Agony aunt

July 9, 1999

Q

I have been having severe panic attacks when addressing staff or students and have lost confidence and am under-achieving. How do I stop the self-defeating

spiral?

A

Susie Whiten

Anatomy lecturer St Andrews University and THES Higher Science Teacher of the Year

Do not worry, you are not alone and there are plenty of things you can do. First some commonsense ideas - think of your lecture as a performance and practice it to someone if you can. There is nothing worse if you are nervous than trying to present something you are not sure of.

I always tell students to breathe deeply before entering a room, especially if they are doing oral tests - in through the nose, out through the mouth. This has a steadying effect on nerves.

Adrenaline raises levels of awareness and sharpens all your senses but it can easily turn into panic, which is not constructive. Lecturers can often feel vulnerable standing in front of, perhaps, hundreds of students.

It helps to take a pause before you begin. Give your self time to have a glass of water, organise your notes, etc. The pause may seem very long to you but to your audience it is perfectly normal. Do not feel hurried and arrive in good time.

It is also a good idea to familiarise your self with the lecture room and equipment. Know where the light switches are, check that the slide projector works, think about where you will stand, where you will put your bag and so on. And try not to lecture on an empty stomach although eating too much can be almost as bad. A lecturer friend of mine keeps a notice pinned to his door listing all the things he needs - slides, notes, glasses, props, etc for the lecture. That will give you confidence.

The idea of mentors for new appointees is very helpful because you are attached to an experienced member of staff to guide you through. Their advice can be invaluable.

If all else fails, I know some lecturers who take medication, sometimes beta blockers or herbal remedies which can be useful to break a cycle as you describe. They can give you the space to build your confidence again.

A

Rena Nicholaou Yoga teacher and stress therapist

Deep breathing exercises and some gentle yoga stretching will help calm and focus your mind so that you are already in a relaxed state when you go into the lecture theatre. If you do not have anywhere private like an office, find somewhere quiet like a toilet cubicle.

Sit down, keeping your spine lengthened and close your eyes. Rest your hands on your thighs and let your face soften. Without letting your mind wander, become aware of the inflowing and outflowing of your breath. Gradually deepen it, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Once you are used to this, try breathing in for a count of three, and out for three. Practice this for a while, and then hold the in-breath for three seconds, then exhale over another three. Do not hold the breath in if you suffer from high blood pressure.

A long-term measure might be to work with a teacher on a one-to-one basis on other relaxation techniques, such as a guided visualisation process. In a state of deep relaxation, a teacher takes you through the event that is causing you worry. Yoga taps into the subconscious and can help to programme your mind differently. Your teacher could even record the process so that you can listen to it when you feel a panic attack coming on. Teaching problems?

Send them to The THES and our experts will answer them.

Write to Alison Utley The THES Admiral House 66-68 East Smithfield London E1 9XY

Fax 0113 2502156

Email alison.utley@dial.pipex.com

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