What It's Like to Give a TEDx Talk About Anxiety as Someone With Anxiety


As someone who experienced severe anxiety and chronic panic attacks, the idea of putting myself out there was at the top of the “Do Not Attempt” list. But if I was going to hold true to the promise I made to myself, I didn’t see any other way around it.

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” I told myself. “If it scares you, you have to do it!”

These words seemed to mock me now. Personal mantras that once held so much power and positive motivation now seemed to be a cruel prison of my own making.

How could I say no when I had committed myself to saying yes to things that scared me? After all, so many wonderful things had already changed in my life by following this new idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Maybe this would be the same.

I had just been asked if I would give a TEDx talk about my personal struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. My first thought was, “Who was I to do a TEDx talk?”

I wasn’t anyone special. I had no book to sell. I had no psychology degree to offer as collateral for my advice. I was just someone who struggled through some of the most painful years of my life and managed to come out the other side better than I went in.

Just the idea of standing on stage made my stomach flip.

Then I remembered that one simple question that had changed my life.

“What advice would you give your daughter if she came to you with this same problem?”

I paused and thought about it.

I would tell her that she should do it. That it could be an amazing experience. It would be something she’d always remember. And it would be a chance to possibly help someone else who was going through the same thing.

If this is what I would say to her, my only daughter, and hope that she would listen, then I had no choice but to listen to my own advice.

I heard myself say, “Sure, I’d love to talk at TEDx.”

I felt nauseous.

I had three months to figure out what I would say. In that time, I wrote at least 10 versions of my talk, each one seemed worse than the previous.

What if I have a panic attack on stage in front of everyone?

What if I embarrassed myself and let everyone down?

This is how anxiety works in the mind. Every “worst-case scenario” plays out over and over again. You convince yourself you will fail before you even try. This was a feeling I knew all too well. It was a feeling I had worked tirelessly to overcome for the past five years, but had suddenly all come rushing back.

But now I had my tools. I had my breathing exercises that helped me relax my body and mind. I had my meditation practice that helped keep me centered. I had my practice of being mindful and present, rather than worrying about the future.

I focused on writing my talk first. I’d worry about giving it later.

The group that organized the event, TEDxAmoskeagMillyard, is a great group of people. They have a process in place to help each person craft a talk that is honest, authentic and unique to the person giving it.

Each speaker is assigned a speech coach to help you write your talk. I was lucky enough that my speech coach was someone I knew already. She is a co-worker, a friend and not coincidentally, the person who nominated me to speak in the first place.

Her name is Pamme Boutsellis, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have gotten through this talk without her.

After countless emails and cups of coffee together, she told me I didn’t need to try and solve everyone’s problems or present myself as an expert in mindfulness or meditation. I just needed to share my story.

“Trust me,” she said, “If I didn’t think you had something relatable to share, I wouldn’t have nominated you.”

She had taken a chance on me and I didn’t want to let her down. I have a great amount of respect for Pamme. If she believed in me, who was I to doubt it?

The day before the event, all the speakers got together and met for the first time. We each did a walkthrough for our talk so we could get a feel for the stage, the lights and the timing. I was surprised to find that all the speakers were nervous. For some reason, I thought I’d be the only one.

We were told the order in which we’d be speaking the next day. I held out hope that I’d go first, allowing me to relax and enjoy the rest of the days talks. I was informed that I would be closing out the event. I was the last speaker of the day.

“Sure, make the guy talking about anxiety go last!” I said, half-joking.

That next day was a blur of emotions. I sat and listened to so many amazing talks. I met so many amazing people. I was so impressed with all the speakers and all the stories that I almost forgot I still had to deliver a talk myself… almost.

As I stood on the side of the stage waiting for my name to be announced, a flood of emotions overtook me. I thought of all the friends and family that had come to support me. I thought about my wife who had to deal with the past three months of me walking around talking to myself (even more than usual). I thought about everything that I had been through over the past 42 years and how each experience had somehow culminated in me about to take the stage at a TEDx talk. And then the wait was over.

The next 18 minutes became a blur.

I very quickly realized I was not going to be able to keep my emotions contained. 42 years of anxiety, fear, hurt, pain, failure, success, love, support and determination all came out.

My voice cracked as I talked. I didn’t care.

I felt tears in my eyes. I didn’t care.

I just let go and shared my story — and it felt amazing!

When my talk was complete, I looked at the crowd and tried to capture that moment in my mind. The feeling is still hard to put into words. It was as if I’d been carrying a heavy weight around my entire life and I had finally set it down for good, in front of a crowd on that stage.

That is what you can do when you learn to face your fears and not be afraid to love who you are. You can accomplish anything.

You can watch Steve’s TEDx Talk in the video below:

If you’d like to learn more about Steve, please visit www.stevezanella.com. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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