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I've been a long time member of academia.SE but I created this alt account because the question is a bit embarrassing. I finished my PhD 4 years ago and after a 2 year postdoc at a different university secured a contractual lecturership. During my PhD I never realised I had fear of public speaking, because I always felt secure presenting in front of my supervisor. Even at conferences, his presence in the audience was enough to keep me relaxed.

Fast forward to my postdoc, I was mostly working and publishing by myself. So, even if I had to present something it was to my coauthors, with which I am okay. But as a lecturer doing research part of my time, I am involved in projects and seminars where I am expected to present my latest work. Being on my own has brought out my inner anxiety, so much so that I choked during a presentation, had to drink water to calm my nerves and apologise for my breathlessness and slurred speech. That was the most embarrasing thing in my life. Please note that the anxiety is not the result of me not publishing or doing research. I have published more than most in my department. Knowing that hasn't helped with the anxiety though. I am constantly making excuses to get out of project presentations and seminar talks. Fortunately, the anxiety is less intense in teaching and I am able to manage.

How do I survive as an academic? Now even conference presentations seem daunting. I can publish exclusively in journals, but how do I get out of giving project and departmental presentations? How can I politely refuse to present without revealing my situation? Or better yet, how do I fix the whole thing? That one bad presentation has really messed me up.

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    Seek professional help? I know that there are methods (some of which include medication) for wrestling with anxiety. – 101010111100 Feb 7 '17 at 0:08
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    Apart from other hopefully-good advice here, I tell myself, and I tell my research students, that it's not about me/them, it's about the math. To deliberately interpret any question as informational, even if they suspect it might be hostile. Such stuff. De-personalize, if you can hold that mental pose. – paul garrett Feb 7 '17 at 1:31
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    Do you have the same problem when lecturing undergraduate students? – axsvl77 Feb 7 '17 at 3:17
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    In all cases that I have seen people which were nervous during scientific talks (including extreme cases where the person had a complete blackout), I never thought less of the speaker, and I just focused on the content. I am guessing it is this way for most scientists. We are adults. So I understand you feel embarrassed, but keep in mind that from the listeners' point of view it is not a big deal. – Bitwise Feb 7 '17 at 10:29
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    The best solution to anxiety is simply practice, practice, practice. Practice in front of the mirror, then onto friends, colleagues, then to the public. Once you have done presentation and speaking enough times, you will find yourself numb to any anxiety and fears. This is my personal experience any ways. Those 1-day public speaking courses people go to, to me are not as helpful as simple practice, self-determination and perseverance. – Mobius Pizza Feb 7 '17 at 12:36

15 Answers 15

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Years ago, I gave up on the idea of a career in music when I developed severe performance anxiety. After I gave a terrible performance in front of a large crowd, I decided the thing I was going to do was 'face my fear' by signing up for something even scarier and going through with it. Result: an even more terrible performance in front of an even larger crowd, which I had nightmares about for ages, and I never performed again. So I know the feeling and can tell you that - based on my experience, anyway - throwing yourself off the deep end might be counterproductive. Suggestions instead:

Talk to colleagues about the issue, especially those you're close to and/or those who are openly supportive of mental-health stuff. I get the feeling that this is more common than most academics generally let on. I once watched an absolute legend of a faculty member in my subfield admit to considerable nerves in front of an unfamiliar crowd, which astounded me but shouldn't have.

Professional assistance: As 101010111100 says in a comment, it might be worthwhile to see if you can find a therapist who'll be on your side and work with you to find a way through or around this.

Toastmasters? I watched a former student of mine with major social anxiety gradually work through it with the help of a local group. The student went to a meeting and said nothing, and then went to another meeting and said nothing, and then introduced themself, and then gave a 10-second speech, and little by little practiced low-stakes public speaking until the idea of doing it felt a whole lot less terrifying.

Remind yourself about the 'spotlight effect': Not that I want to sound as if I'm trying to trivialize your feelings, but odds are that your audience paid a whole lot less attention than you did to your embarrassment. In general no one will notice a verbal slip-up or two, and even if you do come across as nervous or choke on water partway through, the audience is likely to be thinking much more about the content of your presentation rather than your delivery and state of mind. I saw a fascinating talk at a conference last spring and at lunchtime congratulated the undergraduate who gave it. The student blushed and admitted to an immense amount of embarrassment over having been so nervous. I said that while I could see some nerves in the presentation, I was thinking so hard about what was being talked about that I didn't care (beyond hoping the presenter remembered to breathe).

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    I'd like to give a personal anecdote about the last point: A year or so ago, I watched a talk which, about halfway through, I realized was being given by someone who was terrified. They stuttered every other word and drank a lot of water. I hadn't noticed until then because the content was fascinating. I only noticed because the speaker apologized. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Feb 7 '17 at 3:25
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    Regarding professional help, my wife is a psychologist and I’ve picked up some here and there. One stand-out point is that anxiety issues are some of the most reliably-treatable issues psychologists deal with. – KRyan Feb 7 '17 at 16:39
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    +1 for Toastmasters or a similar course. Fear of public speaking is a well-studied phenomenon and there are MANY resources available that can help you. I've heard fantastic things about Toastmasters, but there are tons of others as well. – eykanal Feb 8 '17 at 15:06
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    @KRyan out of curiosity, how do psychologist usually treat anxiety issues? – Keine Feb 8 '17 at 16:36
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    @Keine usually controlled exposure, is my understanding. Starting with the most benign cases they can and gradually working up to more daunting situations. Medication in the most severe cases just to make that initial exposure possible, but ultimately the cure comes from experiencing the frightening situation and becoming more comfortable. Coaching various techniques to calm and focus oneself, so that the experience is positive. – KRyan Feb 8 '17 at 17:14
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For what it's worth, I don't think this is an uncommon problem - you're by no means alone in this. A few thoughts:

Learn to see the humour in everything. Some of the time, you're going to get up there to give a talk and everything's going to go wrong - you're going to trip over the power cord, your demo's going to fail, you'll have forgotten what you're going to say, some angry-looking professor in the front row will start heckling you, etc. You can't fully control these things; all you can control is how you react, and that only to some extent. In this situation, you've turned up to give the perfect version of an important talk, and at least to some extent, it hasn't gone well - you know it, the audience knows it. The job, to be blunt, is in no way a good'n'. Moreover, they're now all sitting there wondering what you're going to do. This is the perfect time to show them that you're self-aware and that you don't take yourself too seriously - crack a self-deprecating joke, make a humorous comment, or enthusiastically launch into telling them something interesting. Essentially, there's a lot of truth in this:

http://48laws-of-power.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/law-28-enter-action-with-boldness.html

Leave yourself room to improvise. It's common to want to plan an important talk within an inch of its life, to make sure that you know exactly what you're going to say. Unfortunately, this can stress you out trying to remember what to say next, and make you sound stilted. I would argue that it's better not to plan the actual talk too much: instead, practise improvising. That way, when the inevitable problems arise, or people interrupt you, you'll know what to do. It's fine to have a rough plan, but be prepared to adapt it to the circumstances on the ground.

Publicly acknowledge your weaknesses and work on them. If presentations scare you, admit it - tell everyone, and ask them to give you lots of opportunities to present to help you get over it. Chances are, the people around you already know what your weaknesses are; by acknowledging them yourself, you neutralise them. Instead of being the person who's scared of presentations, you become the self-aware person who's scared of presentations but is dealing with it, which is a much better position to be in. The goal is to make the issue so intensely dull that no-one besides you will want to waste any time caring about it.

Detach your ego from your work. The aim of your talk is to tell other people something at least somewhat interesting and to help advance the field. You're there as a humble contributor to the great wall of human knowledge. You're not there to defend your work, except in so far as to make sure that other people gain a correct and fair understanding of it, and how it fits into the rest of the field. You're definitely not there to defend yourself - ultimately, you're just a curious person trying to help the field advance. If people have a problem with your work, help to focus the discussion on the evidence, and be prepared to agree with them if you're wrong. By avoiding the temptation to feel defensive about yourself or your work, you make yourself more relaxed, and better able to respond to input.

Finally: If you can, try to make the idea that anyone would want to focus on you rather than the field at hand seem ridiculous. As a speaker and as a researcher, you're human and flawed: you should know it, and you shouldn't be afraid to let them know it if the situation demands it. The point is that despite those flaws, you've turned up to do your best to make a contribution to the field. People who care about the field will respect that, and the rest don't matter.

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    "Excuse me; exciting math gets me all choked up!" – Nate Diamond Feb 8 '17 at 16:38
  • "Detach your ego from your work" -- very important. Obviously the OP is afraid of his first impression to strangers who don't know him prior to his talk. – Horst Grünbusch Feb 8 '17 at 18:41
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Your body gears up for hunting the mammoth, for escaping from the saber-toothed tiger, or for giving a scientific talk, by releasing adrenaline.

It is impossible to predict how you will react to the adrenaline next time, based on how you have reacted to it previous times.

(Once, while recording an audition tape, adrenaline made my one good ear go temporarily deaf, leaving me with a very muffled perception of my playing, through my other, impaired ear. It sounded as though someone was playing my piece in another room, with the door closed.)

So, what can you do? Over-prepare. In music, this means: analyze the technical requirements of each passage, and get your body comfortable executing them reliably, so they will come out right even on a bad day. For a scientific talk, this means, write out everything you want to say (but don't use that as a script while giving your talk). Do three practice talks instead of one. Give a simplified version of your talk at your local senior citizen center. (You can also volunteer to give a general talk about your field to a sixth grade science class.) Put your talk on your laptop, on a thumb drive, and in the cloud. Prepare slides that will allow the audience to get your main ideas even if there turns out not to be any intelligible narration.

A few additional thoughts:

  • The Toastmasters idea from trikeprof is good.

  • In the same vein, some people find it helpful to take acting classes.

  • Practice slow breathing every day, filling your whole trunk with air -- keeping your shoulders relaxed. When you think you've gotten reliable in slowing your breathing, practice doing it under (non-academic) stress. Note that fast, shallow breathing can induce hyperventilation.

  • While giving your talk, bend your knees a little, to keep everything flowing properly in your body.

  • You had a traumatic experience giving a talk. There is a special short-term therapeutic technique that can be helpful in recovering from trauma: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It's generally not hard to find a therapist trained in this approach.

  • You may want to talk to your doctor about medications.

And one slightly crazy idea, that I've never tried. Put a large photograph of your advisor on the back wall with masking tape in the room where you'll be speaking.

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I have been fighting with this type of anxiety myself secretly while giving the impression of being an incredibly relaxed speaker to everyone else. Anything in this answer I might have gotten from some source that might have a scientific reasoning why it works, but I don't remember. For the sake of this answer, these are just coping mechanisms I tried and that did work for me (in order of how much I like them).

The world is but a stage and we are merely players This is not about me! I am not presenting my own work, receiving criticism for it and standing up in front of a scientific crowd. This is just a stage play. And I love acting. Today my role is that of a bright young scientist, presenting her work at a conference. The audience is going to be wowed by the performance. Whenever I get nervous and struggle my mantra is "This is just a play. There will be applause when it is over. Nothing here can hurt you because you are doing it for your own entertainment." It works. The earlier I can get "in role" beforehand, the better. And after the applause, you are back to your own self, as always.

The imaginary friend There are multiple options for this. If there is a person who's presence makes you calm, imagine them sitting in a place where you can see them. Smiling, thumbs up, positive everything is going to be fine. Or select an unknown audience member to take their role. Smile at them when you get nervous, imagine getting a smile back. It can make you feel more secure and the audience will receive you as very present and pleasing.

The power position The students are not listening or seem to be silently laughing at my teaching? I will show them who the lecturer is. This is my lecture, my topic and whoever is diminishing the wisdom I teach will have the results served to them at the exams and in the assignments. I am not that bad. I am nice to students. But sometimes being the hard one internally makes it easier to be the nice one externally. Because you know what you could do... although you never will misuse your power, of course.

  • What you says contradicts one of your comments. Explain. – Megadeth Jun 13 '17 at 19:30
  • It is quite hard to explain, as I can't find any comment to this question that I might have written and I have written quite a bit of comments on this site. So either quote that comment or I won't be able to explain. – skymningen Jun 14 '17 at 7:10
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With regard to my own experiences of music performance, I would say there are two parts to this. Firstly there is how well you know your material, as has been discussed. However, as you and I both know, no matter how well one knows one's material, one can still be anxious. This is where you can start to look after your physical and mental wellbeing through other means.

You may think it's unusual, but never underestimate the importance of diet on improving one's mood. Before my big, majorly important master's performance which I had been dreading for months, I looked after my diet a lot, especially the few days leading up to it. I didn't eat unhealthily, I ate a lot of oily fish [mainly salmon], which gave me a feeling of contentment and mental wellbeing. I also drank less. Additionally, physical exercise. I worked out the morning of my performance: this helped to take a lot of the physical tension out of me and to relax me more.

Additionally, deal with your emotions. If you feel upset, worried etc, don't be afraid to cry about it to let it out. About three weeks before my performance I had to do so [unusual for me], which was a lot of the tension coming out. But it was good for me and I did feel better afterwards. All of these things combined worked because I ended up getting a distinction in my performance.

So we can have therapy etc, but sometimes the simplest things - food, exercise etc - we discount because we forget how effective they are and we don't think they will make enough difference. We tend to think other things will be more effective, but looking after how we treat our bodies can have a massive effect on our minds.

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Whether it may be mathematics, mastering an instrument or public speaking, to become proficient at any feat, one has to practice.

While there have been some clever suggestions made in the previous answers, what is surely to work is to continually expose yourself to this level of pressure and anxiety, either to the same degree, or gradually bit by bit, such as starting off with a presentation in a small group.

As an example from sport, the famous Williams sisters in tennis were subjected to verbal harassment by kids while they'd practice, who were paid by their father, to prepare them for playing in front of an audience. The point is not to go to such extremes, but rather that you can't expect to perform well from the get-go unless you learn to adapt these conditions.

Professor Cuddy from Harvard University, who has authored many papers and presented a TED talk on preparing for situations like public speaking and interviews, has many suggestions on dealing with these, such as what she calls power posing which noticeably decreases cortisol, a hormone related to stress.

I'll end with something tennis player Billie Jean King said, which is that pressure is a privilege. While these public speaking opportunities may be mortifying, that you are called upon to present your research and have an opportunity to contribute and interact with other researchers is a privilege, one worth learning to adapt to and perform well in.

  • Sadly almost all of Cuddy's results have failed to replicate, they simply don't work. There's plenty of good advice in this answer but that paragraph isn't it. – knzhou May 15 '18 at 10:54
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I had similar problems with performing at folk clubs. Even though I knew all the people there, and I knew they were all my friends, it was still incredibly stressful to stand up and perform. This inevitably took its toll on my singing and playing, of course.

I found this self-hypnosis CD made a massive difference for me. In particular, there was one visualisation exercise which really took care of my stagefright. I still get nervous in public, but now it's a normal level of adrenaline which is simply excitement. I'm similarly more confident with public speaking as well.

I'm sure there are plenty of similar products around, and there may be some better tailored to public speaking. All I can say is that that's the one I used.

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I'd start with professional help. Anxiety is often a treatable disorder, with cognitive behavioral therapy showing a success rate of about 50%. Start with a cognitive behavioral therapist. They treat anxiety disorders for a living. See where it goes from there.

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Glossophobia (fear of public speaking) is the #1 fear in America. What has worked for many people (including myself) is to practice in a low-stakes environment until you build confidence. That confidence you want is sure to come the more you practice and refine your techniques. With enough practice, the nervous fear you experience now will turn into positive energy which makes your presentation exciting. The more nervous fear you experience now, the more energy you will have as a polished speaker.

A group like your local Toastmasters club is a great place to practice. If you do a search, you'll probably find a club very near you, possibly at your school.

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The answer is really simple - take a public speaking course. It'll be a trial by fire at first but you'll improve with practice just like with everything else. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes :)

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Instead of using different psychological methods and drugs, I want to recommend you going for sports. And by that I actually mean any physical activities - even simple regular running will give you much more confidence. But to have better results, buy a subscription to a gym or start attending any sport training.

I am not talking about having some complexes about your appearance or anything, it's just about how you feel your own body, because that's what people see when you perform a lecture. And gaining confidence is really important for delivering good performances - instead of thinking about how you're nervous and want to end it as soon as possible, audience will better listen to what you have to say.

Moreover, being stressed harms your health, while doing physical exercises will reduce harm and make use of that adrenaline that your body has generated.

People of mind work often dig themselves too deep in their thoughts, while for interacting with other people you use your physical form - so, when you gain better control of your body, better "know yourself", you will see that it is still frightful to make presentations, but you can handle it. When you know you can handle it, fear will go away eventually.

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There are lots of things you can do:

  1. Be prepared: the better you know the subject, the less you can have problems. In top of that:

    • You might need some backup (cheating notes, e.g.) for in case you get into problems.
    • Before giving a presentation to anyone, first give it to a friendly audience (when I needed to give my dissertation speech, first I gave it to my promotor and two of his assistents, they afterwards told me that it was good and explained me what to take care of, I followed their advise and gave a good dissertation speech)
  2. Follow some courses, about presentation techniques, public speech, ..., and very important, follow courses where you can really test yourself: it makes no sense listening to somebody giving a great presentation if you don't get the opportunity to test yourself. By giving small public explanations about little things, you can get feedback from the rest of the class and you can build further from there.

  3. From the courses, get some small but useful tips and tricks, don't try to implement everything you learn from the course on your first presentation (be aware that it's an evolutionary process, which you'll learn bit by bit).

    • From my public speech course, I remember that I spoke very fast (I was so anxious that I wanted the presentation to be finished as soon as possible). During some try-outs one time I imagined that all people in the public were foreigners, not native speakers (although this was not the case), and because of that I started talking more slowly and I articulated very good. Since then I'm always using this trick.
    • From my presentation course, I remember the idea that the purpose of a presentation is to "Inspire" people. Not only does this word mean what it says, it also contains the structure of almost every presentation:
      In : Introduction (extremely important)
      S : Situation (what will you talk about)
      P : Problem (which problems will you tackle)
      R : Resolution (how will you solve those problems)
      E : End (also extremely important)
  4. Know yourself: every person has his or her own issues while dealing with public speaking: some people don't move and just stand there like a statue, they should move more. Others don't stop moving and they need to be aware not to do that so often. Some people need to hold something into their hands in order to have something to calm their nerves on (I always carry a pen), ..., all those things can be detected by yourself and the friendly audience from point 1.

  • While this answer is good for general speaking anxiety, it doesn't address the academic facet of this problem at all. – eykanal Feb 9 '17 at 14:57
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What sets public speaking apart from many other tasks where anxiety could mess up things, is the fact that anxiety is normal here, many people will either feel quite anxious wen giving talks or if they don't feel anything a heart rate monitor would betray that they are under some level of stress . So, the problem isn't so much that you have some level of anxiety, rather that it is too much or your body overreacts causing problems. And then you're bound to get extra anxiety because of the anticipated problems due to anxiety.

The best way to deal with this problem is to do what JamalS says in his answer: you must practice a lot. You then make your presentation immune to your anxiety. If you feel anxious, you'll tend to fare better sticking to what is routine, a well practiced presentation may actually end up being presented better due to anxiety compared to when you're feeling very relaxed. And if things go well a few times, your level of anxiety due to feeling anxious will drop because you won't worry anymore about feeling anxious. You can just classify what you feel as a good level of excitement that will help you give the talk.

Another thing you should do is to do regular exercise. When we exert ourselves the body redirects blood flow from its organs and the brain to the muscles. If you are not used to exercising then you'll get such effects already at moderate exertions like when you're a bit anxious before and during a talk. If you are used to running half an hour a few times per week at a heart rate of 150 bpm, you won't notice much when giving a talk even if your heart rate is increased to, say, 80 bpm from a resting heart rate of 50 bpm.

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You may want to discuss a medication called beta blockers with your doctor: http://www.anxieties.com/159/beta-blockers#.WJlJxyOU28U

I am suggesting you consider this type of pharmacological solution because it doesn't sound like your main problem lies with some deep-rooted insecurities/anxieties about the quality of your work but rather with the "mere" delivery of your presentation. By reducing your heartbeat, beta blockers remove the physical effects of the performance anxiety and can be very effective at eliminating e.g. the dreaded breathlessness, shaking, and slurred speech that many people will exhibit when in speaking in front of a crowd. Talk to your doctor about possible medication s/he would prescribe. Sometimes, removing those physical symptoms is enough to let one deliver lectures and seminars with confidence despite the kind of nerves you described. Good luck!

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    In my opinion, it is inappropriate to recommend specific pharmacological interventions without a personal assessment by a suitably trained professional. – Jack Aidley Feb 7 '17 at 9:54
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    I don't like giving -1. But, since I am a guy taking antipsychotics to function properly, the last thing I would recommend is taking pills, even of the safer kind, without medical supervision. Even with something like the beta blockers, I'd be cautious. – user21264 Feb 7 '17 at 17:31
  • Thanks for your feedback. Just to clarify, my answer does NOT advocate "a pharmacological intervention without assessment by a trained professional". Nor does it suggest "taking pills without medical supervision". I thus do not think your stated criticism is valid. The answer clearly states "TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR". It is then the medical professional who makes the decision and supervises the treatment, which - as my answer highlights - might include medication that indeed has been proven very effective in these circumstances. – user2705196 Feb 7 '17 at 21:28
  • As a side-note that is tangentially related to the above criticism: I am not talking about a psychopharmacological intervention but about beta blockers which have been shown to remove the physical side-effects of anxiety such as trembling and shortness of breath by lowering your heart rate. I wanted to mention this difference since Magicsowon brought up antipsychotics, which are an entirely different class of drugs. Either way I believe the advice to talk to your doctor about possible medication is sound. – user2705196 Feb 7 '17 at 21:34
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    I edited your answer to fit the spirit of your comments. See what you think. – aparente001 Feb 8 '17 at 4:20
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look for some experts in behavioral-cognitive therapy. It is very suitable for your issue and very effective (based on true scientific studies), you will little by little overcome your fears.

Don't start taking any drugs like some suggests, they are luckily not for you.

I am saying that because I am following this path for something way more hard than your problem and it is very beneficial.

Regards,

Andrea

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