Today’s post is a bit of a departure from the “topic at hand”, but I thought I’d take a moment to share what has amounted to a tiny miracle in my life. But first…
Disclaimer: I am not a (medical) doctor and I have no qualifications for recommending any kind of pharmaceuticals. Please consult a physician to discuss your own personal situation. The following is anecdotal information only.
I confess: I am afraid of public speaking.
I don’t know when it came into full force, but I remember many times as a child having near pass out levels of panic in relatively benign situations. Much to my mother’s dismay I would stay up all night crying the night before having to give a five minute speech at school. Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 33, I have given hundreds of presentations and while this fear has waxed and waned, it has never gone away.
Public speaking is the most common fear in the United States. According to the NIMH, 74% of the US population suffers from “glossophobia”. This is even higher than necrophobia, or the fear of death. No, this doesn’t mean someone would rather die than present, but it’s definitely eye-opening.
The most common treatment for anxiety disorders is psychotherapy (fancy way of saying talk therapy) coupled with exposure therapy. The idea is that if you expose your brain to “scary” situations repeatedly, your brain will learn that the situation isn’t really dangerous.
This seems reasonable. But let me assure you, my brain has had no trouble defeating psychology’s common sense.
I’ve tried it all. I did cognitive behavioral therapy on and off for a total of about a year, participated in three different Toast Master’s clubs, talked about it with friends and colleagues, continued to give presentation after presentation with the hope it would go away. It didn’t.
The thing is, in most cases fear isn’t rational.
Do I think somehow if I don’t give a good speech I am going to get fired? People will hate me? Be mean to me? No, not really.
I’m also afraid of flying. Is it because I actually think the plane is going to crash? I’m a physicist, I know how lift works (sort of). Was I magically cured when I found out I’m more likely to die on the way to the airport than in the plane? Nope.
Honestly, some pretty crummy things have happened to me while speaking in public. I’ve had someone stop me in the middle of a presentation to tell me everything I was saying was wrong (at a job interview, no less). Did I freak out? No, I was fine and I just kept going. But on three very memorable occasions I’ve had panic attacks bad enough I had to stop a presentation partway through, recover, and then start again. For no reason at all. Being in a job where I have to do this all the time, well, it pretty much sucks.
So finally I was talking to a employee assistance program worker about my latest freak-out episode, and she asked me, “have you ever heard of propranolol?” I had not.
In case you haven’t either, propranolol is a beta blocker. It’s used for a variety of conditions, mainly high blood pressure and other heart problems. It does this by blocking certain sympathetic nervous system receptors.
These receptors are also the same ones that get hammered when you are scared. When your heart races and you get sweaty and your voice gets all messed up – that’s your sympathetic nervous system. It’s preparing your body to fight off a threat or to run away. Unfortunately neither of those options works too well when you are speaking at a department conference.
But propranolol basically gets in there and says, nope, not today adrenaline, get lost!
Taking one of these tiny little pills gives me 3-4 hours worth of super powers. I’m still nervous, I still feel all of the anxiety that I normally feel, but there is no outward appearance of it. My voice is steady and clear, my heart doesn’t race. This is actually a pretty surreal feeling that was quite confusing the first few times. Something like, “crap I’m so nervous! But I seem to still be speaking…guess I’ll keep going…”
I take the pills only when needed, which amounts to about once per month. The effects are short and I haven’t experienced any side effects (although I did test it out the first time at home when I had nothing going on for a day).
Propranolol may be one of the best things that happened to me in 2016, and I can only wish I had discovered it sooner. It’s my hope that this blog post might reach others in the same boat. It might work for you. If you’d like to know more about it, there are many articles out there to read (search “propranolol anxiety”). You might be surprised how many people are already using it. I was!
Facing phobias is no fun, but it also makes us stronger. I can’t say that I’ll never try major presentations without it again, but for now I’m happy with a little medicinal help. No regrets here.