Shaky legs, blushing, quick speech with stuttering, sweaty palms – this is how one student experiences anxiety during school presentations.           

Samantha Burtch Whitteker is among 2.6 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older with generalized anxiety disorder. As a second-year student at Trent University, she often struggles with presentations because her symptoms hold her back.

“This affects me academically. If there is a minimum time limit, no matter how much I prepare, I always manage to miss it by a long shot, which decreases my grade because I never meet the requirements,” she says.

Presentation anxiety manifests differently in everyone. As a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, I find myself stuttering, struggling to breathe, losing focus and blushing when presenting. Although experienced differently, it all stems from one place – the mind. But what is it about presentations that causes these anxious responses?

“I think anxiety plays a very significant role in people’s health in terms of emotional and physical well-being. I think in one way, all of us are faced with anxiety,” says Julie McCarthy, a professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus.

Students may feel helpless with presentations because of their anxiety. Personally, I would do anything to avoid the sweating and the shaking. Some students may opt to not do the presentation at all.

“There have been times when I have actually offered to take a zero on a presentation,” Burtch Whitteker says.

McCarthy says we get anxiety because of uncertainty. It is the fear of not having complete control over a situation or not being able to predict the outcome. To overcome this anxiety, she says we must gain control over it.

The best way to do so, according to McCarthy, is to know what kind of anxiety it is. 

Understanding anxieties 

Communication anxiety is the fear of not expressing your words or opinions properly. This occurs for me during conversations, when I focus so intently on the words I am saying that I begin to stutter. That stutter causes more anxiety, as well as a desire to end the conversation.

Appearance anxiety is when you think all eyes are on you, watching how you look and act. “I work myself up a lot and convince myself that everyone is judging me,” Burtch Whitteker says.

Presentation anxiety  involves the fears of not getting a good grade, or the delivery of the presentation not being too strong.           

Behavioural anxiety is a physical reaction to anxiety, where uncomfortable symptoms occur. This can be prevalent in other causes of anxiety, particularly presentation anxiety. This is what causes the symptoms that Burtch Whitteker and I have during presentations.

One of these types of anxiety may be stronger and different patterns may occur. It is important to know what kind of anxiety you are experiencing to know how best to respond.  With a deeper understanding, anxieties can be used to help instead of hinder.

It is the fear of not having complete control over a situation or not being able to predict the outcome. 

McCarthy says although anxiety can take away the ability to concentrate, it can also have a positive effect on performance. Low levels of anxiety can motivate as well as direct attention and focus.

Although I might wish my anxiety away, McCarthy explains that no anxiety at all can be a bad thing, because a person may not feel motivated to practice for the presentation.

“It is not accurate to talk about anxiety as just good or bad,” McCarthy says. “We have to talk about the levels, the context, and how the anxiety influences people in general or, more specifically, in situations.” 

For presentations, the key to success is practice. McCarthy recommends practicing in front of multiple people prior to the presentation. Another strategy is to arrive early and speak with the audience in advance to get used to their presence. She also recommends recording a run-through,  then playing it back for yourself. You may find you do not appear as nervous as you felt.

In an  article co-written by McCarthy, she explains that nervousness can deceive self-perception, and make it difficult for people to evaluate their performance accurately.

 “Even if you have that fast heart beat or sweaty palms, it is not that easy for people to recognize,” she says.

She adds that it is important for us to to take comfort in this understanding, and use it as a means of coping with anxiety.     

“Understand the more you do it, the less anxious you will be over time. Step back. Force breathing. Say ‘I’ve got this.’ ”

By Elanna Clayton

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