My question is related to speech anxiety, or fear of public speaking. As far as I remember, I’ve been having this issue since my teenage years. Oftentimes it becomes really annoying – before a particular event (e.g., a conference in which I have to deliver a presentation). I cannot properly concentrate and, instead of acting naturally and being myself, I succumb to this state of anxiety. Even though I have some experience of speaking in public because of my work, most often I find myself stuck into this loop – every time I have to struggle and overcome this problem, and it happens again and again. I understood that once a person comes to the path of bhakti and takes diksha, there is no question of fear, because then his/ her life is in the hands of Krishna. I guess it means that the reason behind my fear is lack of faith. Still, I would like to ask if there are ways which could be helpful in overcoming this problem, and, at the same time, be consistent with the path of bhakti?
A devotee has shraddha, or faith in Krishna, seeing everything as the grace of Bhagavan. Everything is seen as an opportunity to learn, to advance and to become stronger. A devotee can view anxiety, or fear of public speaking, in a positive way – as an act of purification. And, with this mindset, a devotee can remain self-aware and composed in whatever activity he/she is performing. Sri Krishna gives us a golden formula to combat stress. He says, “tasmād aparihārye ‘rthe na tvaḿ śocitum arhas” (Do not worry about things that are inevitable, Gita 2.27.) Most of the time, stress is just an outcome of our own ignorance, and therefore the solution also lies in the proper use of our discriminating faculty. We often start worrying when we anticipate negative outcomes. But such worry is futile—it serves no purpose. Rather, it harms us and can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, such as the “loop” that you have mentioned that you get stuck in. We should pause for a moment instead and ask ourselves, “Is worry really going to help us achieve our goal or transcend imagined or real obstacles?” Mostly, the answer is a categorical “no.” Then, why worry? Sri Krishna’s advice is to remain balanced in the face of the adversities, which everyone is bound to experience.
However, even though you most likely know about Krishna’s advice to remain balanced, no matter what the situation, still it is difficult to put it into practice. And, this becomes particularly frustrating for smart people who are also diligent in their spiritual practice and studies, but they still are faced with this overreaction by the mind. Whenever you find your mind overreacting to a situation or a thought, you can become suspicious that the culprit might be a samskara. A samskara, for the purposes of this article, can be thought of as a past memory that is stored in your subconscious mind that is driving your feelings today – even though the event may have happened many years or lifetimes ago. The samskara gets activated by current situations that trigger similar feelings to the old memory. And, when the old memory file (samskara) gets pulled up from your subconscious memory, your mind becomes flooded and often overwhelmed by powerful old painful feelings, which you react to in the present moment. So, in your case of anxiety about public speaking, there may be a samskara at work. We have provided a practical exercise for you to do some investigative work on your mind to determine if a samskara might be activated, and how to manage it.
1. Try to recall a time in your childhood when you had some intense fear or anxiety about something.
2. Write about that event that caused you the fear or anxiety.
3. Read what you have written, and then add more to the story by focusing on writing about your feelings – not the storyline about the event, but just on your feelings.
4. Shut your eyes, and take 3 deep breaths. Relax. Visualize the event that occurred, and let yourself feel the actual feelings of fear and anxiety. With your eyes closed, do an internal body scan. Where are you feeling those feelings in your body? Let yourself become completely aware of your feelings.
5. Now that you have become aware of the samskara and have let yourself feel the associated feelings, you can catch it when it becomes activated in the future. Self-awareness is the key to managing your overwhelming feelings.
6. The next time you have to do a public speech, you can use your intelligence to tell yourself that this anxiety is coming from some old past event, and it does not have anything to do with the present moment. Tell yourself that there is no need to react to something that happened so many years ago. Use your intelligence to focus on your own breath in the present moment, instead using the instinctual part of your mind to focus on the thoughts and feelings from the past. Make your breaths long and deep, on the inhale and exhale. This will keep you grounded and calm in the present moment.
Apart from this, remember that you are not the doer. Focus only on the present moment and not on the result. Do your seva and do not be in anxiety about the result. The result is in Krishna’s hands and it is for Him.