The auditorium was packed that first Intro to Public Speaking class, ranging from enthusiastic freshmen to focused juniors. The chatter of my peers surrounding me was so loud that it almost became quiet, like the buzzing of telephone lines at midnight. My eyes scanned the crowded the seats for what seemed like an eternity until my roommate’s ruby red hair caught my eye. I made my way to her and found my other roommate holding a seat for me. We greeted each other, asking about our classes, when the lights started to dim.
Someone started to speak, but I couldn’t hear any of what they were saying. My head was spinning, like a scuffed-up CD disc skipping over and over again. I blocked out all other noise and all I could hear was my professor going over the syllabus, reading about all the speeches that would be required of us.
Thirty seconds: That’s all it took after being released from my first Intro to Public Speaking class before I could feel my eyes sting.
I closed my eyelids and immediately felt a puddle of tears begin to build up underneath. It took all of me not to sprint back to my apartment on campus, hide in my room and cry until I fell asleep.
I always dreaded public speaking. Like most people, I got extremely nervous whenever I had to present anything in school. In high school, I realized that the panic I experienced weeks leading up to a presentation was extreme. I knew that some nerves were completely normal. I thought what I was feeling was just that until I talked with my friends. They shrugged it off and admitted it wasn’t something they were excited to do, but it also wasn’t something they constantly thought about it.
To be frank, this kind of freaked me out. Why was I obsessively worrying about this? A few years later I learned that I have an anxiety disorder that made my extreme nerves make sense. But just because I knew this bit of information about myself didn’t mean it was all suddenly going to go away.
I knew that anxiety in college was going to be an ongoing struggle.
Some time after that first speech class, I was at a service at the campus chapel. Chapel was almost done with its music portion when out of nowhere a sudden wave of panic about my impending speeches hit me. I was reading along with the lyrics just fine until a surge of nervous energy jolted into my body and my breathing became shallow. A familiar sting came to my eyes as my brain started racing, panicking. Looking towards the exits in desperation, I planned my escape. I needed to leave. I subtly snuck out and the moment my feet hit the pavement outside, the tears unleashed themselves.
Rushing to my apartment, I tried calling my mom. She didn’t answer and so I tried every other immediate family member. No one picked up. I knew I was having a panic attack and needed to do something. When I got to my apartment, I was alone. I started to consider every option I had that could avoid or eliminate public speaking all together.
My go-to plan of action was the unsuccessful, unhealthy route I had always chosen: avoid the problem for as long as possible. Could I drop the class and take it some other time? Could I somehow find a way to not take it at all? When my roommates finally discovered me in our apartment, panicked and crying, they posed a different option that I never wanted to consider: talking to my professor.
Send him a quick e-mail asking to meet up, they suggested. That made me pause. With most of my panic attacks, I always just avoided what caused them. I never actually tried to work through it. I knew this was unhealthy, but it was the easiest thing to do. But this option was now unavoidable, as I had two people right in front of me offering up their reasonable advice.
I sent my professor an e-mail and within minutes he replied asking if we could meet. We decided on a time and place and, before I knew it, I was in his office in tears. I explained that I had extreme anxiety about speaking in front of the class. Letting it all out, I made myselfcompletely vulnerable, and he just sat and listened. I had never been so open with a teacher before, and the feeling was indescribable. After all my crying and explaining, he looked at me with determination.
“Alright, here’s the game plan,” he said.
We spent the next hour figuring out how I was going to get through this class and pass. I would speak in front of the class four times: two video speeches, one three-minute story-telling and one full-on speech in the front of the class. That already made me feel less overwhelmed and calm. He told me that we need to focus on the big speech. He helped me take a step back, analyze everything before making a decisio, and figure out what my “game plan” was.
Throughout the course, he checked up on me. We would figure out the way I would tackle these tasks. I was so used to quick, irrational decisions made to avoid the source of my anxiety. Instead, he showed me that I didn’t have to face it alone.
Fast forward to the end of the semester, I walked out of my Intro to Public Speaking class not only with an A+, but also with a new outlook on how to deal with my anxiety. Instead of looking at the whole picture in panic, I looked at each step with determination.
With the help of my roommates, I also realized that using your professors as tools when stressed or overwhelmed is normal and encouraged. No one should feel ashamed for seeking their professors for help in tackling a problem.
I knew the challenge of tackling my fear of presenting in front of the class would await me in college. However, I always thought I would have to face it alone. This was not the case. Since this class, whenever I hear that we have to present in various classes, I react completely differently. My heart still jumps a little bit, but that is something that will probably always happen to me. The difference is in my thought process after the initial heart jump. Instead of completely panicking and thinking of all the possible ways to get out of speaking, I calmly accept that this is something I’ll have to do.
I approach it the same way that my professor did in my first year at Fox. I take a deep breath and tell myself, “Alright Molly, here’s the game plan…”