Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pressure! 10 Methods of Managing Conference Anxiety

"These are the days that it never rains, but it pours"
Queen & David Bowie, Under Pressure


Following in the wake of a wonderful and inviting experience of the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and an array of insightful reflections, I wanted to offer another perspective which is very real for many who attend such conferences: anxiety.

In the following post, I examine ten methods for handling conference anxiety, which are not presented proscriptively, but as descriptions of how I and others have navigated such events. With each, I offer some positive and negative consequences which can crop up from these methods, but do not suggest that one might completely avoid any fall-out or that a simple “middle of the road” approach might be taken to minimize highs and lows.

Likewise I invite anyone to add their own methods of management and their own consequences not listed, as this list hardly captures all experience, or even a single experience, completely. As mentioned, this is more of a personal reflection put into an objectified analysis than an exhausted expert opinion; quite like a peer amateur sharing notes with other peers.


1. Feeling the Anxiety

This is in no way to cast a negative light on Kalamazoo, hardly, as any such event with various social, mental and physical demands can be anxiety producing. Really, anxiety is often something which we carry with us which needs very little excuse to rise up. While approaching a conference as a stressor, it might well be any similar event, and will be addressed primarily in how it offers the anxious person a variety of ways to manage such crip-ing sensations.

For many, like myself, anxiety-depression is a chronic experience which is not cured but managed. It is still useful to know different triggers and tactics to assuage symptoms. For others, anxiety can still be a frequent enough struggle when situations such as Conferences present stressors which can make otherwise enjoyable events troublesome. In any case, stressors can be positive and negative simultaneously, and will color our lives through the mediums by which we handle them.

  • Advantages: Anxiety is a kind of excitement, and although it may feel "bad" many of those who experience it regularly may also find that it comes along indistinguishable from bursts of energy, elation, even joy. Anxiety can get the mind going and focused, feeling an extra sense of dread over a looming event and thus inspire a lot of work to get done very quickly. Many procrastinators count on the boost of anxiety right before a deadline to whip them into shape and allow them to back-load time spent working. Anxiety may even come to feel like a naturalized tension which lets one know they are still alive; like how a sore muscle tells a person that their arm is very much there. Many thrill seekers invite this kind of anxiety and for those with depression-anxiety, feeling tense is often much preferable to feeling melancholy; better moody Mr. Hyde than dreary Dr Jekyll. 

  • Disadvantages: For those with a heart-condition, such as myself, while I am young, there is still the pressure to try to relax so that invasive surgery won't be needed later on because of excess strain. Since anxiety can come along with the feeling of excitement, there is a way in which even a happy moment may become a source of dread which can't be taken without worry. As many procrastinators will likely admit, counting on anxiety near a deadline can often be a very painful and exhausting process which is not likely to make one want to soon repeat the procedure. Also, as tests on the effects of caffeine have demonstrated, the burst of anxiety in the brain may motivate what feels like more rapid results, they are often riddled with little mistakes and risky decisions which a more sober mind would have plodded through with less violence. Then there is again the observation that anxiety doesn't often "feel good" and can be a real source of suffering and alienation.


2. Deflecting with Other Anxieties/Procrastinating

This is a pattern which I have been reminded of several times by a few of my close friends and colleagues as conference time nears or other major projects are coming to an end. Often while my work-load mounts and I am making preparations to set off somewhere, I find a million and one things suddenly coming to my attention. I will complain that I’d be able to enjoy things coming to a head, if only I didn’t have this or that distracting me. Of course, most often, I am letting them distract me or even inviting this distraction. It may be that the things which I raise as stressors at these times ARE truly concerns worth worrying over, but very likely, and once the conference has ended I usually realize, they are just as well handled on their own separately. I hardly need to carry the whole world’s problems on my back all at once. This reveals, along with my friend’s reminders, that this is very much a tactic of my own in dealing with anxiety, and it has certain benefits as well as draw-backs:

  • Advantages: Deflection does allow me to see my conference anxiety (or other stressor) in a much a diminished light or else in context. Very often the conference is hardly the biggest concern on my plate, even if it is the task at hand. As a method of management, deflection often lets me approach my stressors obliquely.  By attacking them not-head-on I can be much more measured in my approach and receive more tactical results

  • Disadvantages: Very evidently a distraction is a distraction and can divert resources, energy and attention, away from the matter at hand (i.e. the conference) which is often a time sensitive matter. Additionally, having too many distractions or too large ones added on can lead to the feeling of being overwhelmed. For those prone to panic attacks, distractions can start off light and soon becoming overwhelming.

3. Diving In/Over-Preparing

I have been told by casual observers that they would hardly guess that I feel either anxiety or depression related to things like work or conferences. “Oh, you are so productive, how could you possibly say you are depressed?” Of course for those who experience anxiety or depression, one common tactic of dealing with the stressors is diving into them ruthlessly. GK Chesterton describes madness (for him a purely intellectual, not neurological affair) as being a perfectly logical but narrow circle of thought. I find this visualization useful in describing my work at times of high stress. I worry and so I work, and when my work makes me worry, I work more. The advantages and disadvantages offer themselves immediately:

  • Advantages: It does get work done. In this way anxiety is not only a common chronic condition for many academics, it is often a well rewarded one. It encourages extra research to get done, neurotic fact checking (a phrase I intend to be using descriptively), and generally thorough analysis. In conferences this may also take the form of arriving with every minute planned and with an extremely well stocked suit-case.

  • Disadvantages: While the difference between “preparing” and “over-preparing” is relatively subjective, or at least individual, there is the sense that one has crossed into over-preparation in the signs of excess. Spending an excess of time, at the expense of other usual routines or joys, working on a paper or a calendar which has already been well finished. Coming to the conference with an over-loaded bag or with a schedule packed too full to be enjoyable are likewise painful consequences. Even the work or the social interactions may feel the strain of being over-worked or too exuberantly attacked. Papers and people generally dislike recklessly fixated attention.


4. Finding Private Time

On the social spectrum of conference anxiety, the push to network, meet new people and navigate crowds can be not only strong but overwhelming. In response to this, many, myself included, find it necessary to duck out for a while, sleep in, or head in early as means of finding solitude away from the demands to be social. Personally, these retreats are often taken as a last ditch remedy when I have interacted with others beyond my ability to remain mentally or emotionally fresh. The energy required to remain sensitive, engaged, and excited about the many wonderful people I am meeting can have high costs on my nerves, which may be sustained for the first night, but quickly as the hours and days go on can really take its toll so that by the end I have a glazed look in my eyes even when my head and my heart desire to trust forward and remain with the crowds. As such, certain advantages and disadvantages are present in taking various respites into solitude:

  • Advantages: Solitude, even artificial solitude such as offered by a book or head-phones, can give the very physical, as well as mental and emotional rest which is needed to keep up marathon socializing. A great meal, especially one with many courses, often comes with breaks and pallet cleansers, and so too do meetings. Coffee breaks may focus around a certain stimulant, but really any relaxation or escape could be built in its place. While numerous conference new-comers will follow the urge to get as much in as possible, many of the more experienced will often suggest not trying to attend every event or panel, but to take time to go for walks, explore alone, or check out the hotel pool/athletic center as ways to make the most of the things which are attended.

  • Disadvantages: Solitude has its cost, and logically its cost can be missing out on hearing great conversations or meeting new people. For those who can already feel alone in a crowd, this solitude may only make manifest the feelings already experienced. Many have accounted, and I can attest, going to events or conferences and coming away feeling like staying at home all weekend would have served just as well. There can even be a sense of guilt for not “taking advantage” or “getting the most” out of the conference. These are feelings which can manifest anxiety’s all too often partner in crime: depression. 

5. Bringing Friends Along

For those who fear solitude or being the awkward wall-flower at conferences more than being overwhelmed with people, bringing friends or attaching to specific conference buddies there can offer a real break from this anxiety. Very often conference become an event which is primarily the chance to travel with friends or colleagues, or else to meet up with others from other institutions or geographic locations which make it hard to see otherwise. This of course is part of the design of many conferences which aim at turning a smattering of independent scholars into a community. And a community itself has its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: Friends are friends for a reason! The company, the shared interested, the familiarity and affection shared among a group can enhance and strengthen projects from the conference itself to larger works which the conference may only be a part. Then there is the sincere joy which comes with being in the company of friends, especially in specific and memorable events such as those shared at conferences. These common experiences and mind-sets can unexpectedly turn such a meeting into the spark which grows into new projects and introduce new people into the fold. Friendship, writes CS Lewis,  as a type of love or affection, appears inherently inclined to include more into the fold. Two friends are often very glad to be joined by a third, and such communities can grow into starting conferences of their own.

  • Disadvantages: There is of course the danger of coming to a conference with too much of a ready made result in hand. Just like over-working can over-determine the outcome of the project, leaving out the element of surprise or distraction, so too can over-determining the social crowd before one arrives at a conference limit the introduction of surprise friendships or excursions. As one might miss out on meeting new persons by going off by one’s self, so too might these meetings be missed by remaining cloistered with one’s own set.  Lewis mentioned that two friends would like a third, but this may not be possible if they leave their backs to the rest or speak only in a language or set of shared experiences which entirely preclude others. There is a sense in which the worry of “well, I could have done this at home” may well be true, if one does not take advantage of the unique offerings of a conference.


6. Mood Changers (i.e. Alcohol, Coffee, Nicotine, Sleep Deprivation, etc.)

One thing that many who hear when I'm feeling anxious is that there is no need to be, usually followed by some logical reasons for this claim. However, as many with anxiety know, it is very much about chemicals and wiring in the brain. One can usually hardly blame a person for being anxious or tell them that they have no need for being so, because anxiety can come without rational cause; or rather, its cause is not a matter of conscious effects but as the result of genetics, development, chemical imbalances, blood-sugar, physical stress, trauma, etc. As a result chemically altering the state of the mind/brain can work more directly in combating anxiety than many conscious changes to thinking or behavioral patterns alone. Whether its substances, food, sleep, or lack there of there are powers of relaxation, freedom, or lethargy which can be opened up chemically. Of course these methods have their own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: Especially in combination with changes to patterns of thought and behavior patterns, mood changers can enable many activities which anxiety might inhibit or make less enjoyable. Sometimes very little coffee, a shot of scotch, a quick smoke, or a days worth of exhaustion is enough to calm down or control the nerves well enough to make other methods of dealing with anxiety more manageable. Then again, these mood changers may bring with them enjoyable effects of their own, from inebriation, to excitement, to sleepless delirium. Often these activities can be shared with others, making bars and cafes great places to continue to activity of networking at conferences. Many conferences seem to anticipate this and often provide coffee breaks, late night parties, or open-bars as ways to allow people to chemically tone up or down their bodies, so they can relax and have fun.

  • Disadvantages: Each mood changer comes with its own dangers and over-consumption. From the head-ache, to the hang-over, to the zombified insomniac there are many apparent disadvantages to mild to intense use of mood changers. One may experience a decrease in anxiety for a time, only to feel the next day increased anxiety either by the affected actions or physical consequences of the night before. Then there is concerns about dependency or addiction. Other issues such as allergies may crop up. Some doctors have noted that such allergies may in fact counter things like alcoholism but likewise inhibit abundant enjoyment of liquors other effects. With these concerns come problems of expense, as going to a bar every night or paying for anxiety pills, etc are often beyond many's ability to afford. Again, I would stress that the effects of specific mood-changers on specific people are usually so individual it can be hard to predict or summarize all the benefits or concerns that may come along.


7. Working Out

Looking at the physiological effects of anxiety, it replicates fight or flight instincts. The heart rate rises, the brain shuts down and fires up sections which allow for quick assessment of the surroundings and immediate action to be taken with little contemplation, the muscles tense, and there is often the irony taste in the mouth which signals extra adrenaline in the system. As a result, working out or other physical activity is often a logical answer to manage the symptoms of anxiety. Personally, I don't do this enough, in general, but I have found that going swimming at the hotel several times during a conference really does help me clear my head and relax my nerves. Evident in this is the double admission of certain advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: By choosing a physical activity, the anxiety can have a temporary object to focus on; from running a certain amount, lifting so much, or swimming for so long. This also has the mental benefit of giving the symptoms of anxiety a new context. Why is my heart rate raised? Is there danger? No, I am just working out. After working out there is also a release of endorphin which are often inhibited in anxiety and depression. The body goes through cycles of relaxation and will help ensure better sleep later, thus allowing there not to be as much energy available to feel anxious.

  • Disadvantages: Like many who try to work out more than I actually get to doing it, there are numerous excuses which note real disadvantages to regularly working out, especially at conferences. Working out can take a lot of time, not only to perform but to get ready for and then to shower off from. In an already packed schedule in which events are back to back and you may already be working on little sleep, adding an extra hour or so to work out can be a real strain. Then again, if you are sleeping little and doing a lot during the day, you may have the energy to feel anxious but not enough to will yourself to work out. Other social engagements may likewise interfere with schedules, as it is not always common than friends, especially ones you just met, will want to spend the same amount of time working out as you might. This can conflate many of the solitary-inducing issues raised by other methods of anxiety management. 


8. Performances

Personally, while giving talks in public can be an overwhelming source of anxiety for many, the podium and the show are familiar theaters because of the scripts and purposes they provide. This need not mean that you are being insincere, but giving talks, bringing with a guitar, asking questions during Q & A, and other performance like exhibitions can be great ways to take advantage of familiar scripts of social interaction and diminish the anxiety by allowing programmed roles to take their course. This of course has its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: Performances are great ice-breakers. Talks, Q &A's, bringing out a guitar or meeting up at bars/dances can all provide the formula of social interactions until you can break free from them with diminished anxiety. When the guitar has been put down after a couple hours of playing, even though there may not have been a lot of conversation or deviation from pretty scripted interactions between performed, audience and instrument, all may feel a sense of comradeship which allows further conversation to be more relaxed. A lot of information can be likewise given during these scenes: name, profession, interests, anecdotes, home-towns, etc. There may even be the establishment of codes or intentions during this ritualized relationship which can be tapped into later.

  •  Disadvantages: Scripts are constricting and may set up boundaries or hierarchies which are difficult to cross. One may find that certain roles are not shaken loose after the formal execution of their duties have been performed. There is also the risk that the persona of the show is not a sincere or an attractive version of the self with which others might wish to interact. This can itself cause further frictions and anxieties. Then there is the stress of performing itself which can take over as the dominant, even overwhelming source of anxiety which covers the whole conference. Then there is the stress involved in being asked to step down from the stage, to cast aside the role, or to interact less formally, and then if there is an insistence on performing, it may make one seem or feel a bit of a show-boat. Over-performing can be a very apparent sign of anxiety, even more than a sign of pride; although this too may be confused. Likewise, anxious performances are often rife with little unintentional elements which may only snow-ball and add to the stress of the situation.

9. Finding Projects

While performing can be good for a while, it eventually ends, and for me it's the seeming chaos of the off-stage that can be disorienting for me. Much like reading or listening to music, there are ways of finding peace or taking control of an anxiety-producing situation by making the event into a kind of game. Projects such photography or journaling (even blogging!) are great ways to provide a sense of objectivity on an event and with it a feeling of distance that assuages fears that come with personal intimacy. These projects and shows however have certain advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: While I enjoy both these activities for their own sake, they are also methods by which I can be present and observe events without feeling too exposed. I can be a fly on the wall. Likewise the sense of having a role to play or a project to work on produces a predictable script which gives a sense of control. Then again after events I now have an interesting reflection to share, an artful set of photographs, or an in depth description in a journal for later reading. There are any number of "wins" or "prizes" as the result of various games or projects which is applied to the conference process, and can range from the generally useful to the very idiosyncratic joy of accomplishing a "dare" or "challenge" one posed to the self, such as meeting X number of people.

  • Disadvantages: Socially, treating a conference as a project or a game can be quite off-putting for others. It may be hard to get to know a person who forever has a camera in hand or a journal in hand. It may also make a person feel like they are simply objects kept at a distance for study and not a person to be engaged with. Likewise feeling like the conversation of friendship just formed was the result of some sort of "dare" or "game" can make some feel like there is a lack of sincerity; even if it was genuinely enjoyed. For the "gamer" there is also the challenge that they are hard to keep up and in the long term things may change to quickly or go on too long for them to be effective. Eventually one has enough photos or notes or the challenge couldn't end up being accomplished in the given circumstances. New projects can be begun, of course, but this itself may take work and become a source of even greater anxiety.


10. Not Feeling the Anxiety/Not Attending Conferences

Simply not attending conferences is the answer for many on how to manage the anxiety they provoke. This may also take the form of limiting the amount of conferences attended to a manageable number. Picking just a few conferences may allow those events, despite the anxiety they produce, to be better enjoyed than attending such a number that you become burnt out from the stress. There are also ways in which a person can chose to only attend part of a conference, such as the first day or so, the last few days, only mornings, only afternoons, etc, and as a result enjoy them just as much as is possible without becoming overwhelmed. There is sense in not pursuing things which are extra difficult for you just because "everyone else does it" or just to prove you can. Feeling like you "must" just because its "hard" is just as much of a trap as feeling like you "can't." Here the advantages and disadvantages are so bound up in the very personal decision of what to do and not to do that it may not need to articulated separately.

I would also like to open up the conversation to anyone who has other ideas that were not mentioned on this very personal and far from exhausted list on ways of managing anxiety. 



  1. MW: great post, and I especially enjoyed your care to include "advantages/disadvantages" under each point. i would say that for me, the best approach to kalamazoo is to get the paper done early (but not TOO early; don't want to leave enough time for radical doubts to creep in) so that i'm not stressing about it just prior to presentation. preferably do a works in progress among peers at school so that i can practice presenting and get some useful feedback. while i'm at kalamazoo i always make time to go running in the morning (if i'm not too hung-over) and go to at least a few panels by myself, purely out of interest, instead of going with one big group from one to another. finally, i have a vacation in the detroit area (where i grew up) immediately afterwards, so i'm always looking forward to that and feeling like i'm half on vacation already...

    thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks David! I like your method. I've heard that described as sort of a gift to your future self; getting things done early and front-loading your work. I also like the idea of doing works in progress, both as ways to deal with the labor in stages but also to sort of hit the ground running for the actual conference. Thanks for all your input!