Personal anecdotes from a college student who is absolutely terrified of public speaking.
I am a college student going into my senior year at Davidson College, which is a small, liberal arts college in Davidson, North Carolina. I adore Davidson College, and I wouldn’t change a thing; however, the average class size is sixteen students.
Now, for most people, a small class size is not a big deal but for people like me, small class size screams “all eyes on you!” With only a handful of other students in my classes, I am not able to slip into the back of a big lecture hall and hide from my professors behind hundreds of faces.
Instead, professors know my name and take advantage of every opportunity to call on me. Also, a small class size presents the golden opportunity for in-class presentations. Many professors at Davidson College will eliminate a final exam and will assign a final presentation in its place.
“Every time that I talk in front of a group of people, I panic and freeze.”
My classmates become excited when they see a final presentation on the syllabus, while I instead become panicked and dread the day when it’s my turn to present. I would choose a ten-hour final exam over a five-minute presentation any day–crazy, right?!
When I hear my name, when I stand up in front of a class, and when every eye turns to look at me, my heart rate instantly increases, my palms begin to sweat, my cheeks turn bright red, my body starts to shake, and my brain becomes mush.
I’m an intelligent person; however, every time that I talk in front of a group of people, I panic and freeze.
My dad always laughs and reminds me to slow down to “35 miles per hour”, since when I talk in front of anyone, even close family and friends, I talk abnormally fast.
I tell people that my fast talking is a result of my brain thinking more quickly than my mouth can move, which may be partially true; however, the real reason is that I want to take the attention that is on me away as fast as possible.
I experience debilitating public speaking anxiety not only when I give a presentation or when I get called on in class but also when I attend a job interview, speak up during discussions with people that I don’t know well, or even when I simply introduce myself.
I can’t control it. The terror that envelops me in these situations is a fear of embarrassment and a fear of rejection.
Why does this happen to me? Why does talking in front of people scare me so much? I’m going to give you a little background.
When I was in middle school, I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, and as defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.
As an eleven-year-old, I switched schools in the middle of the year. When I walked into class on my first day in my new school, I experienced extreme anxiety for the first time.
I didn’t know anyone, all my classmates had already formed their groups of friends, everyone was intrigued by the “new girl,” and those first few days were full of stares and whispers all directed towards me. I eventually discovered my place and a group of friends, but that underlying anxiety never left.
I found myself nervous about joining conversations in social situations. I found myself dreading birthday parties, worrying that my outfit looked weird or that my friends wouldn’t like the present that I picked out.
I found myself not wanting to play tennis, a sport that I love because I could no longer take the pressure of people watching from the sidelines. I found myself no longer wanting to go to school despite my love of learning.
I found myself no longer talking.
I became known as the odd girl who always smiles because I was so nervous about being around and talking in front of my peers that I resorted to using a defense mechanism of not saying anything and instead only nodding and smiling.
I was worried about how people would perceive me or that I would say something embarrassing if I spoke up.
My social anxiety stayed with me throughout high school, followed me to college, and is with me to this day. I have since received treatment for SAD in the forms of both therapy and medication, and I have become much more comfortable around others and with myself.
Yes, I do still experience anxiety of being negatively perceived in social situations; however, while in college, my social anxiety has more often arisen in performance situations.
There are many different performance situations in which social anxiety may manifest itself, and one of the most common of these situations is public speaking.
According to Faravelli et al. (2000), 84.9% of patients with a social anxiety disorder also have a fear of public speaking, also known as glossophobia.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person who has a phobia has an irrational fear of encountering the situation, actively avoids the situation, and experiences immediate and intense anxiety while enduring the situation.
“DESPITE MY EFFORTS, THE INTENSE FEAR AND ANXIETY NEVER GO AWAY.“
I experience these three factors when I think about or encounter any situation in which I must talk in front of people. The anxiety that comes with my phobia of public speaking is inevitable.
Last year, during the spring semester of my sophomore year of college, I had to give a final presentation to the class on a research proposal. The presentation was only ten minutes long and was only worth five percent of my final grade; however, I was terrified.
In the days leading up to my presentation date, I made myself physically sick. I had terrible nausea, I couldn’t eat, I experienced hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and I almost fainted on multiple occasions.
Furthermore, I had three research papers due that same week, and I couldn’t work on them until after I presented since I was expending all my energy worrying about this one presentation.
Spoiler: I made it through the presentation, and I ended up doing well. This was one of my worst cases of anxiety over the anticipation of a presentation, but it shows a snippet of some of the symptoms that I experience.
So, for those of you who are wondering how I handle these terror-provoking situations of public speaking, especially while in college, the answer is quite simple: I suffer through it.
If you read online, there are many suggestions of how to manage the fear, such as preparing, practicing, and taking deep breaths; however, there is no clear answer on how to eliminate the fear.
If I’m honest, I have tried every trick in the book, and despite my extensive efforts, the intense fear and anxiety never go away. So, my suggestion to those who are like me and who fear public speaking is to, quite blatantly, just own it! I have begun to find humor in the situation.
“Even if I think that a presentation went poorly, I celebrate!”
Before I present in front of a group of people, I take a deep breath, nervously laugh, and start by saying “public speaking is my biggest fear, so bear with me,” and I talk on.
I have found that admitting to and owning my fear at the beginning of a situation lightens the mood and puts everyone, I and audience included, more at ease.
As a student at Davidson College, I do always have “all eyes on me,” yet I have come to find this to be a good thing. Yes, presentations, participation grades, and being called on frequently occur in my classes, and I am still terrified every single time; however, I don’t avoid the situations.
Davidson College presents me with the opportunity to work on and learn from the fears and challenges that social anxiety brings to me, and I have become a more confident person because of this. I open my mouth, I have eyes on me, I get through, and I finish proud of myself.
Even if I think that a presentation went poorly, I celebrate for jumping over the hurdle of merely going up in front of a group of people and, most importantly, for owning my anxiety and fear.
Written By: Mimi Webb
Mimi is a rising senior at Davidson College in North Carolina. She is a psychology major and has a special interest in helping children with social skill development and anxiety disorders.
Mimi is constantly accused of being too nice, smiling too much, and is the most gullible person you’ll meet.