Panic attacks during public speaking

Jun 02, 2019

This blog post is about panic attacks during public speaking. I decided to write about this, since a panic attack somewhat happened during one of my lectures for Advanced topics in optimization: From simple to complex ML systems at Rice University. If someone suffers from something similar, I believe it is relieving to know that there are people with similar experiences. And, there is a way out of it (not to overcome it once and for all, but to be bold and not be too much affected by it).

The recent event.

Mid-way through the semester, during one of my regular course lectures, I felt the urge to leave the classroom to drink water. What was I feeling like? I started losing my line of thoughts; I had to breathe deeper and with more difficulty in almost every sentence I was saying. These could happen to anyone (if you are excited about teaching :)), and usually we escape this situation by “regrouping” ourselves. However, when you suffer from panic attacks, another thought triggers a series of questions that interrupts your “regular” thoughts: “What is happening? Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? Is something going happen to me? Am I going to die?” Then, sweating jumps in, you understand the position you are where everybody is watching you, and suddenly you feel trapped in this situation. You neither behave as a normal presenter, nor you easily can pause to “regroup”.

If you don’t understand exactly what I mean, see this.

The past.

I’ve always been a person with anxiety. During my middle- and high-school days, giving a test at school was a nightmare. Sure, that made me productive and perfectionist, but certainly I could have saved some spare time, by being more efficient and not being controlled by my anxiety. I have experienced this through classes as a student (not an easy thing to deal with surrounded by teenagers). Of course, there were periods (half a year to a year, approximately) where you feel that you have escaped from it, but it comes back viciously.

At first, I have always thought it is a deficiency at my heart. I visited several cardiologists in Greece (both in my hometown as a school student, and in Chania, Crete, as an undergraduate); they all agreed that there is nothing wrong with my heart, other than it just skips 1-2 beats once in a while (but the spooky thing is that you feel it when it actually does that - not a pleasant feeling…).

Given that most of the doctors told me that there is nothing wrong with me (physiologically), I decided to deal with it alone. I didn’t experience it publicly for a long time after graduation; only there were cases were I had to e.g., leave my friends for a while to “take some air”.

It hit me recently, and during a talk for the first time, at Geneva. Being invited by Bart Vandereycken, I gave my job talk at the Math department of the University of Geneva, just before my regular interviews season starts. I always thought it would be a good idea to give the talk to the general public, so that you are more prepared for the “important” (career-wise) invites.

However, I panicked during the talk.

First time happening to me during such an activity, I had no experience how to deal with it in front of an audience. I thought that the room temperature was too high (it might have been but the panic attack magnifies 10x what you are feeling); I asked to open the window: in Geneva, in the middle of December… It didn’t help. I thought that I needed water to clear my throat; they brought me some. It didn’t help. I started talking gibberish: either I was repeating myself, or I had problems putting words in order. Finally, I decided I needed some time off: I excused myself by saying “I need to get out of this room”.

While I could just take the easy way and say “let’s call it off”, I found strength to go back to continue my lecture. After all, you don’t want to leave with the impression in you that the next time you will give a talk, the same thing happens. You need to fight it (remember, after that, my interviews were in line, waiting). I didn’t explain to the audience what happened to me: after a 10 minutes break, I continued my talk, skipped some slides to stay on time and conveyed the main message of my research.

Going back to the recent event.

The same thing happened at Rice University. But I felt that there is nothing to hide: I thought “you should describe to the students what is the situation: maybe someone deals with the same issue”. And so I did: I said that the reason I left the classroom was a panic attack, it is the worst feeling in the world for those that experience it, and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

And it actually made me feel better. And I’m going to start every course I teach with that: “I’m Tasos Kyrillidis and, occasionally, I suffer from panic attacks”.