I have been to a lot of conferences in my life. Some have been amazing, offering unique opportunities to learn new skills and to network with leaders in my field.
Others have been tedious, leaving me struggling to stay awake in rooms cold enough to double as meat lockers (although, to be fair, cold rooms aren’t exclusive to boring conferences).
All, unfortunately, have been stressful.
Jenny Fearful and Anxious
It’s only been in the last few years—after being diagnosed with anxiety—that I have really understood why conferences stress me out so much. I’m an extrovert who loves to travel and who loves to learn which means I should love conferences, right? And I do. Mostly.
The part I don’t love is the fear and anxiety conferences trigger.
I’ll take the rubber chicken dinners conferences are known for any day over the nagging voice in my head, telling me I will never be “enough” and that the kindness other attendees show me is pity and not friendship.
I don’t actually think this is true—mostly—but the energy I have to devote to shouting down that voice is tremendous, and can leave me trembling with exhaustion instead of inspired to take action based on what I learned.
This is what I experienced recently after attending the premiere conference for personal finance bloggers (yes, there is such a thing). FinCon bills itself as the place “where money and media meet” and based on my experience as a first-time attendee, this tag line is spot on.
The event offered me more ideas for this blog than I could implement in a lifetime, let alone between now and next year’s conference (it’s an annual event). It was also great to meet in real life the other amazing bloggers I have, up until now, only known through Twitter or Facebook.
But, oh my goodness, was it ever stressful.
My Achilles Heel
My Achilles Heel is not my feet. I actually think I have okay looking feet (although I wouldn’t mind if they were a little smaller because it can be hard finding shoes that fit!).
Nope, my weakness is how the rest of me looks, and when my anxiety kicks into high gear, it’s my insecurities about how I look that wash over me like a wave of toxic sludge, affecting not just how I interact with other people but even my ability to learn.
I hate that this happens but hating it doesn’t stop the negative self-talk from being my constant companion. My only option is to manage it.
For FinCon, I did a lot of things right to get ahead of what I knew would be a stressful situation.
I did screw up one thing though, which I write about below. In an amazing turn of events, however, another blogger I really admire stepped in—without even knowing how much I was struggling—to remind me that this voice does not reflect reality.
Preparing for Stressful Situations: What I Did Right
Here are some of the things I did right before, during, and after the conference that could help you too.
I find it much easier to ignore the negative self-talk going on in my head when I have something else to focus on, so I made sure to plan several activities in advance.
The first thing I did was to go through the schedule and identify the events and sessions I wanted to attend. If two sessions conflicted, I spent time thinking about which one I wanted to attend live and which one I would be okay watching as a replay through the virtual pass.
I didn’t stop there, however. I also:
- Made plans with some of the attendees who I already knew, ensuring there would be a few friendly faces in the crowd
- Identified attendees I did not already know who I wanted to meet so I could be on the lookout for them
- Upgraded to the more expensive registration package which allowed me to set up meetings with some of the brands that would be there and to participate in a reception just for this smaller group
- Signed up for a mentoring session offered by conference organizers
- Volunteered to help with one of the events that was going to take place.
I also identified an escape route. Because I drove, this was just a matter of confirming it would be easy to get on and off the property and that there was stuff to do in the area.
During the Conference
Once I was there, I tried to prioritize self-care. This included:
- Being willing to change up my plans, such as missing a session so I could grab another hour of sleep (I hated doing this because I really wanted to meet one of the speakers—she is a co-host of a podcast I enjoy—but I needed the rest more)
- Giving people the benefit of the doubt if a conversation was stilted or if someone passed me in the hallway without acknowledging we had met
- Understanding and accepting that some of my energy would be devoted to managing my anxiety
- Limiting technology (many of the people I follow on Instagram and Twitter were at the conference and posting things throughout. I wanted to keep up with their feeds and like and comment but doing so would have meant spending a lot of time on my phone plus seeing the pictures triggered FOMO so in the end, I put my phone away)
- Not weighing myself down physically with a computer or other unnecessary stuff (because even the lightest computer gets heavy after carrying it around for hours).
After It Was Over
It would have been easy to just breath a big sigh of relief once the conference was over and put it behind me but doing so would defeat the whole purpose of going: to learn and to network. So, here is what I did instead:
- Scheduled an extra day off work to give me time to rest and recover (and to get back in the good graces of my cats who were annoyed I had abandoned them)
- Reviewed my notes and followed up with anyone I needed to follow up with
- Connected with the people I met on social media
- Spent time thinking about how I was going to implement what I learned.
These actions not only ensured I made the most of the conference but helped me feel like I was in control, not my anxiety.
My Giant Fail
So what was my giant fail? Well, as noted above, the way my anxiety usually manifests itself is with negative self-talk about my appearance. When it is really bad, it can make it hard to look at pictures of myself because I hate the image staring back at me.
Because of this, I avoided being in a lot of pictures at FinCon, or made sure if I was in a picture, I was in the back (I am tall so this is not hard to do).
However, as part of the conference they were offering free head shots and since I love free, I decided to get my picture taken even though I knew it was going to be hard to look at the results.
And it was. The poor photographer took five or six shots and I told him I hated all of them. I didn’t even stick around to pick the one I hated the least for them to upload to the event site, leaving that decision to him.
After running out of the expo center, I took some deep breaths and told myself that I would not let my anxiety win. I grabbed my phone and marched over to one of the FinCon banners determined to take a selfie and to not hate the image staring back at me.
I had managed to take a couple of pictures when Rosemarie Groner, a blogger I admire and who I had just met for the first time the previous evening, hopped into the frame.
You know what this meant, right? Someone I look up to put herself into a position to be photographed with me, without any prompting on my part! Thankfully, I managed to not burst into tears at this moment, merely laughing and thanking her for jumping in.
She didn’t know it, of course, but that one little action provided me with the strength I needed to once again shout down that inner critic: if Rosemarie doesn’t think I’m too ugly to be photographed with then it must be true!
How Do You Prepare for Stressful Situations?
What do you do to prepare for stressful situations like conferences? Which of the above steps I took do you think will benefit you the most? Let me know in the comment section below.