That's what happened to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield when he conducted a spacewalk to make a repair on the International Space Station. It was his first spacewalk, and his left eye went completely shut. The problem soon spread to his right eye, and he went blind in space.
Hadfield did not panic. Before the mission, he and the other astronauts had practiced for any situation, over and over. "We knew everything there is to know about the spacesuit, and we trained underwater thousands of times," Hadfield told a TED audience. "And we don't just practice things going right. We practice things going wrong all the time."
Hadfield didn't panic because the crew had practiced how to bring an incapacitated astronaut back inside the airlock. As it turned out, they didn't need to get to that step. The stuff in Hadfield's eye was no big deal. The anti-fog mixture of oil and soap had gotten into his eyes, and he wiped it out.
Overcoming Stage Fright
Hadfield's experience applies to avoiding panic in most situations, especially when one experiences stage fright. It's hard to talk yourself out of a panic attack in the moment.
The trick is to avoid panicking in the first place.
To do so, you have to practice for your presentation over and over again. The more you rehearse, the more confidence you'll gain for the big event.
Here's the key. Astronauts don't just practice. They put themselves into stressful scenarios. According to Dr. Sian Beilock in the book Choke, peak performers practice under "mild stress." For public speakers, mild stress means putting yourself in front of a small audience of friends (even one or two people). I know one TED speaker who had previously been invited to talk to a class about her experiences and she asked if she could practice her TED talk on them. She was applying mild stress to prepare for the big day.
Applying Exposure Therapy
In psychology, exposure therapy works well at helping people overcome anxieties. I accidentally conducted my own experiment recently. I was clearing out the cobwebs from our patio furniture when a spider--just large and hairy enough to look somewhat frightening--quickly crawled out. I jumped back at least five feet and started flailing my hands wildly to get rid of any web on me.
Two hours later, I had finished cleaning every piece of furniture and I suddenly realized that the sight of a spider didn't bother me. When I saw one, I'd flick it off with my hand. Webs did not bother me in the least. I simply wiped them off. Without realizing it, I had conquered a fear merely by being exposed to it many times.
The reason many people never conquer their fear of public speaking is because they avoid it. Avoidance minimizes exposure, which only increases anxiety. It's a vicious cycle that makes it nearly impossible to manage the panic that many people feel when speaking in public.
Repetitive exposure--in larger and larger increments--to the thing or situation which causes anxiety will help you manage or even conquer most fears, especially the fear of public speaking.
Exposure therapy works remarkably well. Give it a try to avoid panicking.