I just came back from my first *real* conference (one that was directly related to my work and passion), and it was incredible and overwhelming. I was super excited when I got invited to the Open Science Fair in Athens. First Open Science conference, first time in Greece, first poster presentation. Before I left for the conference a couple other firsts got added to that list: first conference talk and I landed my first job right before the conference. All of these things were a huge confidence boost and made me even more excited to go, yet feelings of excitement and anxiety lie really close together.
So, my mind kind of went into ping pong mode and couldn’t decide between “It’s gonna be AWESOME!” and “HOLY F***. What am I going to do?”, and it pretty much stayed that way for the whole conference. For three days, I was constantly challenged by my own mind, but that also gave me lots of opportunities to push beyond my fears and grow.
Saying Yes & Being Brave
The most valuable lesson I learnt is to say yes. Ten days before the conference, my old team asked me if I wanted to give a ten minute talk about PaperHive. I said yes without thinking about it (too much), because a) I saw it as an amazing opportunity to do and learn something new, b) I love my old team and am happy to help them, and c) I knew that deep down it is something I really wanted to do. To give another example, I was invited to a conference dinner with my new organization and knowing that I would go with someone I had only met the day before, I said yes.
My boyfriend always tells me to say yes to every new experience that is presented to me (as long as it is not harmful in any kind of way). This is a really difficult thing for anxious people, because new things are scary and we love to overthink and play out every worst-case scenario in our head beforehand. However, I know from experience that it is highly unlikely that any of these scenarios will ever become reality and what also helped me is to approach anxiety as excitement and chances for bravery (thanks to this episode from Tim Ferris’ podcast). The idea behind this is that ‘[fear] feels so similar to excitement that we often mistake the fact that we’re not actually completely subsumed with abject fear; we actually are feeling fear and other things– excitement, exhilaration, anticipation, curiosity– things that really will open up our life and that actually is telling us, “Hey, this new experience is going to be kind of cool, but because (…) we haven’t ever practiced bravery so we don’t really understand what we’re feeling in times of stress and where we are pushing outside our comfort zones.”’
Find out what works for you. I once again realized that it is easier for me to connect with people when I talk to them one-on-one, instead of in a (small) group of people. While group settings easily intimidate me, which makes it incredibly difficult for me to join the conversation, I have no problem to talk to others alone. For me, this means I have to network differently than those who have chats in between conference sessions. I actually really enjoyed the social events after each conference day, because I met some amazing people, got to know them personally, and thus really connected with them. And just to be clear, I think that quick chats in the hallway and exchanging business cards can be just as valuable, but it is something I need to and will learn over time.
It’s also good to remember that most people are not assholes and you already have something in common with them because you are at the same conference. Good conversation starters are anything program-related, like which sessions they are looking forward to or what they found most interesting in the talk you just heard. From there, the conversation will evolve, and in the unlikely case that it won’t, you move on to the next session. Next time, I’ll try to be more outgoing and approach people myself.
Self-CareTalks, workshops, constant socializing, not getting enough sleep – conferences are extremely exhausting, but they are for everybody. And that is a good thing to keep in mind when you start to feel bad because you need to take care of yourself. If you need to take a break in between sessions, it is totally okay. Go for a walk to get some fresh air, grab a bite to eat, or take a nap in your hotel room.
For me, the key was the support I got from my boyfriend, colleagues, and friends. Before my talk, everybody reassured me that it was going to be great and it would be an amazing experience and because they trusted and believed in me, I became more confident in myself too. Throughout the conference, there were some other hiccups as well and at one point right towards the end I felt like it all was too much. One of my friends helped me understand that everything I was experiencing was perfectly normal and I didn’t have to feel bad about being anxious. That was all I needed, I didn’t want a solution to my anxiety, because I didn’t even know what that could be, but simply knowing that it is okay to feel that way and it doesn’t make me less of a person was enough.
A note on medication: There is no shame in taking your medication – you would do the same in any other case too! But make sure that you are familiar with your prescription. I took my meds before my talk. The dose I took didn’t have any effect, but because I knew that taking more would turn me into a vegetable once the adrenaline is gone, I didn’t take more but focused on my breathing instead.
The Academic Mental Health Collective has a good post on self-care during conferences as well!
The Open Science Fair has been an incredible experience and I enjoyed my time there so so much (here’s a recap video)! It definitely was a great way to enter conference world. I’m looking forward to more conferences and public talks in the future, because although it still scares me it was such a rewarding and fun experience that I don’t want to miss out on any of it.