The pressures of presenting before an audience in a favorable and educated way is enough to make even the most practiced students’ hearts flutter. However, for students with severe or social anxiety disorders, giving presentations feels paralyzing.
In surveys assessing Americans’ fears, public speaking either tops the list or ranks among the top 100, and it’s easy to understand why. Public speaking skills haunt almost every job in the workforce. According to a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, oral communication skills are highly sought-after, with 90 percent of hiring managers prioritizing these abilities.
Public speaking deserves special emphasis in our curriculum. But our University needs to accommodate students who underperform in this setting due to diagnosable anxiety disorders. Specifically, professors can offer a safe yet effective alternative to in-class presentations.
“When you have a physical disability, it’s easy for people to see why you can’t do certain things,” said Marian Eccari, a radio-television-film and Russian studies junior. “But when it comes to mental illnesses people rarely take it into consideration, even if you try to explain it.”
Though student anxiety is the leading issue facing college counseling centers, it’s difficult for people to make a mental distinction between stress-induced nerves and a clinical illness. This may explain why alternative assignments haven’t been made available yet.
“Anxiety itself isn’t wrong or dangerous,” said Michael Mullarkey, a psychology graduate student and researcher in UT’s Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders. “Anxiety becomes pathological or a disorder when instead of helping us do things more effectively, it makes it really hard for us to do things, or we stop doing things completely.”
Mullarkey said students with social anxiety are more prone to focus on things that are going wrong in a presentation, and to interpret ambiguous information with a negative slant. If they were giving a speech and saw a student on their phone, for instance, they would be distracted by the apparent lack of interest.
Furthermore, the combined social and academic pressures of public speaking often lead to debilitating physical reactions for students with anxiety. This causes them to underperform where, given a different environment, they could otherwise excel. By providing a similar alternative to public speaking, students with anxiety will be able to foster presentation skills essential in the workforce in a healthy way.
There are options for students to learn effective coping mechanisms and gradually lessen their public speaking fear. Exposure therapy — a method of lessening anxiety by introducing patients to their fears in a controlled environment — has proved to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. UT offers exposure therapy at the CMHC and the Anxiety and Stress Clinic.
“(Exposure therapy) gives people the opportunity to see that the terrible things they’re worried about don’t happen or if they do, they’re not nearly as bad as they expect them to be,” Mullarkey said.
Still, not all students have the flexibility or resources to seek frequent structured treatment. Additionally, it is difficult for students to gauge their reactions when it is time to deliver a presentation. As such, there should be a second option in place.
A professor’s highest priority should be to measure our learning, but to truly uphold this commitment, they need to offer a one-on-one alternative to in-class presentations and speeches. There are too many college students suffering from anxiety to ignore this issue. In a safer environment, students with anxiety will have a chance to showcase their abilities.
David is a rhetoric and writing sophomore from Allen.