class discussions and group work. I would scan my environment constantly looking for a perceived threat, either being called upon, or the much dreaded presentation that I would obsessively worry about for weeks to months beforehand. Each class of a new semester, I would frantically scan the syllabus for presentations, would speak to the professor after class, and drop the class if I was unable to negotiate around the presentations, often times writing additional 10 -20 page papers instead.
Having anxiety in general situations all my life, I finally discovered my diagnosis of social anxiety disorder through a National Anxiety Awareness Day at my college in my second year of school. A few months later, I enrolled in a group research study for social phobia at Yale; the top of my hierarchy was public speaking of course. The group was my first experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which completely changed my life; it was the main reason I decided on my education and career in clinical trials (mental health research) shortly thereafter.
Although I improved after participating in that group, I continued to spend much time trying to figure out which professors assigned presentations. My avoidance “strategy” was extremely time consuming, and ultimately caused a delay in my graduation twice, both in my undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, I made the dean’s list just about every semester.
I even received an “A” on the one presentation I could not back out of, and I felt I actually did a great job and hid my anxiety. What a relief; I thought I was “cured” … until I continued on with my avoidance pattern and shortly after, the panic attacks resumed as forcefully as ever.
Welcome to the Real World
I excitedly began working at my first full time job during my last semester of undergraduate college. I would get anxious at staff meetings fearing I would be asked to speak or present. Even attending staff lunches and events would cause anxiety as I would worry that somehow I might become the center of attention. Despite the anxiety, or maybe because of it, I worked very hard and managed to get promoted throughout the years. With the increased responsibilities, came more informal and formal speaking possibilities.
There were a few major turning points (e.g., refusing to do a presentation at another worksite) that made me realize that I needed more help than I thought. Oftentimes, I would confide in a colleague and ask them to take the lead or, rarely, I would call out sick or schedule around a speaking opportunity. This was also time consuming and made me feel ashamed.
I had seen a few psychologists strictly for social anxiety once I was able to put a “name” on it while I was an undergrad in college. They didn’t have much experience with it or my excessive fear of public speaking, and were unable to provide the help I needed. I finally found a place that specialized in anxiety disorders in 2006 that helped me tremendously, having a true understanding of social anxiety and phobias, and specialized in CBT. I learned that accepting the anxiety as a part of me was crucial in changing my behavior towards it. I knew I would need a group environment to provide support and structure to desensitize myself in a healthy, positive manner.
After much searching and a few attempts with support groups, I found the right one for me. It was a structured group specifically for social anxiety that follows a strict program created by the Social Anxiety Institute.
In this group, we learned more about CBT, while supporting others through discussions, sharing our experiences weekly, and applying the techniques in our daily life. It helped me change my irrational thoughts to positive ones and most importantly gave me a structured environment to practice behavioral activities (also known as exposures).
I began as a member in 2006, and soon after I became the solo facilitator, meeting each week for 3 hours for 3 to 4 months’ per session. This group is still running.
In 2009, I discovered a website called MeetUp.com. I created a group in order to outreach to others with this fear. This group is also ongoing. Each time that I meet someone new, I feel a sense of renewal as I witness their first support group experience and share their story. The meetings alternate between regular discussion meetings and “activity” meetings in which we do exposures (often public speaking and center of attention exercises).
Why do I think a group environment is necessary?
I have made great progress over the years because of these groups. The exchange of feedback is helpful because we think we are so visibly anxious as we feel it intensely internally and we are often surprised to hear that these symptoms are not apparent while we are speaking. We have all become such good “hiders” of the anxiety and others are not aware of our intense anxiety, as we often fear.
The inspiration and encouragement of the group process creates a deep bonding and results in amazing outcomes that would not be possible to achieve individually. We learn how to recognize negative, irrational thoughts, and how to change them to better cope with social and speaking situations.
What else helped me?
Personal development (books, podcasts, etc.), others’ support, learning techniques, doing exposures, and lots of patience and repetition!
After attending Janet’s Getting Over Stage Fright workshop in 2010, my entire mindset changed; I began opening myself to many opportunities with much more confidence and motivation than ever before.
As a result of this workshop, I was immediately able to start giving speeches at Toastmasters (after being a member for 2 years prior without once giving a speech) with significantly reduced anxiety. In addition, I took on more of a leadership/officer role in Toastmasters for a couple years and now continue to enjoy the club.
I now venture out to other Meetup groups or events/workshops that I find interesting and challenge me as being center of attention. One recently that I never imagined myself doing is Improv Comedy Acting!
Where Am I Now?
I am still challenged by this fear from time to time, and realize there is no “cure” and that it takes hard, CONSISTENT work to maintain the progress. I, as well as many other group members over the years, have learned this lesson the hard way. Once we started to feel better, we cut back on opportunities for maintenance and growth, thinking that we had overcome it entirely. Over time, it would creep back in gradually and/or suddenly a situation would present itself and all the old, negative ways of thinking would come rushing back. It’s an important shift in the mindset to view these situations as opportunities and realize there is always room for growth.
The thought and the feeling of “the world is coming to an end!” when faced with a challenging situation is gone. I no longer think of how to avoid or flee a situation and there is much less anxiety involved to stay and accept it. I find it difficult when it comes to formal presentations and meetings in which I am required to speak in a structured format, although Toastmasters is an incredible resource for me in this area.
Before, the anxiety used to hold me back from attending anything, as I would worry, “Will I have to introduce myself?”, “Will I be the center of attention during an exercise?”, “What if people notice I’m nervous and think I’m strange?” and on and on!
No more! If I want to go somewhere new and try it out, or contribute to an event that I am passionate about, I now have the courage to walk in with minimal anxiety and commit myself to hours of being in strangers’ company with no escape, no excuses. My needs and desires come first, before those of my fear – goodbye!
In addition, I have been able to grow more professionally in my career, (it was especially exciting to work at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living and co-author publications).
In 2016, I became a Professional Certified Coach and am enrolled to obtain my Master Coach certification with the Center for Coaching Certification.
A Whole New World
I now live my life with a new outlook, confidence and energy that I never dreamed of. Through these experiences, I have been meeting many wonderful people, forming new friendships, and finding like-minded people that want to help themselves and others overcome this anxiety. My experiences have created the person that I am today, the ups and downs and everything in between, has served a purpose. As challenging as it was and can continue to be, it is a part of me that I fully accept and has contributed to personal qualities that I am proud of such as resilience, perseverance, courage, empathy.
Click here to view Marla’s professional background.