Today I had a new experience which was as awful as it was wonderful

PanicAttackToday I stepped WAY outside my comfort zone and had a new experience. I recorded a video presentation as part of a mentoring program I support.

I was well prepared, my ‘speech’ had great information, it was well structured, I was really pleased with it. I practiced it a few times and felt comfortable with the flow. I was presenting to camera, which was new to me, but my notes were ready and I was ready to rock.

I have no trouble presenting in public. I might get a few nervous jitters just before I step up to the mic, but they disappear after the first few words and I get into a flow and thoroughly enjoy it. THAT was the experience I was prepared for today, and the experience I was expecting, and it was NOT what happened.

My brief inquiries before the session clarified that there was no teleprompter available, so I prepared cue cards. Big, easy to read print, laminated to make them easier to hold etc. I like using notes. All was good, I felt confident and a little bit excited by it all.

When I arrived I was told that it wasn’t going to be that kind of video. It was more of an informal chat to the camera, with the points rolling off in a conversational manner. No need for notes, and in fact, with the tight framing of the camera, looking down at notes or at cue cards will end up being a distraction from the conversational tone of the video. Don’t use them.

Oh! No notes!

This new information threw me for a loop. I panicked. My brain shut down and I was suddenly unable to remember anything about the topic that I had researched so thoroughly and knew so well. Forming a coherent sentence of any sort became almost impossible.

My friend Kirsty was going first, and as I waited for my turn, I felt my flight or flight response starting to kick in. I became hyperaware of my surroundings, and then my focus narrowed. My heartbeat raced, my muscles quivered and I became like a spring getting wound tighter and tighter.

I utilised every calming and centering technique I knew. I stood in my power pose. I tried to walk it out. I did deep breathing and stretching. I reviewed the notes I’d prepared so thoroughly. Did more deep breathing. It didn’t work. My anxiety levels continued to rise. I coach people around these fears. I am a confident, intelligent woman. I can do this. I tried to talk myself down off the cliff.

As I sat down in front of the camera the sentences were still not flowing. The information on the topic had burrowed into some inaccessible crevasse in my brain. But, I gave it a go. It’s not in my nature to give up. Liz who was working with me tried all sorts of techniques to get me comfortable yet my anxiety levels grew with every ‘take’ I fluffed. My adrenaline levels were so high; I reckon I would have broken speed records had I run out that door. I realized I was having a panic attack.


I’ve never experienced that before. It was surreal. I was inundated with an overwhelming combination of physiological and psychological responses. I was gasping for breath and tears started running down my cheeks. All my brain was telling me do to was RUN. Get out of here immediately. Seek safety now. Protect yourself.

Luckily there was a tiny part of my brain that was still functioning and I managed to say the words… “I need to stop. I think I’m having a panic attack.”

An interesting thing happened when I spoke those words out loud. I immediately started to become a little calmer. Acknowledging what I was experiencing flipped a switch and the rational part of my brain started to power up. My breathing started to regulate, the adrenaline started to subside and my focus broadened. I started to think in full sentences again, although speaking a coherent sentence was still beyond me.

Another interesting thing happened. Liz, who had been doing her very best to guide and support me down the casual-chat-to-camera-without-notes-route changed tack. If this video was going to get shot, I needed to feel comfortable. So we compromised. I used my notes. My well organized, full-to-the-brim-with-great-information notes that I had worked so hard on.

On Liz’ suggestion I acknowledged them in my introduction. I didn’t apologize for them, but incorporated them. As the camera started rolling again (for take #10??), I looked down the barrel of the cameral, smiled and spoke. It was good. I was warm, authentic and tried my best to connect with the audience that would be viewing the video. I stumbled a few times, but it didn’t faze me. I enjoyed it! I went from a full-blown panic attack to enjoyment in about 10 mins. It was fun, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

It’s now a couple of hours later and I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience and identify what I’ve been able to learn from it.

• Panic attacks are real. They are debilitating and scary. They can happen to the most confident, self-assured people.

• Acknowledging that I was having one helped. It allowed the rational part of my brain to come back to life, or step up, or get switched back on.. or whatever … I’ll look up the technical neuroscience terms for it later. Whatever the speaking about it did, the feeling of overwhelm lessened.

• I don’t feel comfortable with ‘off the cuff’ speaking, especially if it’s about a topic I don’t know inside out and back to front. I need to be well prepared and well rehearsed.

• Being prepared means getting as much information about the; who, what, how,& why beforehand as I can and not making ANY assumptions.

• And finally, that when I’m not feeling comfortable with a situation, I can say so and offer an alternative that I do feel comfortable with. That’s OK, and FAR preferable to a full-blown panic attack!


Have you ever had an new experience which was as good as it was bad? How did you handle it?

When was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone? How did it feel?