Are you the rare person who’s never nervous when giving a book talk? If so, be grateful. Most people have some version of performance anxiety when promoting their books. If you’re one of those, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone and you can overcome your stage fright.
Nicole Kidman has admitted her hands shake and she has trouble breathing in red carpet situations with all those cameras focused on her. Rock singer Rod Stewart remembers a 1968 performance at New York’s Fillmore East theater when he was so nervous he hid behind a stack of speakers for his first song.
I once read, in a Book of Lists, not only do a significant number of people list their greatest fear as speaking in public, this ranks above fear of death.
You may think your performance anxiety attacks have power over you, even avoid triggering situations entirely, not realizing you’re feeding the fear by reinforcing the belief “I can’t do this.” In his book Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks, Dr. R. Reid Wilson writes:
Our instinctual defenses fail to overcome panic. In fact, they actually support the recurrence of anxiety attacks. We encourage and strengthen the power of panic by treating it as our ‘enemy,’ to be avoided or to be battled … . Whenever you resist something, that something will persist.
In fact, there are proven ways to break these patterns. A paradoxical approach is my favorite: locate the symptom and exaggerate it! This defies logic, I know, but it seems to communicate directly with the unconscious and knock it silly. Practice this on your own for several days or weeks before trying it in front of a group:
- Imagine you’re about to give a talk (or remember the last time you had stage fright).
- Notice where in your body you feel the most tension, and slightly exaggerate the physical sensation. If your stomach is clenched in a knot, focus your attention on that knot.
- Find the most fitting label for what you’re experiencing. Keep exaggerating the sensation and trying out labels until you feel a fit (“It’s like a huge vise, slowly crushing my stomach into the shape of a pea.”)
- Notice how your physical sensations lessen each time you locate and exaggerate the symptom.
- When you’re about to speak in public, even if some of the old tension shows up, you’ll be able to find, exaggerate, and label it in seconds, then go ahead with your talk. The anxiety will be gone.
A slightly more complicated but highly effective process is systematic desensitization and visualization. You practice ahead of a triggering event by creating a hierarchy from your least feared aspect of the event (“I feel a little nervous when I think about what to wear that night”) to most feared (“Someone in the audience is obviously bored and thinks I’m an idiot”).
- Start by picturing the least feared step on your hierarchy, breathe deeply, relax, and visualize it happening, gauging your level of anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10. Do this once or twice a day until your level of anxiety reduces at least a degree or two on your scale.
- When you feel ready, move to the next step in your hierarchy. Continue to breathe deeply, relax, and gauge your anxiety. Do this once or twice a day until your level of anxiety reduces at least a degree or two on your scale.
- Continue in this way with each higher step in your anxiety hierarchy. Over a period of days or weeks you’ll be able to picture what used to be your most anxiety-producing situation while feeling relatively calm and relaxed.
If you prefer a more social setting to overcome your stage fright, Toastmasters works for reasons similar to the above: members practice, practice, practice. WAG member Susie Baxter says, “Before I joined, my heart raced, my legs shook, and my voice quivered. I found Toastmasters to be a very supportive environment, in part because I knew others in the room had the same, almost paralyzing fear of public speaking. Together, with support and practice, we overcame it. I think repetition is key ‒ and seeing you don’t die each time you present gives you confidence to do it again.”
As Susie has, allow yourself to laugh about your anxiety. So you’ve had the #1 fear in the United States. Not a big deal, especially now that you can look forward to speaking in public. And, here’s cause for celebration: at least you don’t have bibliophobia (fear of books)!