Fight or flight? Presenting papers with anxiety

As I mentioned in my previous (and first ever!) post, one of my missions over the next six months is to explore the PhD experience as a sufferer of mental health problems. This is something I barely, if ever, discuss, but I’ve come to realise how important it is for so many reasons, not least to show other researchers in the same boat as me that they are not alone, and especially to assure those with mental health problems who are considering embarking on a PhD that they absolutely can do it, and can even thrive. So, I thought I’d jump in right at the deep end and get into the nitty gritty right away!

On the 2nd February I gave my first ever paper as a PhD student. The journey towards this started in November last year, when I was approached by colleagues at the University of St Andrews who wanted the perspective of an arts/humanities researcher on species conservation at a public outreach event they were organising.

Surprisingly, my initial reaction was yes! This is a topic that I care deeply about, as I had worked extensively with wolves and in public outreach during my SGSAH funded internship at the Scottish Deer Centre (more on that in a later post!), so despite my anxiety and fear of presenting, I knew I wanted to do it. I really wanted to show people why their fear of wolves was unfounded, being based in cultural stereotypes rather than in reality, and to encourage them to get to know wolves as playful, beautiful, and deeply familial animals, as I was lucky enough to do. I wanted to show them that changing the cultural perceptions of traditionally reviled and persecuted animals is vital in conservation efforts.

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I wrote my paper during the Christmas break. I enjoyed writing it and getting feedback from various people (including my Dad, who’s a conservationist himself), but was determined not to give much thought to actually saying it out loud. For a while afterwards, I put it to one side and went back to focussing on my PhD work, which was easy enough considering I was right in the middle of writing a chapter that had required a lot of research and analysis. Looking back, I’m sure I was deliberately forcing it to the back of my mind so that I didn’t have to think about it. I suppose you could call it self-preservation.

But as the 2nd February approached, it began to feel like impending doomsday. As January melted away, the clock seemed to speed up and I wavered between ‘I can do this’, ‘why did I agree to this?’, and ‘I really really can’t do this’. My track record in giving presentations is not good – the last two times, my ‘flight’ response kicked in, and I ran for the hills.

But I wanted this to be different. Those presentations were on topics that I wasn’t so bothered about, but this is an issue that is very close to my heart. I was terrified that my ‘flight’ response would kick in.

I spoke to my parents and friends, who told me that it would be fine, reminded me to relax and take my time speaking, and assured me that the audience would want to hear what I had to say. I spoke to my doctor, who helps me manage my mental health conditions, who reminded me that though I was anxious about teaching when I had started doing that, I had managed to do it for two academic years now.

Sometimes though, these supportive words and advice aren’t enough. As much as I knew, rationally, that nothing bad was going to happen, that it in fact wasn’t doomsday approaching but simply 15 minutes talking into a microphone in front of a small group of people, it certainly didn’t feel like it.

So, I decided to speak to a counsellor at the university, who gave me some fantastic tips on managing my anxiety, including a particularly funny exercise where I had to picture doing everything that I could to make it the worst talk in history, an imagined scenario in which, by the end of the day, I was expelled from the university and in jail. This truly put it into perspective that even if I fluffed a few words, it would all be fine. No one would heckle, or call me stupid, or any other of the thousand situations I had pictured.

That brings me to the day of the paper. Unfortunately for me, the talks began in the afternoon, and I was last to go on. Despite all the techniques I had learned, anxiety began rearing its head the moment I woke up that morning, and continued to grow throughout the day. Unwanted thoughts began to surface: I started asking myself ‘how do I get out of this? Can I just tell them I’ve lost my voice, fallen ill, had to leave town suddenly?’. Flight was starting to win.

But once I got into the room and started watching other people’s talks, I saw how nervous all the other speakers were. It wasn’t just me. And I still had my trump card – a photo of Luna, one of the Deer Centre wolves who I had become particularly close to. Luna has become something of a mascot for me; having recently died, I am determined to do everything I can to honour her spirit and memory. When things get tough, I look at pictures of her and remind myself why I’m doing what I do, why I’m putting myself through stress and anxiety. I do it for her and her sons, RJ and Baxter. I do it for the animal I want to protect.

The time of my paper rolled around, the afternoon going much more quickly than I had anticipated. Though I was shaking, and felt like every muscle in my body was more tense than I had thought possible, I got up, stood behind the microphone, and gave my talk. By the middle, I was even starting to enjoy it.

That day was a game-changer. I now know that I don’t have to let my flight reflex beat me. I can fight. And even more than that, I can fight hard, and win.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter



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