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How to Recognize and Prevent a Public Speaking Panic Attack

How to recognize and prevent a public speaking panic attack.

Do you suffer from presentation anxiety—and its worst outcome, an overwhelming need to escape? Here's how to recognize and prevent a public speaking panic attack! 

If you were given a 45-minute warning before a panic attack, would you find that information useful? And if you knew about two specific actions you can take to prevent or lessen the symptoms, wouldn't you want to give them a try?

Are pre-speech jitters (or worse) a problem for you? Learn to love public speaking instead! Get my free cheat sheet"10 Fast and Effective Ways to Overcome Stage Fright."   

In my speech coaching practice, I work with professionals of all stripes concerning ways you can overcome fear of public speaking. Though people the world over suffer from glossophobia or stage fright, the worst manifestation is an actual panic attack. It's one thing to be over- activated and anxious during a presentation—but it's another thing entirely to feel that you need to escape the situation immediately.  

Add to that the realization that you'll suffer, at best, humiliation, and at the worst, severe consequences where your job and career are concerned, and you can appreciate how miserable this extreme response brought on by public speaking anxiety can make a speaker.

 How to overcome a panic attack using breathing and heart rate.

The Feeling of Being Ambushed by a Panic Attack

Panic attacks can often seem to "come out of the blue." One moment, you're focusing on the task at hand; and the next, you're in the grip of what feels like a life-and-death situation. But research has shown that isn't the case—that, in fact, these attacks advertise themselves nearly an hour before they hit. And the implication here is that by paying attention to some subtle signs, you can both anticipate the moment of crisis and prepare yourself in time.

A study in Biological Psychiatry began with this widely accepted hypothesis of spontaneous and unobservable onset. That is, that there are no discernible "cues or triggers" for panic attacks, and "physiological arousal or instability should [only] occur at the onset of, or during, the attack." Through the use of 24-hour monitoring of panic disorder patients, however, the research team discovered that there are, in fact, measurable changes occurring in respiration, heart rate, and levels of skin conductance "as early as 47 minutes before panic onset."[1]

 Breathing and respiration can help you anticipate a panic attack.

How to Monitor and Control Your 'Panic Indicators'

The fact that key physiological changes linked with a panic attack could be measured beforehand was, apparently, the critical finding in this study. Yet, aside from skin conductance level, the physical changes mentioned should not be a surprise for trained speech coaches helping people overcome speech anxiety.

They know all about increased heart rate and rapid shallow breathing.

These are, in fact, the two areas I work with clients in to help them recognize the physical forms of stage fright, and to calm themselves in the face of speech anxiety. Here, for instance, is a 5-minute technique to calm your fear of public speaking

That's a helpful exercise to generally put you in a calmer state and to reach a greater level of mindfulness. But what about heading off those panic attacksthe ultimate form of anxiety that can actually force you from the stage? Given the study mentioned here that offers nearly an hour's warning concerning what's coming, it makes sense to develop a more acute sensitivity to your breathing and heart rate.

To begin: Measure your normal respiration rate. That's the number of times you complete the cycle of inhalation + exhalation in one minute. Whatever your number is, treat that as your baseline. That gives you the information you need to pay attention if you're starting to breathe more rapidly (and probably, more shallowly). Similarly, your resting pulse rate versus a sudden speeding up or galloping is another indication that you're now much more activated.

Of course, there are many beneficial and enjoyable reasons your pulse and breathing may be increasing. But what the research seems to be showing is that, if these physiological changes are occurring because you have a presentation coming up, you can use self-monitoring to put yourself in a stronger position to manage them effectively. 

[1] A.E. Meuret, D. Rosenfield, F.H. Wilhelm, E. Zhou, A. Conrad, T. Ritz, W.T. Roth, “Do Unexpected Panic Attacks Occur Spontaneously?” Biological Psychiatry, 2011 Nov 15;70(10):985-91. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.05.027. Epub 2011 Jul 23.

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