Are there certain situations that, no matter what you do, seem to cause your nerves to completely spike?
For many people, public speaking is one such circumstance.
As they stand up to speak, their hands instantly begin to tremble. Their voices change from steady to shaky. Beads of sweat pool at the top of their temples, and they can feel their faces reddening. Worry and sleeplessness take over in the days before, and sometimes even after.
These symptoms can become so uncomfortable that any speaking event, big or small, is a miserable experience, and one that should be avoided altogether.
This is an example of what’s known as situational anxiety.
What exactly is situational anxiety?
Situational anxiety is a specific type of anxiety that occurs during unfamiliar situations or events that make us so nervous that we lose control of our ability to stay calm.
And it’s incredibly common, especially when it comes to public speaking. But there are other situations that can cause anxiety levels to elevate.
These can include:
- Going to a job interview
- Attending a networking event
- Meeting someone for a first date
- Riding an airplane
- Sharing an opinion during a meeting
- Making small talk with new acquaintances
- Being away from home
- Using a public restroom
- Leading a meeting or discussion
- Standing alone in a public place
It’s important to note that situational anxiety is not necessarily the same as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is a continuous state of worry despite the situation.
What does situational anxiety feel like?
Situational anxiety can cause both a mind a body response, triggering physical as well as emotional symptoms.
These can include:
- Low self-esteem
- Shaky hands
- Muscle tension
- Chest pains
- Sweaty palms
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shallow breathing
Anxiety is very personal and people may experience different symptoms from one another.
Additionally, symptoms can vary based on the specific situation at hand. For example, someone who’s afraid of public speaking might experience a shaky voice and flushing in their face. On the other hand, someone who’s nervous before a big interview might experience sleeplessness and sweaty palms.
How to Relieve Situational Anxiety
Not only is situational anxiety uncomfortable and frustrating, but it can have real consequences. It can hold people back in their careers, affect personal relationships, and lower self-esteem levels.
But there’s good news: there are ways to cope with situational anxiety.
Exposure therapy is a technique commonly used to help people overcome a fear by intentionally “exposing” themselves to something they fear.
In practice, it isn’t quite as extreme as it may sound. The idea here isn’t to jump head first into a situation that scares you; instead, it’s to take a series of small steps over time to gradually help you feel more comfortable when you’d typically feel anxious.
Science of Us Editor Melissa Dahl used exposure therapy to figure out why she felt embarrassment so intensely. She wanted to understand why memories of her awkwardness would suddenly reemerge in her mind, causing her to relive her humiliation over and over again, something Melissa dubbed “cringe attacks”. Most importantly, though, she wanted to discover how she could learn to embrace these feelings rather than shy away from them.
Melissa’s book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness covers the series of challenges she took with the hope of learning to be more accepting of her feelings.
For example, she had a difficult conversation with a friend who had a completely different set of political beliefs than herself. She danced in the middle of a circle, leading a group through the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” during an improv class. She even auditioned and performed for a live edition of Mortified, a show that invites people to read aloud from their childhood journals in front of an audience.
Build a Routine
Once you have an understanding of what types of situations make you anxious and where your fear is coming from, you can then start to come up with strategies to help you dissipate that anxiety and improve your performance.
One of the most common ways to do this is by creating a “pre-performance routine”.
Think of it as practice or a dress rehearsal for whatever it is you’re preparing for.
The goal here is to calm yourself by going through the motions of everything you’ll be doing so that it becomes familiar. Familiarity can help decrease stress because it means you’re already used to something.
This can include drawing up a plan with as many details as possible. For example, if you’re preparing for an interview, find out how many people will be in the room and who they are. This way it won’t be a shock when you walk into the room. Then, make a list of everything you’ll need to take that day so you don’t forget anything.
Setting yourself up to be as prepared as possible before a big event arrives will help keep you calm.
But perhaps the most important preparation advice is the most basic. When we’re feeling extra busy or particularly anxious, it’s easy to forget to practice self-care.
According to registered psychologist Dr. Ganz Ferrance:
“Anything that puts you in a calmer state is going to give you more capacity to handle stress when it shows up. When you feel comfortable and calm in the regular part of your life, you have a much better chance of staying calm when you’re in front of people you need to give a presentation to. Typically, people in our culture don’t sleep enough or we live on coffee, cigarettes, and fast food. So our bodies, before we show up to a presentation, are already in a state of stress because we haven’t been treating them very well. And so it doesn’t take much to get us to overreact. We fall apart, and then, of course, we judge ourselves when we fall apart. And that just makes it worse for next time.”
Ask for help
If your anxiety is troubling you or if you feel like it’s getting in the way of you navigating through your daily life, it’s important to ask for help.
It’s frustrating to feel like we don’t have control over our own bodies, especially during big moments such as presentations or interviews. But there are many different options available that can help, including different types of medications, therapies, and other coping techniques.
Try speaking with your primary care doctor or psychiatrist about what options might work for you.
Or if approaching a doctor in-person about your anxiety makes you uncomfortable, there are several sites and apps available that are dedicated to offering mental health support in a digital setting.
Situational anxiety may feel like it’s getting in your way, but it doesn’t have to. Preparing yourself with a pre-performance routine, exercising your mental fitness with exposure therapy, and asking for help when you need can help you overcome your situational anxiety and reach your goals.
Author Bio: Katy Tripses is the Growth Lead at Kick Health, which helps self-aware, ambitious, and capable professionals overcome the situational fears that hold them back.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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