In the spirit of #MentalHealthAwarenessDay I’m sharing publicly for the first time my experience with panic attacks + my personal takeaways on anxiety and career success. To note, I am a career coach, not a mental health professional. If you are job searching and affected by anxiety, depression, or other mental wellness challenges (like 1/3 of the individuals in our country), I hope you will find support in a certified mental health professional in addition to a career coach -- two very different and very worthy resources!
When I was 27, I had my first panic attack.
I was giving a presentation in front of a crowded room, maybe 30 or 40 people.
I say crowded now, but five years ago, 30-40 people listening to my every word normally wouldn’t have fazed me -- I had grown up singing in front of hundreds and thousands of people. I had given countless speeches in front of large Silicon Valley crowds. I had performed barefoot and carefree at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village without raising a single hair on the back of my neck.
And yet in the middle of a no-big-deal presentation, I suddenly felt my chest get tight, my face get hot, my palms starting to sweat, my stomach bottoming out, and the room around me closing in.
It’s still not perfectly clear to me why anxiety came into my life at this particular moment.
But one thing was clear to me in that moment: I felt like I was about to die.
My fight or flight instinct kicked in. And oh boy, did I flee.
In my moment of sheer horror and utter embarrassment, I looked down at my cell phone, pretended to have received an emergency text message, and ran out of the room.
I was mortified and terrified by the possibility of it happening again, or heaven forbid, of anyone finding out.
After my panic attack, anxiety became a significant hurdle in my life. Instead of planning to advance my career, I started planning for it all to fall apart. Instead of opting in to new and exciting opportunities, I started opting out. I came to the conclusion that my life as I knew it was over.
I figured, “I have anxiety = I can’t do big things anymore.”
But what I didn’t know at the time was that anxiety would become one of the greatest gifts in my career and life.
How did this happen?
I stopped trying to fight it, and started integrating anxiety into my life
Despite having grown up in a household where fear and adversity were the norm, dealing with anxiety was an entirely new ballpark.
The foes of my life had always been external -- surmountable, controllable, or at the very least, avoidable.
But anyone who’s dealt with the internal challenge of anxiety can tell you that these three typical problem-solving strategies simply don’t work when it comes to the terror of panic.
In fact, the more you try to control, surmount, or avoid it, the more panic digs its heels in and escalates (just read about Kevin Love, Emma Stone, or any of the high-profile, amazingly-vulnerable individuals who have spoken publicly about their panic attacks).
What I found (with the help of the world’s best therapist), is that when I embrace my anxiety -- when I OWN it and integrate it -- that's when the positively transformative power of anxiety kicks in. It helps me grow. It helps me connect with and help others on a deeper level. It definitely keeps me humble. And it helps steer me towards the right career and life decisions for me.
What does integration mean? What does it look like?
I’ll preface this section by saying this is by no means textbook guidance. But this is what integration means and how it has worked for me.
Integration means accepting. You can’t control anxiety. Once it arrives, it gets to decide how long it’s going to stay, and when and where it will rear its head.
Once I acknowledged this and accepted anxiety's presence in my life, I was able to take action to make my experience of anxiety the best it could be, rather than holding onto the unrealistic goal of eliminating it.
Integration means listening. Anxiety tells us many things -- most of them negative and false. But I found that my anxiety also came with important truths I needed to learn.
Most importantly, it helped me recognize my perfectionism, my fear of failure, my inability to disappoint others, and how much of my self and self worth I had given over to my work. This understanding propelled me to make many changes in my life, most importantly starting my own business, prioritizing my health, family and relationships, and finding greater alignment between my career and my core values.
Integration means owning it. When I tried to hide my anxiety, I heightened the stakes and my shame, and my anxiety skyrocketed.
But once I started owning my anxiety -- sharing my experience with family and friends and even colleagues and clients, writing about it in the About page on my website, shifting my brand from “the world’s greatest career coach” to “the world’s most human career coach”, my anxiety lessened, and to my pleasant surprise, people responded with overwhelming excitement, openness, and love.
My business grew, as did my relationships with my favorite kind of people -- those who seek out humanness for its richness, resonance, and depth.
Integration means taking action. When my anxiety first kicked up, I said ‘no’ to a lot of things I deeply wanted to do, but feared would spike my anxiety or trigger a panic attack.
But I’ve been training myself to be okay with anxiety rearing its head. I said ‘yes’ to performing on stage -- something I thought I would never do again. I got up under the bright lights, sweating through my dress and said to myself, “yes, I might have a panic attack onstage, but even if I do, I’ll live.” My voice cracked, and then my fear subsided and I sang my damn heart out.
Whether it’s pushing yourself to go after the promotion or that new job, or approaching your manager to define a revised set of responsibilities that work for you, or sharing your struggles with anxiety publicly or with key members of your team, what’s important is to take action.
Though it could result in embarrassment or rejection, it likely won’t -- and no matter what, you will live. Even better, you will build confidence, bravery, and resilience, one action at a time.
Why I’m sharing my story publicly
When I started out on this journey, I wanted to get back to who I had been before. I wanted to defeat anxiety.
But today, you couldn’t pay me to give it up.
I have never been happier, braver, or more growth-oriented than I am today, and that is because of -- not in spite of -- my anxiety.
My hope on #MentalHealthAwarenessDay is that my story might help others find confidence in their ability to embrace anxiety and find success -- and that we can all start to be more open about the challenges we face.
Because as we become more open about our greatest vulnerabilities, great things start happening.
We grow. We connect. We see first-hand our ability to persist in the face of fear. And we fill our careers with authenticity, wholeness, and joy.