05 November 2009

The Zen of Presentations, Part 27: Coping with anxiety

I had a student in my office this week for advising, and I noted that she hadn’t taken Biology Seminar, a required class for all our majors. She said she had been putting it off, and putting it off, and was deliberately taking it at the last possible time. She was absolutely terrified of giving a talk. Even as I was talking to her, I could see her getting wound up at the prospect of something that might be weeks, if not months, away.

Before getting to the advice, let me preface what I’m about to say with a general principle:

There is no virtue in suffering.

We often tend to treat that people who are genuinely anxious about presentation with little sympathy. People are told to keep suck it up and keep practicing. There is more than a little “You should suffer for your art” attitude out there.

ValiumIf you are truly frantic about the prospect of speaking in public, why not make an appointment with your physician and see about getting a prescription drug to help with the anxiety?

I don’t say this lightly. There’s a reason that some drugs are only available by prescription, and only recommend this is as a last resort for extreme cases.

I know one person who had to give a lot of presentations, and hated every second. The stress was quite debilitating, so this individual got a prescription for a beta blocker, and took a pill before giving a talk. The talk I saw this person give was fine, and I’m convinced the audience wouldn’t have known this person was dealing with high anxiety.

In most cases, you’re better off practicing and learning the skill of presentation that getting medication. But not everyone is the same, and some people may need more help than practice and preparation alone can give.

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