What it's Like to Have a Panic Attack Mid-Presentation

Two days ago, I had my third-ever panic attack. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. To give you some context, most people describe me as shy and awkward. I have pretty bad social anxiety and obviously a hatred for public speaking. However, I just started my first semester in the business school, which means I’m essentially being forced to become an extrovert. One of my classes, Business Communications, is basically a public-speaking class. Dreadful. About a month ago, we had our first presentation of the semester. We had to dress up in business casual (aka I had to wear my suit that I absolutely despise) and tell a 2-3 minute story that showcases one of our strengths. While I was really nervous for this one, it wasn’t horrible because I chose a funny story and practiced a million times before. My voice was shaking, and I was using weird hand gestures but overall, I got through it. 

Flash-forward to Sunday of this week. I knew I had my second presentation of the semester the next day, and I was trying to remain calm. This one was longer, 5-6 minutes, and we had to use a slide-deck. The prompt was to convince the audience to volunteer with a local non-profit of our choice. Although I felt pretty good about my first presentation, I was even more nervous this time. I knew I would not be able to rely on memorization because it was longer, and I would have to carefully spread my attention between what I was saying, the slides I was showing, and making sure my body language and movements were consistent. I practiced it a few times alone, straightened my hair, and went to bed early. 

Monday mornings I have meditation, but I can assure you there was not a bit of peace in my mind. I was still trying to remain calm, but the only thing I could think about was my upcoming presentation. I went back to my room after class to make breakfast and get ready. I had about three hours before my presentation, so I wanted to try and relax. When it was finally time, I walked into the classroom and sat at my usual spot. I was strangely calm, and felt like it wouldn’t be that bad. The TA’s wrote our names on the board in the order we would present, and I was 3rd. The 2nd person finished their presentation, and then it was my turn.

I took a deep breath, got up, and walked to the front of the room. I introduced myself and gave my “hook”. So far, so good. I went through the agenda slide, and onto my first content slide. I started talking about art therapy and children development, and then my mind went blank. I have never experienced something like this before. No matter how much time I had spent practicing what I would say, for some reason, I was incapable of thinking of anything to say. I simultaneously had so many thoughts and none at all. The loudest one was “you don’t want to be here right now, say sorry and sit down”. I obviously couldn’t do that, but that voice was so loud in my head that I couldn’t focus on what I was supposed to be saying. I looked at the floor, took a deep breath, said “sorry”, and tried to keep going. The whole time, I could see the faces of my professor, my TA’s, and the other students in the class visibly changing from either an interested/bored look to a cringed/second-hand embarrassment look. It was the worst feeling ever. I felt like everyone was so uncomfortable because of how badly I had messed up. I got through my six-minute presentation in four minutes, forgetting half the things I had wanted to share. I sat down, and didn’t look back up for the rest of the presentations. 

It’s really easy for people who aren’t anxious to say “breathe through it” and “I promise no one cares” but that doesn’t really help. Obviously the majority of this anxiety comes from my own head but that doesn’t mean I can easily switch it off. Instead, I make sure to practice, and then the hour right before a big presentation, I distract myself, because there’s no use practicing for a straight hour. I either hang out with my friends or watch a TV show that I know will make me laugh. In the few minutes right before my presentations, I look at the ground to focus myself, and slow my breathing down to try and avoid a shaky voice. During the presentation, I sort of zone-out and try to focus just on what I’m saying. The problem arises when I zone back in and realize that I am talking to a whole audience.