Nov 4, 2009

TRULY SPEAKING: Working Through Anxiety

Summary: We can be very unaware of the real level of our anxiety as it appears to others. Knowing the continuum of this energy force, what it does to the brain and body, and tricks for coping with it, quelling it or even converting it, can turn our nervous speaking experiences into exciting success stories. Read on for more!

Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, from blushing to nervous tics to full-blown panic attacks. What these look like on the outside is often vastly different from how they feel to the person who's in their throes.

Coincidentally, what seems the most heightened to us can be completely invisible to someone we're addressing; and that which we're unaware of, ourselves, is often the most distracting to our audience. To the outsider (or to the audience), blushing may be barely noticeable, especially on a darker complected speaker. But if you've ever blushed in your life, you know it can feel like your face is on fire! Nervous tics, on the other hand, may be distracting from the speaker's message: I recently heard a speaker who unconsciously clears his throat several times per sentence, but is hardly aware that he's doing so. Meanwhile, panic attacks can go totally unnoticed by others. But panic attacks can be so severe to the person who's having one that he or she may actually visit the emergency room with the honest belief, "I'm dying!"

When anxiety occurs, our brain's cognitive functioning is severely impacted, and negatively so. The body creates a "fight-or-flight" mentality, literally wanting to run away or engage in combat. Simply standing still and pretending to be 'fine' does nothing to quench the internal need to engage or flee the conflict at hand—even if the conflict is only imaginary.

Many statistics on public speaking show that the majority of people—in cultures all over the world—are more afraid of addressing an audience than they are of water, heights, flying, spiders, snakes or even death! Speaking in public makes us quite vulnerable, not just to the judgment of others, but to our own perceptions of their criticisms and to our judgments of ourselves.

Here are some quick tips to making anxiety actually work for you when you speak:

(1) Notice your pulse and your breath. If your heart is fluttering in your chest, you're nervous. Long, slow, deep breaths (taken from both the diaphragm and the lungs to expand the belly and chest) can lower pulse and slow the heart rate. Oxygen circulates through the body and helps to automatically calm your entire system, improving cognitive function and focus. Take at least two deep breaths in a row before you return to your normal breathing, then notice your heart rate again. Repeat this technique as necessary.

(2) Pay attention to your self-talk. When we're extremely keyed up about something, we often vituperate ourselves mentally. This can create a vicious cycle of anxiety. Say something to yourself now (in your head) about public speaking. Where in your head does your inner voice resonate? What kind of tone does it have? You can modify this inherent voice by slowing it down, and/or mimicking a mother cooing to a child. Speaking to yourself in a nurturing tone makes you calmer almost immediately.

(3) Make anxiety into excitement. In situations that call for high-energy responses, such as addressing a large group, calming yourself too much can work against you. In times like these, it's important to remember that nervousness and excitement are simply different levels of the same emotion: On one end of the scale—the high end—comes excitement, even elation; on the lower, more negative end comes nervousness, followed by anxiety, panic, and paranoia. Actors use a number of voice and body exercises to stretch and warm up that are geared toward converting anxiety and negativity into the more positive energy of excitement. See this list of books and audio resources on the subject compiled by The Association of Theatre Movement Educators.

While the practice of any one of the above techniques can help eradicate anxiety, they can work even better in combination.

© KiKi Productions, Inc. 2009

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