I cried when I tried to get out of a conference talk and couldn't
I attended another conference this past week. It was very much the opposite of the conference I attended last month because it was much smaller, more focused, and was a basic science rather than clinically-focused conference. Despite having purposely submitted my poster abstract for this conference after the deadline to be considered for a short talk, my abstract was chosen. I cried when I got the email congratulating me on my interesting abstract. I cried when I tried to get out of the talk and couldn’t. I cried when I found out that I was going to have to use a microphone. And I cried when I realized there was no escaping this talk and that I was going to have to do it.
This stupid talk has wreaked havoc on the last three weeks of my life. My fear of it was irrationally, far out of proportion to the actual “threat,” but I suppose that is why it is called social anxiety disorder and not just nerves or shyness. The actual talk itself went super well, and I was able to successfully use the microphone without any problems. But I think the whole thing was so traumatic that in the long run, I am not sure it was a helpful experience to have gone through.
I have had to give enough talks at this point that quite a few people are aware of my speaking anxiety even though most don’t know about the more global social anxiety problem. My advisor found me during one of the breaks at the conference and marched me up on the stage so that I could get used to being up there, holding the pointer, and holding the microphone. She told me to just stay up there as long as I needed, until I felt like I “owned the stage.” It felt really ridiculous, but at the same time, it was massively helpful.
Another funny thing happened before this talk. A grad student I know from prior classes (who does research in the same field as me), somehow found out how nervous I was for the talk. She sent a really encouraging email and admitted that she also has a lot of speaking anxiety. She took the time to come over to my lab and help me practice my talk earlier this week. We were chatting after I had run through the slides a few times, and she admitted that she had been struggling with anxiety and depression. And I was like, “OMG I have been struggling hard core with social anxiety!” So, it felt really good to get support and understanding from a fellow student.
Two conferences down, one to go. I have to give a talk at this last conference (which is really more of a symposium), and I think these talks are going to kill me. It is frustrating that I find my research so fascinating, but that social anxiety prevents me from being able to enjoy opportunities to share my passion with others.
The author of this story is a postdoctoral associate in the biomedical sciences where she engages in clinical research using magnetic resonance imaging. She enjoys biking, reading, and warm weather. This story was published on March 12, 2017, on the author’s blog, Science and Social Anxiety (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.