How to Ease Into Those First Few Minutes of Extreme Anxiety

I hear it over and over again – how scary those first few minutes can be, when you step up to speak or perform and all the attention is turned toward you.

When the quietness descends upon the room, you feel the anxious anticipation of people waiting and watching and expecting something from you. You fear that they’ll see how anxious you are and you will lose credibility and respect in their eyes.

All content written by Janet Esposito, April 2014

Even for people who have more of a “normal” level of nervousness with speaking or performing, it is usually this transition time – when you move from a private to a public persona – that is most challenging.

This is especially accentuated when it is a formal speaking or performing event, where there is a buildup to your entrance, rather than easing into the role of speaker or performer in a more casual, understated way.

The whole idea of having a big production made out of the whole thing tends to make us feel that the bar is raised and that more is expected of us (and that we have more to lose if we don’t hold up under the pressure).

There are a number of things we can do to help ourselves with those first few minutes, we need to focus on:

  • The practice of deep breathing
  • Grounding ourselves
  • Listening closely to others
  • Staying as much as possible in the present moment
  • Speaking to ourselves in a very positive, supportive way (as we would someone we deeply love and care about).
  • Accepting any anxious feelings we may have and “ride the wave” rather than trying to fight or control these feelings.

All of this helps to not fuel our anxiety while waiting to be called upon to speak or perform.

That being said, there is still that “moment of truth” feeling when it is our turn to step up. I was reading an interesting book recently, which had been recommended to me by one of my coaching clients, called My Lessons With Kumi: How I learned to perform with confidence in life and work, by Michael Colgrass.

I encourage you to take a look at this book, as the author shares a range of techniques from the NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) field, which helps you to develop more self-empowering strategies to approaching challenges.

One method he spoke of was to vividly visualize yourself actively making that transition to the role of speaker or performer even before being called upon.

Create the visual imagery of seeing yourself moving toward the speaking or performing moment, in the flow of it, standing or sitting exactly where you will be speaking or performing, handling it just as you want to, enjoying the process and feeling confident and ready to step up. See, hear, and feel yourself making the transition from private to public persona in a calm, smooth, seamless way.

The more you positively “practice” this transition in your mind, the less of a jolt it will be when it happens. (We also have to counter our tendency to do “negative rehearsal” of this moment of transition in our minds, where we worry about how anxious we will be in those first few moments and how others may detect it.)

As you positively and vividly imagine these first few moments in your mind over and over, it will start to feel more familiar to you. Certainly, we hear of top athletes who mentally rehearse those difficult shots over and over and they develop a pathway for success in their minds before the time arrives to make the challenging shot – if it works for them, why not try it?

We can also try to transform our anxious feelings into feelings of excitement and readiness, as successful athletes tend to do.

It is also very important to remember to breathe and ground yourself as you transition to this more public persona and to remind yourself of your true purpose for being there.

We need to stay very focused on doing the job we are there to do – to communicate, inform, inspire, entertain, educate, or whatever purpose reflects the adult reality of why we are there.

We need to remember to humanize the audience; to connect with the individuals in our audience through focused eye contact; to slow down, breathe, and pause; and to stay connected to our purpose, always remembering “This is not about me!”

So often we feel overcome by that feeling of being “in the spotlight” and we start to feel the self-consciousness and pressure of people paying attention to us and expecting something from us.

It helps to remind ourselves that we are not here to give the State of the Union address or some similar high stakes performance. This helps us to keep perspective and to lighten the burden we feel we are carrying.  

While those first few moments can be unnerving for most of us, you can consciously direct your mind and begin to relax your body to make it easier on yourself.

Take the focus off dwelling on the discomfort of those first few minutes and put the focus on being resourceful and doing things that can help ease the tension and anxiousness.

The more you mentally rehearse a resourceful strategy, the more you will gracefully make the transition from the private to the public arena.