Overcoming Presentation Anxiety

presentation

Let’s be honest, few people enjoy standing up in front of large groups of people and speaking. Whether it’s a short seminar presentation, a lecture, or delivering a conference paper, public speaking can feel like a daunting undertaking. Many studies have shown that people fear the prospect of public speaking even more than they fear death.

Over the years, I’ve come across many students who have a crippling fear of public speaking, and their resistance to delivering presentations in class is quite strong. They would do anything to avoid it, so much so that they may even neglect to show up for class on the days they are scheduled to present.

I do feel for these students and I wish I could tell them that public speaking isn’t an important skill to develop, but the truth is that it is an incredibly valuable skill for whatever field they go into. The good news is that the anxiety surrounding public speaking is something that can be overcome.

When working on this with students, the first place I often start is by asking them to recall the sensations they experience when they are presenting. Almost all of them have reported feeling their heart racing, palms sweating, shortness of breath, dry mouth and even shaking. All of this is very natural and is an indication that their fight or flight response system has been activated. From a mind-body medicine perspective, this makes perfect sense. The activation of the fight or flight response is how our body responds to perceived danger, and as public speaking demonstrates, the danger need not actually be life-threatening. This goes to show that the sensations of anxiety that some people experience during a presentation are a consequence of the stress that has built up in the mind.

We don’t often acknowledge how our fears affect the body, and in the case of public speaking, our capacity to communicate effectively. However, working through this piece of the puzzle is the single most important factor in overcoming presentation anxiety. The key to building up a more positive experience during presentations is to do the opposite of what would appear to come naturally in moments of high stress – and that is to consciously slow down. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a presentation to slow down, but once we appreciate how fear manifests in the body, the power of this approach becomes clearer.

This simple action of slowing down helps activate one of the quickest stress-busters that we have access to in any given moment, and that is our breathing. By consciously controlling our breathing through taking steady, consistent and slow breaths, we can instantly de-activate the fight or flight response system and in turn, minimize the uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during a presentation.

Presentation anxiety is not something people should have to live with. It can be overcome and I’ve seen countless people do just that. It starts with acknowledging the intricate connection between the mind and the body, and paying attention to how our thoughts may be impacting on us more generally.

Advertisements

Process versus Outcome

Notebook

One of the biggest challenges I faced as a doctoral student was a tendency to view the PhD as an outcome, rather than a process. In my mind, it was one enormous piece of work and unless I was done, or close to being done, I found it difficult to relax or rest. Even in those moments when I was not actively working on it, I felt like I couldn’t properly switch off. It was on my mind constantly. It was an exhausting way to spend four years, but somehow it seemed justified and I didn’t know of any other way to approach my work.

One of the consequences of viewing the PhD as an outcome was the feeling that I had nothing to show for entire days, weeks or months of work. Research often requires us to sift through articles and books in order to determine which ones are relevant, and undoubtedly some will not be. This is the equivalent of a scientist having to do countless experiments that fail before one succeeds. Even though I knew on some level that this is what my research would entail, I still held on to the expectation that it should be a simple and direct path; in actuality it is a series of uneven steps that – by its very nature – required me to go in fits and starts, and sometimes in circles, before I got to where I wanted to go. This is something I didn’t appreciate at all, and as a result I felt incredibly frustrated throughout.

Having met several doctoral students who have fallen into the same trap that I was once in, it seems clear to me that we need a better benchmark for assessing our progress when it comes to completing longer-term projects – a way where we can stop attaching to the outcome. So I started to think about strategies for how we might begin to approach big tasks as a process instead of focusing on the intended outcome.

The main tool that I’ve found to be quite useful is journaling. At the end of my work day, I spend a few moments writing out what I did that day. Not as a way to police or berate myself for not having done more, but specifically as a way to remind myself of the nature of the project, which cannot be completed in one day, but in a series of smaller baby steps. It allows me to feel forward movement, even on days when I get stuck and go in circles, because I can then start to acknowledge that this is just part of the process. What this does is build up some positive momentum and put me in a better space to recognize that I am on my way. It allows for the fact that it’s a messy road and not a straight one.

While we all know this on some level, I feel like it hasn’t been properly articulated, and hence I see so many students and colleagues frustrated with how they approach their work. It’s nice to know that something as simple as a journal can make all the difference in the world to our mindset. Adopting this technique can allow us to relax and leave greater space for the excitement and passion that drove us to dedicate years of our life and mental energy to such a big project in the first place.

What Makes You Valuable?

prizes

‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same.’

The quote above is taken from the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. I must admit that this line had confused me for many years. I couldn’t understand why Kipling was suggesting that we treat triumph and disaster just the same when we are taught exactly the opposite, that we should actively seek out opportunities to win in life and avoid disaster at any cost.

This is certainly what we are taught in academia. We are pleased when we receive high marks, proud when our books are published and celebrate when we obtain large research grants. But there is another side to this delight and that is the despair and disappointment that sets in when things do not go our way. When our marks are less than what we desired, when our manuscript is rejected and when we don’t get the research funding we applied for.

Although these might feel like entirely opposite experiences, there is actually some degree of overlap between the two. In both cases, that is the delight in our triumph and despair in our disasters, we have tied our sense of self to our achievements. One of the consequences of this is that our value and worth become entirely dependent on things outside of us.

While it is understandable to be delighted when things go our way and disappointed when they do not, neither should impinge upon our sense of self. For if we measure our value in relation to how much we achieve, we are setting ourselves up for a fall.

If we can begin to shift away from identifying ourselves with what we achieve, we will not only remove a major source of stress in our lives, it would allow us to reconnect with the passion and enthusiasm that drove us towards a particular path in the first place. It is easy to lose sight of this passion when we are busy chasing ‘success’.

It’s time to starting thinking of ourselves as valuable, not for what we do in the world, but simply for who we are, and to be grounded enough to weather our triumphs and disasters with an equal measure of grace.

‘I’ll Be Happy When…’

to-do-list

How often do you find yourself uttering the words ‘I’ll be so happy when it’s done’? The ‘it’ in this sentence could be any number of things, but it usually refers to a particular project or task you are working on.

I found myself saying this seemingly harmless phrase all throughout my time as a student. First it was ‘I’ll be happy when my exams are over’ and then it was ‘I’ll be happy when my dissertation is done.’ By the time I reached the PhD level, I felt as though nothing could give me greater satisfaction than completing my thesis. Surely this was the moment when I could finally relax and be happy – after all, the PhD was the highest degree I could obtain and the culmination of several years of hard work, so what could possibly come next?

As soon as I had jumped over the PhD hurdle, I quickly found out that there was a host of further ‘I’ll be happy whens’ waiting for me on the other side: I’ll be happy when I land my first academic post; I’ll be happy when I publish my thesis as a book; I’ll be happy when I get my first major research grant, and the list goes on and on. It literally never ends, as there is always something else to reach for and something else to be done.

So waiting until things are crossed off a ‘to do’ list before relaxing and taking a breath is not a sustainable approach to work. It also makes us prone to ignoring the importance of enjoying life – even in the midst of writing a conference paper, marking, or whatever the task may be. Moreover, by placing so much emphasis on getting things ‘done’ and reaching our destination, it’s all too easy to overlook the satisfaction that comes from the steps we take along our path.

Coming to grips with the reality that there will always be things on my ‘to do’ list has encouraged me to stop saying ‘I’ll be happy when’ and to instead ask: how can I be happy now?

Being Present

present

I remember when I was in school my teachers would begin each class by taking attendance. This would usually involve the teacher calling out the name of each student from a class list, to which we would respond ‘present.’ Although I didn’t give much thought to it at the time, taking attendance was an excellent way to start a lesson by bringing everyone’s focus into the classroom.

Taking roll call is not a common practice in higher education institutions. By the time a student reaches this level, it is usually down to them to decide whether or not to attend classes. In any case, since university attendance is generally quite high, there doesn’t appear to be much need to do a roll call prior to lectures and seminars.

Over the years, however, I’ve realized that physically showing up to a class by no means equates to being present in the room. Much of it has to do with the fact that nearly every student today carries a laptop to class. As we’ve moved away from handwriting to typing, a laptop is seen as an essential tool for learning. Yet, it’s also a device that people use in their leisure time. I can’t help but notice a surge in students who simultaneously type notes while skyping friends and surfing the web in the middle of a class.

The inability to focus is not just an affliction that affects today’s students. The tendency to be present without being fully present has become so widespread in our society. For instance, in restaurants, it has become more common than not to see half (if not all) of the people at a table with their eyes glued to their phones. Similarly, the tendency to walk whilst texting seems to be increasing. We seem to be perpetually distracted and completely incapable of focusing on one task whether it’s walking, having dinner or sitting in a classroom.

The inability to be present is deeply problematic. It means that we are less focused and as a consequence, more scattered in our actions and thoughts. It pulls us in several different directions, makes the tasks we are working on less enjoyable, and allows for a higher degree of accidents! It also detracts from our ability to interact with one another. So there are many good reasons to consciously work on our capacity to be fully present.

Although it may not be possible for instructors at university level to start doing a roll call, there are other strategies that can help students in bringing their focus into the present moment. This could involve getting everyone to switch off their devices at the start of a class; taking a few moments to centre and calm everyone before jumping into a lesson; asking students to consciously let go of any thoughts or concerns regarding what they were doing prior to the class and what they need to do after; or simply stating the intentions for the lesson at the outset. These simple strategies can also assist an instructor in getting into the present moment before a class.

Not only would this set a positive tone for each class, and therefore make the experience of learning more enjoyable, it would help create a habit of developing greater presence both inside and outside of the classroom.

How Do You Start Your Day?

morning

For many of us, the morning is far from our favourite time of day. We often dread the sound of our alarm clocks and wish that we could stay in bed for just a little bit longer. It also seems that no matter how early we wake up, there never seems to be enough time in the morning.

It’s no wonder then that mornings have a bad rep. Mornings have become associated with tiredness, rushing, and feeling overwhelmed as we think about all of the things we have to do that day.

It goes without saying that what we do in the morning is crucial in setting the tone for the day ahead. Yet so many of the things that have become part of our morning rituals actually make the day ahead more challenging.

This includes going immediately into work mode by checking our emails and text messages before we’ve even gotten out of bed; heightening our stress levels by watching or reading fear-based news; and drinking coffee, which gives us a jolt of energy but may simultaneously accelerate our heart rate and increase anxiety levels.

Instead of relying on these habitual morning practices, why not try to consciously ease into your day. So before jumping into work mode and reading emails, perhaps take a short walk outside. Studies have shown that consistent exposure to natural light can dramatically influence our productivity, performance and general health.

Rather than relying on coffee or tea for a morning boost, try drinking lemon water, which (in addition to other health benefits) has been touted for its capacity to stimulate the digestive tract.

And rather than reading the news first thing in the morning, perhaps save it for later in the day and read something inspirational or listen to some relaxing music instead.

Integrating these simple practices into your daily routine can dramatically reduce your stress levels and put you in a much better space to enjoy the day ahead.

How to Start and Sustain a Meditation Practice

yoga

In one of my earlier posts (‘How Meditation Can Change Your Brain’) I explored the scientific evidence behind meditation. Despite the growing body of evidence in its favour, the process of beginning and sustaining a meditation practice can still feel quite daunting. As many reasons as there are to begin meditating, there seem to be an equal number of reasons and excuses not to.

I’ve found it quite useful to acknowledge this underlying resistance and confront it head on. With this in mind, I will discuss some of my own objections to starting a meditation practice and the strategies I’ve used to overcome this resistance.

1) ‘I’m too busy to meditate’

The first and most common objection to meditating is the feeling that we simply do not have enough time. As busy students and academics, there never seems to be enough hours in the day as it is, so how can we justify an additional item on our to-do lists?

Each day we take the time to do a number of tasks that we deem to be essential (such as eating, brushing our teeth, showering and sleeping), yet when it comes to meditating it can feel like a struggle to find the time. Very often this struggle stems from the perception of meditation as an optional indulgence – something which we can do when we aren’t so busy. The truth is that meditating can be of equal, if not greater, importance than these other daily tasks, and it is actually when we at our busiest and most overwhelmed that we would benefit from it the most.

I’ve often found that when it comes to starting a meditation practice, what is crucial is not the actual amount of time we dedicate to it, but the simple act of showing up to meditate on a regular basis. So even if it means taking just a few minutes at the end of each day to centre yourself and focus on your breath, this small action can go a long way towards developing a daily meditation practice.

2) ‘I’m confused about what to do’

 As meditating has become increasingly popularized, so have the range of different meditating styles and techniques. This often leads to questions, and sometimes confusion, over which methods work best. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed? Am I meant to repeat a mantra while I meditate? Should I listen to music or is it best to have complete silence? Are guided meditations recommended or not?

Irrespective of these different meditation styles and techniques, what they all have in common is an emphasis on slowing down our thoughts and becoming more present. None are better or worse than others and the key is to find what works best for you. This may involve a process of trial and error. It could be that on certain days you enjoy meditating in complete silence, whereas on other days you may find a guided meditation more comfortable.

It’s completely ok to experiment with different methods and then decide which you prefer. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong, and it’s simply a matter of finding out what suits you best.

3) ‘I’m not good at this’

The final part of resistance to meditating derives from our ever present inner critic – the one which constantly tells us we aren’t doing it right because we can’t get our thoughts to stop. Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions relating to meditation. The goal is not (and never could be) to push away all distractions and to stop our thoughts. Instead, it is to simply slow down the pace of our thoughts, and to become more aware. In so doing, we learn to observe our thoughts without judgment.

Because of our over active human minds, there will inevitably be days when slowing down our thoughts will feel more challenging and when we will succumb to distractions – this is inevitable and it applies to even the most experienced meditators among us. The key is to accept these ups and downs with patience and compassion for ourselves, and then to bring these same qualities into our daily lives, and in our interactions with others.

This raises an important lesson I’ve learned about meditation, which continues to fascinate me and also comfort me on the days when I feel most distracted. Contrary to what many people believe, meditating actually has very little to do with what happens on our meditation cushion. The judgments relating to how good we are at it are not only misplaced, they also overlook the fundamental purpose of meditating.

The objective is not to measure how long we can sit in silence for; instead, the purpose of meditating is to actively cultivate certain qualities within ourselves that we can carry out into the world.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful. If you have any questions or would like some more tips on how to start and sustain your meditation practice, feel free to email me at academease@gmail.com.

All Work and No Play: Are 24-Hour University Libraries a Good Idea?

24 Hours

In recent years there has been a noticeable expansion in wellbeing-related activity across many higher education institutions. Nearly every university now has a designated welfare officer or welfare rep, and an increasing number of institutions are starting to organise wellbeing events throughout the academic year. This growing commitment towards wellbeing has, however, occurred alongside another trend which constitutes a significant step back for advancing wellbeing in higher education – the introduction of 24-hour libraries.

In a study conducted by the Guardian, 77% of students that were surveyed indicated their preference for libraries to remain open around-the-clock. In their continuing bid to attract students, many Universities across the UK, including Leeds, Reading, LSE and King’s, have responded by extending library hours.

Among the reasons given by the students who have made this request is a desire for greater flexibility and more convenience. This may stem from the fact that students today tend to juggle their studies with other commitments, and may therefore need to use the library outside of regular hours.

Although the desire for convenience and flexibility is understandable, there is a considerable difference between late opening hours and 24-hour opening. Whatever the reasons are, working through the night and into the early hours of the morning does have a negative impact on wellbeing, as Bridget O’Connell of the mental health charity Mind has highlighted:

“While it is good that universities are allowing students to access libraries at a time that suits them, there is the concern that it could result in students feeling that they should be spending every spare moment studying. This is not a sustainable approach. Extended periods of pressure, including a lack of sleep, not eating properly, a lack of getting outdoors and exercising can all have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.”

Some Universities have opted for something of a middle ground and now offer 24-hour opening during exam periods only. Yet this approach is even more problematic, as it is specifically in times of intense pressure and stress that health and wellbeing so often take a back seat. Keeping libraries open at all hours during exam periods simply buys into the idea that academic performance should be prioritized over everything else (including sleep!).

Another point to bear in mind is that stress does not automatically end the moment a student graduates. Although they may be free of exams and dissertation writing, they will undoubtedly encounter other pressures in life. As such, the higher education community has a responsibility to consider not only the content of the curriculum, but also how students approach their studies and commitments. This includes providing an environment that fosters healthy working patterns and strategies for managing stress.

By having libraries remain open all night, universities are sending the wrong message to their students and enabling a terrible habit that will make it harder for them to cope with stress in the future.

While I can appreciate that Universities want to do all they can to continue attracting students, this objective should not come at the expense of wellbeing.

The Trouble with ‘Keep Calm and Study On’

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but do you know where the phrase comes from? It was actually coined by the UK’s Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Government printed the phrase on a number of motivational posters at the height of the war in order to boost the morale of the British public throughout the war effort. The sentiments behind the poster are commonly seen as a testament to the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, which is essentially a form of stoicism in the face of adversity.

Keep Calm

Since that time, the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been co-opted for several other purposes. These days it is impossible to walk into a greeting card shop without seeing various incarnations of this phrase applied to other situations. So I was very interested when I wandered into one university book shop and spotted a card that read ‘Keep Calm and Study On.’ Although the card was intended as a joke, the meaning isn’t too far off from the general approach towards work and stress management in academia.

There tends to be a belief that, irrespective of how challenging or difficult a task may be, whenever we confront a stumbling block we should ‘power through’. This was certainly the approach that was practiced when I was a student and I continue to see colleagues adhering to the ethos of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ when it comes to their own work.

But I can’t help but wonder – is a war analogy entirely appropriate for coping with academic stress? The message it sends is that we should overlook how we are feeling in any given moment in order to complete the task at hand.

I can definitely attest to instances when I’ve set aside feeling overwhelmed, stressed and tired – perhaps turning to caffeine or sugar to give me the quick boost I need to power through. In such moments it was as though nothing was more important than completing whatever task I had on my plate, whether it was writing a book chapter, answering emails, marking, or preparing a presentation. Many of us have developed a pattern of approaching our work in this way.

Ignoring how one feels may be necessary in the context of a war, but should we really be stoic when it comes to our work?

The reality is that applying a stiff upper lip approach towards our studies and work can be quite detrimental. The more we ignore how we feel, both physically and mentally, the more we set ourselves up for unhappiness, chronic stress, and a host of other health-related challenges. But irrespective of the consequences, once we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting our physical and mental wellbeing, it can be a tough habit to break.

Our work and studies should not be viewed as a struggle or something to simply get through. This is perhaps what is most misleading about the ‘Keep Calm and Study On’ ethos in academia. It teaches us that our work is meant to be a struggle and that we shouldn’t expect it to be enjoyable.

The truth is that it is entirely possible to enjoy our work and it is actually when we take good care of ourselves that things flow. It’s when we don’t that our work tends to take double the amount of time and feels like a slog.

In order to get into the space where our work can flow, it is crucial that we resist the inclination to power through it at all costs and to start to consciously pay attention to how we are feeling. In other words, it requires us to reject the notion of keeping calm and carrying on.

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain

In my previous post I discussed the reluctance within academia to incorporate wellness tools in higher education institutions. Part of this reluctance may derive from the uncertainty surrounding the actual impact of wellness tools on health and wellbeing. In this post I will explore some of the latest scientific evidence, which objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain.

Electric Brain

Just as humanity used to believe the world was flat, the medical community once considered the human brain to be a relatively static organ. On average, the brain was thought to reach its developmental peak around our mid-20s, after which we would experience the inevitable atrophy of one of our most complex and valued organs. This assumed trajectory of the brain’s development has provided little hope for reversing some of the most common neurological disorders of our time, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which has continued to steadily increase.

However, through the discovery of something called neuroplasticity, medical researchers have now begun to challenge many long-standing assumptions in the field of neuroscience. Far from being a static organ, neuroplasticity reveals the human brain to be much more dynamic and adaptable than previously thought. In conjunction with this discovery, advancements in technology have opened up the possibility of scientifically measuring changes in the brain over time. Among the types of activities that have recently been subject to scientific investigation is the impact of meditation on the brain.

A vast amount of literature has accumulated over the years on the positive impacts of meditation for general health and wellbeing. Across several studies, meditation has been correlated with alleviating symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Meditators have also reported experiencing lower levels of stress and a general improvement in their overall quality of life. Despite this continuously expanding body of evidence in favour of meditation, many of the studies that have been undertaken to date have relied upon entirely subjective research methods. It was this fact that inspired a team of neuroscientists at Harvard University to objectively assess the impact of meditation on the brain using a technique called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The experiments, which were led by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, consisted of selecting two groups across a similar demographic that had not previously meditated. Dr Lazar’s team put one of the groups on an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme involving a daily guided meditation while the control group were instructed to continue with their daily routines as normal. Participants in the MBSR group reportedly spent an average of 27 minutes per day meditating.

While MRI scans showed no significant changes among the control group, Dr Lazar’s team found some startling results in the group of meditators. After just 8 weeks of meditating, MRI scans revealed notable changes in a number of areas of the brain including an increase in cortical thickness or gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, pre-frontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction – parts of the brain associated with memory, concentration, cognition, decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. The scans also revealed a decreased activation and stilling of the Default Mode Network (DMN), responsible for directionless thought and mind wandering, as well as a decrease in the size of the amygdala – the focal point of the brain’s fight or flight stress response mechanism. What these findings reveal is that meditation can literally change the structure of the brain!

Here is a clip of Dr Lazar explaining her motivations for this research, the methods her team applied and the implications of their findings:

This is a fascinating and powerful scientific discovery that objectively confirms the benefits of meditation for the brain. What is perhaps most exciting about these findings is that these positive neurological changes can be observed in as little as 8 weeks.

Please stay tuned for my next post, which will explore tips and techniques for integrating a meditation practice into your daily routine.

Photo Credit: ‘Electric Brain‘ © Michael Coghlan (2012) CC Licence