Becoming Stress ProofApr 10, 2023
I recently shared the TEDx talk I gave a few months ago. What I haven't shared yet is the way I prepared for it. I got some strange looks from friends when I initially described my methods, but I think they were brilliant...and they worked.
Before I fill you in on the what and why, let me give you a little context.
I Was Unprepared
I do a lot of public speaking. By choice. I'm one of those weird folks who actually enjoys it. Sure, I get a little anxious right before I start, but I've learned over the years that the sweatiness and butterflies are just my body getting amped up to perform and that the sensations will fade quickly once I get going. I've learned to embrace that part of the experience and to tell myself it's mostly just excitement. It's been a really long time since my anxiety level has gone above, say, a 4 out of 10.
And then there was the live TEDx audition.
This was a 3 minute segment, on zoom, with only 4 people. I repeat. Only 3 minutes, only 4 people, and it was on zoom. I was a little nervous because I really, really wanted to do well, but I was still only at about a 3/10.
That is until the organizer told me I could begin whenever I was ready.
Immediately, my anxiety skyrocketed to a solid 9.5. I was wholly unprepared for the dump of adrenaline that surged through my body. As I opened my mouth to talk, my heart slammed in my chest. I began to speak, gesturing with my hands as I normally do. I happened to glance down and saw my visibly shaking hand. "What is this? This is new! What in the world is going on? What's wrong with me?" I thought with one side of my mind as the other focused on my script. I continued on, in dismay at my anxiety and hoping that I'd rehearsed enough that muscle memory would override whatever was raging through my insides.
When it was over, I sat in astonishment. I was caught completely off guard by the intense anxiety I experienced.
I was delighted to get the notification that I'd made it through the audition and would be speaking at the live event...and I was determined not to get caught off guard like that again. I wanted to enjoy the experience, and I decidedly did NOT want anxiety to hijack me.
This was a different type of speaking than I'd ever done before, namely in that I never memorize scripts word for word. I knew that there would be no substitute for preparation. As much as I like to wing it and am usually pretty good at thinking on my feet, this was not going to be the time or place for that. My entire speaking preparation process had to be revamped.
I wrote my script and memorized it. I practiced my speech about 9 million times in my office. I video taped myself numerous times and watched it back so I could really hear the words and their delivery and make adjustments accordingly. I sent videos to trusted friends to get feedback and fine tune speech rate, inflection, and gestures. I did all of that to prepare and polish my performance.
I assume that's all pretty standard prep work for this kind of speaking event. It's the next part, though, that garnered strange looks but paid off in dividends.
I wanted to be able to perform under pressure, which meant practicing under those same circumstances, to condition myself. I set out to create the speaker version of Navy SEAL training.
The Liam Neeson of Anxiety
As much as I practiced, I knew my talk inside and out. But I knew that no amount of memorization or practice would eliminate anxiety on the big day. And I didn't want to get caught off guard by especially high levels of anxiety when I walked on the stage. I wanted to be able to trust myself to handle an intense adrenaline dump when it really counted.
I knew I needed to prepare specifically for that inevitability. Fortunately, as a psychologist who has studied and treated anxiety for two decades, I've acquired a few tricks.
There's no magic wand to remove anxiety, but as Liam Neeson in Taken said, "What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career." I put those skills to work.
I knew that practicing while I was in a calm state would miss the mark. Instead, I needed to practice my talk while in the same high anxiety state I'd likely be in on stage.
Rather than trying to get my anxiety to go down, I started thinking of ways to ramp it up. I wanted to put my body and mind into that highly anxious state so I could practice coping with that while also performing well. I wanted to inoculate myself against that fight-or-flight response. I wanted to become stress proof.
I practiced while using bright recording lights, as close I could get to the sensation of being in a spotlight at home. I lined up a few live audiences to practice in front of because that was a closer approximation to the real deal than anything I could do at home on my own.
I even used interoceptive exposure, a technique of bringing on the physical sensations of anxiety and panic. Before practicing my talk, I downed some super-caffeinated pre-workout supplement that makes me feel jittery. I hyperventilated. I did squat jumps. Then I practiced my performance. Why? I wanted to get used to the sensations of shaking, heart pounding, light-headedness. I wanted to prove to myself that those sensations would not throw me off my game or cause my mind to go blank, and I wanted the muscle memory in place to perform no matter what state my body was in.
Just like vaccines in which weakened viruses are injected into our bodies so that our immune systems can build up defenses, rendering us immune to that particular invader in the future, we can inoculate ourselves against stress and anxiety.
Sure, we can work on removing or alleviating those stressors or getting used to (desensitized to) triggers, just like we can wash our hands to minimize contact with viruses. But what happens when a caustic agent sneaks up on us? If we are defenseless, we succumb to the attack.
We can use similar principles to help build out defenses against stressful or anxiety-provoking triggers, too. That was my secret weapon (Ok, not really secret. My colleagues in the anxiety world are nodding in agreement. This is pretty standard practice. And I shared my secrets with my fellow speakers, who I assumed would also be nervous, because I wanted them to do well, too).
Preparing for anxiety or stress, embracing the fact that it was going to be there rather than focusing my efforts on trying to prevent or reduce it, gave me an edge. I had practiced under realistic conditions, built my tolerance for those sensations, and assured myself, through repeated experience, that I would not get caught unawares again.
It paid off.
I was anxious before I took the stage. Noticeably higher than my usual 3-4, but nowhere near the surging adrenaline of the audition. And as I strode onto the stage, I knew I'd be able to handle whatever happened. I wasn't anxious about being anxious. Instead, I was just focused on delivering my message and enjoying the challenge.
Stress Awareness Month
April is Stress Awareness Month. It's a time to really think about our relationship and experiences with stress. Are you managing stress well? Can you reduce unnecessary stressors? Can you inoculate yourself against upcoming stress and build your resilience so you can stand tall in the face of it? How might you become stress proof?
If you're ready to get your stress under control, out Stress Management Mini-course can help. Not typically available to the public, we're sharing this powerful tool with our community this month. You can get it through this link.
Now through the end of the month, use coupon code STRESSFREE2023 to get 40%!
"What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career."
- Liam Neeson
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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