Thursday, 17 April 2008

Social phobia: public speaking for wimps

I have social phobia and I’m not just saying that. I have actual panic attacks in groups, I sweat when required to divulge information about myself (like, my name), I bloom like a rose, only so much less beautifully, when required to be noticed in a crowd.

My sister, on the other hand, finds group interaction both interesting and stimulating. Trained as a teacher (and she was a very good one), she quickly branched off into adult education and has never looked back. She loves her job and genuinely connects with her classes.

A few years ago she identified a gap in her curriculum (she runs a company that trains professionals in the basics of written communication) and asked me to fill it. I was keen: I know my stuff because I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and my passion is words. So I designed the course, never for one minute projecting myself into a future scenario in which I might have to present it.

But of course, if I didn’t, who would?

If you aren’t socially phobic, it’s hard to understand how desperately frightened interacting with strangers actually makes you. I’m not at all concerned about the material I’m presenting – I know it’s valid and useful – but the very fact of facing a room of 25 (hey, even 12 – even five, three!) people is just terrifying. For days before presenting the course I have nightmares – and they’re never about being in a crowd; more often, they involve driving out-of-control in a fast car with no brakes, or falling in a lift, or being trapped in a fire. I get diarrhoea (so much more effective than slimming pills!). I develop ‘nervous breathing’, an anxiety-induced – and, ironically, anxiety-inducing – by-product of asthma in which your lungs never fill properly. I become snappy. And I’m constantly exhausted, no matter how much I sleep.

In the immediate runup to the presentation I develop ‘pre-exam’ symptoms: my fingertips go icy-cold and my brain can deal with little other than getting through the next few minutes – casual conversation is impossible and I often mix up words, giving the impression that I’m either drunk (hah! I wish!) or mental.

As the inevitable happens and the course begins, I segue uncomfortably into a kind of robot reality where things move forward without any willing input on my part: much like, perhaps, being on a train as it hurtles headlong down a hill. All I can do is hang on and make the best of it.

My sister, who doesn’t entirely understand social phobia, often says to me, ‘But surely, after you’ve begun, you relax into it? You get to know the people, there’s interaction, the course flows…?’

Well, no. Every minute, every second, is an exquisite torment.

Good people intent on improving themselves face down difficult scenarios: they jump from aeroplanes or sing in public or swim a stretch of icy ocean.

For me, and for every person who is socially phobic, any interaction with strangers – one or a dozen – is a test of my ability to be human.

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Juno said...

Jay-zuz, Mur, but you're on a roll with your posts tonight! Love them! Keep them rolling...

Becca said...

Interesting post you have here. Social phobia is not easy to overcome. But you can learn from www.whatcausespanicattacks.comabout simple prevention methods. Can be pretty handy.

Melanie Martin said...

Oftentimes generalized fear will turn into a full on social phobia which is a much more severe form of the condition that has now become a psychiatric disorder. The signs here in addition to the extreme self consciousness are severe fear and anxiety to go with it.