Finding your voice in groups and seminars

Advice on how to manage your anxiety and take an active part in study groups and seminars.

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How anxiety tricks you

Fear of speaking up in groups or giving presentations is a very common fear. It is a form of performance anxiety in which a person becomes overly concerned that he or she will look visibly anxious, maybe even have a panic attack while speaking.

People tend to try to protect themselves by either avoiding speaking up or by fighting against their anxiety. By both avoiding and fighting anxiety, we can get tricked into making it worse.


  • Choosing modules where there are no presentations
  • Arriving late for seminars
  • Being ill on the day of presentation
  • Sitting at the back of seminars
  • Doing lots of writing in group discussions so you look busy


  • Trying to ‘get through’ the situation without feeling anxious
  • Hiding all signs of nerves and anxiety
  • Thinking that you must wait until you feel no anxiety before speaking
  • Focusing all attention on not feeling rather than the message you are hoping to deliver

In both examples, attention is focused inwards to the feeling of anxiety which in turn serves to increase it.

We want to rid ourselves if the anxiety we feel before we speak but this is how we get tricked into using methods that actually increase anxiety.


Think of all the things you do when giving a presentation in an effort to feel less afraid, what do you do in an effort to stop feeling anxious? Write them down:

Examples - rush through it, read it, imagine the audience in underwear or wear a lucky shirt.

How do you think these will help to control your anxiety?

Most strategies are designed to:

  • End the presentation as soon as possible
  • Avoid any pauses or interruptions
  • Avoid contact with your listeners
  • Hide the fact that you are anxious

All involve efforts to resist and fight anxiety. They also involve efforts to resist the role of speaker and so avoid using all the powers that come with being a speaker.

Don’t be the un-speaker

By being the un-speaker we try to ‘get through’ the experience without committing to the role of being a speaker. We read, we drone, we overlook the audience and focus on resisting anxiety.

The result of this resistance often leads to more anxiety, the opposite of what you want.


Rushing through your presentation requires that you talk fast. This interferes with your breathing making your breaths short and shallow which in turn increases feelings of anxiety in the body. This can lead to feeling dizzy, faint and confused.

Hurrying also reduces the chance that your listeners can connect or understand what you are saying, the less of a connection you have with your listeners the more uninterested they will seem to you and this perception will increase anxiety.

Ignoring the audience

Anxious speakers will avoid any eye contact with the listeners as above this creates a distance that you may interpret as being hostile. It also means that you cannot notice when people seem interested or have a question both of which may help you feel that you are doing a good job at engaging your listeners.

When your gaze is focused inwards you are more aware of your internal dialogue which if you are anxious is likely to be negative, if you can focus outward you will pay less attention to these negative thoughts.

Fighting to hide your anxiety

Efforts to hide our anxiety creates the additional fear of being ‘found out’ as an anxious person.

Another side effect is that after you have finished speaking even if it has gone well you may take little pride in your success because you will think ‘If they knew how anxious I was they would think less of me’ or ‘I am a fraud’.

If we believe that we are ‘fooling people’ we may never feel the real satisfaction of being authentic and accepted.

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How to become the speaker

We have all heard the expression feel the fear and do it anyway right? This is the essence of exposure therapy, that by exposing ourselves to the situations we fear we can retrain our brains.

It’s not just about ‘getting used to it’, it’s about retraining your brain to stop sending the fear signal when there isn’t any danger.

We struggle against anxiety because we recognise that our fears are exaggerated and illogical. We try to talk ourselves out of feeling anxious, which is often very negative/self-blaming internal dialogue ‘stop it you are being silly, no-one else is anxious, just get on with it, don’t be so pathetic…’

This only increases our anxiety and adds to feelings of low self-worth. So then we end up avoiding the situation which makes us anxious and that in turn just strengthens the belief that there is indeed something to be fearful of otherwise we would not be avoiding it!

Can you see how these thoughts become a circular internal argument?

Can you draw the cycle you get into when it comes to speaking up?

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Understanding anxiety and how it works

Fight, flight or freeze: These are human responses to danger. When we face danger we need to react quickly and powerfully. Part of human evolution has been to give us a highly adapted emergency alert system to keep us out of the jaws of predators.

If our ancestors had relied on the thinking, intellectual part of our brains, called the cerebral cortex, to keep us safe, we would be extinct. It is too slow. The part of the brain that handles fight, flight or freeze responses is a very different more primitive part of the brain.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is a little almond-shaped part of our brain, it works quickly and without our conscious awareness.

You only know that what the Amygdala did when you feel its effects on the body - all the familiar panic sensations (increased heart rate, shaking, dizziness, nausea, sweating etc.) and in your behaviour (duck, run, escape, attack). Your Amygdala does not care how many times it scares you unnecessarily, it just aims to keep you alive.

Your Amygdala is always watching, passively, in the background, for signs of danger. When it sees danger, true or false it presses the fight, flight or freeze button.

When the danger is real this is a good thing but our Amygdala works like it’s still 30,000 B.C and will often make the mistake of seeing danger when there is none.

The Amygdala learns by association not reason or logic

When we run away from whatever the apparent danger is the Amygdala stands down and goes back to quietly watching.

If you ran away from a sabre-toothed tiger that is a good thing but if you ran away from your seminar group this is not so helpful!

Now your Amygdala will be conditioned to see the seminar group as dangerous and will make you feel fearful the next time you encounter it.

This is why you cannot simply talk yourself out of feeling anxiety, the Amygdala does not learn by conscious thought, it learns by conditioning and can only be retrained by conditioning, not discussion or reason.

The Amygdala only learns when you are afraid

The Amygdala only learns when activated, it only forms new associations when you become anxious or fearful. The rest of the time it just watches passively.

So you can see how avoiding what you fear keeps your Amygdala ‘believing’ the same old mistakes. The only way to re-train your brain is to expose yourself to the thing that makes you feel anxious.

To expose yourself and then stay there until your anxiety starts to get lower. That gives you Amygdala the chance to learn that it got all worked up about nothing and with repetition, it will develop a new, more positive association.

The trick is not to wait until you feel no anxiety before speaking up but to continually arrange to activate you Amygdala by speaking up and then staying with the feeling of anxiety, making sure that it leaves before you do.

We need to do this in small steps so as to not overwhelm ourselves.

For example, try speaking up more often in social situations rather than waiting until your first presentation. If you do have to present then start practising in front of friends or family.

Whilst exposing yourself to what makes you feel anxious you can use a variety of coping strategies such as breathing techniques, mindfulness or tapping to make it feel more bearable until your anxiety is manageable.

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What we tell ourselves about ourselves

Think about these questions:

  • Try to identify when you lost your voice?
  • What messages did you receive about speaking up?
  • Where did these messages come from? ie family, school, friends
  • Think about times that you have felt listened to. When have you been able to find your voice?

In the previous exercise, we may have been able to identify where our fear of speaking up has come from and how this message which originated outside ourselves has become an internalised belief about ourselves.

What is the belief that you have internalised?

  • I am not as clever as everyone else
  • I might make a mistake and mistakes are bad
  • I have nothing to say
  • No one is interested in me or my voice

If we are telling ourselves very negative things about ourselves as speakers then we begin to see the situation of speaking up as a threat to our psychological wellbeing. Our Amygdala hits the panic button as it cannot differentiate between a dangerous thought and a dangerous animal.

If we can offer ourselves an alternative, more positive internalised belief or thought then we have a chance of taming the thought.

Evolve some positive sentences from your negative thoughts/beliefs:

  • I am not as clever as everyone else = I can only gain more knowledge by taking part
  • I have nothing to say = my point of view is unique and therefore valuable

Remember you learnt to stay quiet so you can learn to speak up it just might take some practice.

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Rules and helpful tips

  • The more you avoid anxiety and the situations that make you anxious the worse it gets - the more you can persistently confront and challenge with small manageable risks the better it gets. Anxiety will diminish a little each time you speak up

  • Feel the fear and do it anyway - many people feel they have to get rid of their anxiety before they speak. The truth is the other way round

  • Anxiety means GO - the crucial mistake we often make is that we interpret anxiety as a signal to STOP what we are doing. Re-frame anxiety as a huge boost of energy that we can utilise to face a challenge

  • Make your risks small and manageable - don’t freak yourself out by demanding too much of yourself at first because then you might retreat back under the duvet. If you have never spoken in a group then set your sights on saying just one thing, then build on that to say two things next time-a journey of 1000 miles starts with 1 step

  • Anxiety means you are growing - when you feel anxiety it is a signal that you are facing a situation where you are being challenged to go a little beyond what you believe you are capable of. You are confronting limiting ideas you have of yourself. Without anxiety, there is no growth

  • Remember fear and excitement are physiologically similar - they are on the same continuum, think of butterflies in your tummy which you get with both. Re-frame your situation from the perspective of excitement

  • Use your breath - when anxious breathing becomes shallow and fast. While this doesn’t make it impossible to speak it isn’t helpful and also increases physical sensations of anxiety. A simple breathing exercise can help.

    Breathe in through your nose for the count of 5 then breathe out slowly through your mouth for the count of 10.

    Practice this regularly before you speak, the longer out breath has a calming effect on your physiology

  • Use advertising - you can let your audience know you are anxious. It can really change how you feel if you say it out loud at the beginning of your presentation, something like: ‘I feel a bit nervous here today, so please bear with me’.

    This helps you to include and accept your anxiety, making you feel under less pressure of having to hide it. It also makes your audience more sympathetic - they know how you feel!

  • Make eye contact - look around the room before you start. Pick a friendly face or two and look at them from time to time.

    You are more likely to pick up positive signals from the audience than from the negative thoughts in your head. Making eye contact also keeps the audience human and engaged

  • Always support your risk-taking with positive self-talk - be aware of negative thoughts and then challenge them.

    Be alert for black and white thinking (it was a total failure), mind reading (they all think I’m stupid), catastrophizing (unless I do better ill fail my course, never get a job and end up on the streets).

    Remember we all do this kind of rigid thinking when under stress. It is important to challenge it with more realistic thoughts such as ‘I’m doing my best and learning all the time’, ‘the more I speak the easier it will get’

  • Use your imagination to help you - deliberately imagine positive images of yourself speaking up. Visualise yourself as you get your point across, savour how it would feel.

    Rigorously replace any negative images with positive ones. Remember research shows that sportspeople who visualise themselves winning the race before they run it actually perform better. The images in your head have an effect on how you feel and act

  • Practice outward focus of attention - when we feel anxious our attention is focused on ourselves. We become hyper-aware of bodily symptoms such as blushing, sweating, lurching stomach etc.

    We are thinking about how others see us and our own negative thoughts such as ‘they’ll think I’m stupid’. This is inward focus of attention.

    When we feel confident, we focus on the task at hand, such as presenting a paper or helping others understand out point. This is outward focus of attention.

    Inward focus can become a downward spiral- the more you focus on anxiety symptoms and negative thoughts the more they grow

    Practice shifting your focus from yourself to your task, that is why we do much better if we are engaged with what we are speaking about. Focus on how you want to present your thoughts, what interests you in the discussion, what points others are making and what you think about them

  • Give yourself rewards and appreciation - however small the risks you have taken

  • Adopt the motto - ‘accept the anxiety. Practice with patience and persistence!’