Thursday, February 11, 2016

What It Feels Like to Freeze on National Television

I am reflecting here on the worst public embarrassment of my career. Two days ago I appeared live on television on ABC News Breakfast to provide comment on North Korea’s recent rocket launch, a topic on which I have written and spoken about extensively. The interview was a disaster from the get-go as I melted down under the weight of anxiety. The experience was mortifying, the feeling afterward devastating and the humiliation very very public.

Reliving the interview in my mind continues to be excruciating. However, I am writing about it now in an effort to “own” the experience, to thank the people who offered me support in the hours following the interview, and to make a broader point about anxiety and mental health.

Experiencing “the freeze”

I’m not the first person to freeze up on the big stage and I won’t be the last. But what does this experience actually feel like? I don’t need your sympathy, but I would like to share this story in solidarity with the large number of people who struggle with social anxieties on a daily basis.

I was contacted by the ABC studio in the afternoon on Sunday with an invitation to appear on News Breakfast the following morning, an invitation which I gladly accepted. It’s not the first time I’ve appeared on TV and I was confident in offering comment on my area of expertise. North Korea’s nuclear aspirations is a topic I have written on extensively and spoken about in the media and other public forums.

In doing the News Breakfast interview I inadvertently thrust my life-long battle with severe anxiety into the public domain. The moment I accepted the interview invitation on Sunday afternoon I started experiencing a steadily growing anxiousness that peaked as Michael Rowland threw to me in the ABC studio. I watched an NBA basketball game on TV on Sunday night but I couldn’t tell you a single detail about the game. Rather than go to sleep as PM ticked over to AM, I became increasingly wired as I ruminated endlessly on what I would say in the interview, what I would wear and how I would get to the ABC studio in Southbank in the early morning, among other things. As an introverted personality type I have a richer inner world but with an early start and an appearance on national TV looming my brain slipped into a state of hyper-arousal. I did not sleep a single minute before I jumped on the train to the city on Monday morning.

I arrived at the ABC’s Southbank studio in plenty of time before the schedule interview. I checked in at the security desk and waited about ten minutes before a member of the News Breakfast team escorted me upstairs. Next I was taken into the make-up suite to get daubed with foundation. In hindsight, my inability to say anything cogent about my interview topic in small talk with the friendly make-up person may have been a sign of things to come. From there I was brought into the TV studio office, where the presenters research their stories of the day off-air and support staff arrange interviewees and content feeds from around the world. I waited there for about twenty-five minutes, absent-mindedly scanning old newspapers while watching the goings-on about the office and repeating what I wanted to say about the North Korean rocket launch over and over in my head.

About two minutes before my interview I was taken into the studio editing room, which looked something akin to the situation room at the Oval Office, with numerous TV screens, computer monitors and other equipment sequestered in an otherwise dark, small room. Both the office and the editing room were an intense hive of fast-paced, urgent activity.

During the on-air story prior to my interview I was then led into the studio itself, where I was miked up and sat down next to Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland, who both introduced themselves and shook my hand. Filled with cameras, auto-prompter screens, TVs and computer screens under the desk, I experienced the studio as a claustrophobic environment and felt instant discomfort.

The lead-in story to my interview was a piece on Whitehouse spokesperson Sam Powers’ official statement on the American reaction to the North Korean rocket launch. I remember thinking that I’d cite Powers’ remarks in my comments. As the Sam Powers story ended and the tech guys were counting in the live camera feed to the studio desk, I began to experience what could generally be described as a panic attack. I could feel my body over-load with adrenaline as my entire physique heated up, my muscles deadened and my skin began to vibrate as if being shocked with a mild electric current.

Michael Rowland introduced me and then threw to me with his first question. I have no memory of his actual question, my mind all of the sudden swimming in a haze. As I realised that seconds were ticking away without me forming a coherent answer, the physical anxiety reactions intensified. I babbled and stumbled, my carefully prepared comments slipping away from my conscious awareness. Michael and Virginia, seeing that I was struggling, asked prompting questions in an effort to change tack and help me out of the hole. I very much appreciated their efforts to shepherd me through the interview, but it was to no avail. With every question they asked I struggled even more as my anxiety symptoms took complete command of my body and mind. Finally I gave in and said “I can’t do this,” and Michael and the editors quickly threw to the next story.

by Dr Benjamin Habib | Read more:
Image: ABC News Breakfast