Recently, I was at one of my university’s introductory conferences for new PGRs. After a few presentations we had to do a *shudder* icebreaking activity: it was a bingo card with things like “find someone who speaks more than 2 languages”. I’m going to be honest: I immediately had a panic attack. I was shaking as I stumbled over to the event organiser and tried to explain I had a pretty severe anxiety disorder.
First piece of advice: tell an organiser / staff member. All universities in the UK have disability awareness programmes and they are usually very supportive. Do not be afraid to approach someone for help!
The organiser took me to the nearby café area which was empty and got me a glass of water. She also offered me the use of her office. However, I felt it was best to at least stay on the periphery of what was going on. I had been having counselling on-and-off since my first year of my undergraduate degree and I had been making steady improvements over time. Today, as long as I have a bolt hole where I can calm down, I quickly recover from panic attacks that used to completely ruin my day.
Second piece of advice: do your best! If you can talk to one person, do that. If you need to take a break for half an hour and then dive back in, do that. If you need to leave, do that. Just remember: networking is important professionally and personally. So you really need to be pushing at the edges of your comfort zone.
At first, I waited for 10-15 minutes until I stopped crying. I then recalled my good friend, a PGR at a nearby university, who had emphasised heavily the importance of getting to know people. It would be no exaggeration to say they had inspired me to take up a PhD in the first place so I take their advice pretty seriously. I told myself that by networking I would make them proud, you may find it more useful to say “it will help my career”, “they’re just people” or “I can do it”.
Third piece of advice: Find your motivator and make it a mantra. Anytime you find yourself faltering or feeling nervous just repeat that mantra in your head. It gives you something to aim for and can help block out intrusive worrying thoughts.
I quietly went back into the hub-bub and sat down as people milled around me. I faced away from the crowd and looked out a window so I didn’t feel trapped by the crowd and could get my bearings. After a minute someone came and spoke to me (thank you dreaded icebreaker activity!) once he moved on I got up and looked for my own target. Suddenly I heard the dulcet tones of an American: stereotypically friendly and sociable, I had found my perfect networking partner. Bolstered by our easy conversation I quickly moved on to some other friendly faces and then I struck a goldmine: after explaining that I’d had a panic attack due to anxiety my new friend replied: “oh yeah, I have anxiety too”.
Fourth piece of advice: be open about your anxiety you’ll most likely find someone struggling with the same thing. The sense of relief you will feel at finding this out will be palpable.
We stood chatting about how we hated networking until we were approached by a bubbly PGR who began talking about her research into polar bears (top tip: research into cute/interesting animal is an even better icebreaker than bingo). Soon after someone else approached to meet our threesome and we, the most antisocial people at the darned thing, found ourselves at the centre of a hub of people talking about their research and making friends.
Networking is an uncomfortable experience for most people and if you have anxiety it can be pretty overwhelming. I think it’s important to remember that even if you have a panic attack or become visibly anxious, you can come back after you’ve calmed down and try again.
Just remember, you can do this.
If you’d like to learn more about anxiety, either for yourself or to help a loved one, check out the Mind website. They have really helpful advice and resources for people with a variety of mental health issues and their support networks.