Psychiatry & Psychology--General/Nervousness


QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. I have a problem where I become extremely nervous in most social settings. One of the biggest issues for me has been going to job interviews. I understand that being nervous is common for many, but in my case, it is extreme. I fight with myself of whether to even attend the interview up until the last minute. I've had only 2 interviews in the past year. I did decide to enter the building each time for the interview, but my nervousness caused me to stutter and sweat during the actual interview. Moreover, another big issue related to this problem is answering phones. I'm terrified to speak to employers and other people that I haven't been introduced to over the phone. I can't explain it or find a reason. My question is whether you have any tips to overcome this? Do you have any idea what psychology is behind this?

Thank you so much for reading.

ANSWER: Jack, it's a form of "public speaking anxiety," commonly termed "stage fright." Highly common, as you know.

The psych behind it doesn't matter; what's important is how to handle it.

Often it's circular. You feel anxious so you sound nervous. You hear your nervous voice and that's upsetting in itself. That makes you sound more scared, which you become, which you sound like, and which increases the anxiety. But you can break the circle by declaring it at the outset -- "How do you do. If I may start with a little announcement, I feel scared to death at a job interview, so if I sound nervous it's cause I am, but once on the job I'll be fine -- as long as the job doesn't consist of being interviewed." That way, you don't have to worry about sounding anxious.

Practice may help, especially if you can find a firm or a practitioner that conducts mock job interviews or other public-speaking tasks.

There are anti-anxiety medications that seem to help some people. Any physician can discuss this with you and prescribe a short course preceding the event, but psychiatrists are more aware of them than GPs.

In your job application, you could mention that you don't interview well, but you predict they will be pleased with your work.

Like scoring points in a presidential debate is unlikely to predict presidential performance, the skills that make for an impressive job interviewee are unlikely to be those that are needed on the job, but the interview is a standard hurdle you have to go through -- if only to show that you don't have two heads or bad manners.

Hope that will help a little, and feel free to send me a follow-up with your reaction.

All the best, Alan

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


I really appreciate you taking the time to write that response. I love the ideas you presented, especially about being straightforward with the employer about my poor interviewing skills. The strange thing is that in high school, I took a class called "Ventures," which required mock interviews with real-world professionals and I felt pretty good about doing them. I feel like since then I have only gone downhill. I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease and have had a tough time getting it under control. I'm not sure if it plays any role in my anxiety.

I'm not sure if you have any insight into Crohn's Disease, but do you think seeing a therapist would be beneficial?


The objective wasn't to be straightforward (as if to not disclose would somehow be devious) but simply to reduce the pressure.

The simple answers to your last sentence are "probably no but it's complicated" and maybe.

Crohn's might aggravate any symptoms not directly, but conceivably insofar as having such a disorder makes you feel weaker and more vulnerable. Anxiety typically shows up in the GI and GU systems (think of the "nervous pee" and the "nervous poo") but I think that Crohn's is related to genetics, bacteria, and such non-psychological causes.  Still, if there is any causal relationship, I'd bet on the anxiety at least affecting if not causing the Crohn's.

In the unlikely event that you're told you need surgery, it won't much matter who you are or who the surgeon is and how well you get along, but psychotherapy is vastly more individual. I'd suggest finding a mental-health professional (psychiatrist, or more accessible and less costly clinical psychologist) with experience in anxiety issues, and give it a go.  With situations like yours, I'd predict that one-third report valued improvement, one-third find it made no difference, and the rest weren't sure or even suspected it made things worse.  Maybe find more than one. You seem to have good intuition and should be able to evaluate the usefulness in short order.  

Sadly, the voice doesn't always reflect the intellect. Think of Steven Hawking sitting a job interview.

Finally, if you have good library access, there's a paper on strategies for stage-fright (I should remember the title since I wrote it, but I can't) in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, I think in the late 60's.


Another thing. Research shows that where there's a specific feared event (done on novice parachutists but similar to a scheduled interview), the closer the time, the more the anxiety. You would assume that if it's this bad the morning of the interview day, by the time it gets underway, you're at the collapse stage. What's essential to know is that when the time comes and the event is in process (jumping out of the plane), the anxiety drops suddenly and hugely.
So don't incorrectly project what you expect to happen.

With thanks for the ratings, A.  

Psychiatry & Psychology--General

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Alan Auerbach


Taught psychology for 30 years, authored four textbooks. Specialize in introductory and industrial/organizational psychology, but will tackle wider range of areas.

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