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When I reflect on my mental health journey, there are two major events that define my struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember, but my first panic attack happened when I was in college. I was walking to class like any other normal day when I suddenly started crying hysterically and felt severe tightness in my chest—as if an elephant was sitting on top of me. I didn’t know why I was crying or what had prompted it. It took a few minutes to gather myself, but I remember taking a sip of water, and just continuing on. I thought I needed to power through and move on with my life.
The second panic attack I experienced was a truly formative moment for me. It was about four years later, and I was at my first “real” job in Manhattan after graduate school. I was enthusiastic about the position, and wanted nothing more than to prove that I belonged and would be an asset to my team. It was a normal day, and I was sitting at my desk when it happened again. Very suddenly, I could feel the debilitating tightness in my chest take over, and before I knew it tears were streaming down my face. My breathing became more and more elevated so I got up from my desk and went to the bathroom.
I splashed water on my face to try and soothe myself, but still didn’t know what was happening or why I was feeling this way. I looked up from the sink and saw my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were puffy, my hair was disheveled, and I was sweating as if I had just ran a marathon. I was a mess.
At that moment I made a commitment to myself. I promised to figure this out and get help. I just didn’t know how.
Understanding anxiety and panic attacks
Everyone experiences worry or stress at times around health, money, or interpersonal issues. When that stress continues over long periods of time and affects daily life, it may become an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 5 adults every year, and include:
- Social anxiety disorders. This affects 15 million adults, entails an intense fear of interacting with people, and may manifest as anxiety for weeks leading up to a social gathering.
- Generalized anxiety disorder. This affects 7 million adults, and involves ongoing, constant worry about daily issues like family, health, or financial concerns—even when there’s nothing to immediately worry about. People with generalized anxiety disorder struggle to sleep, are often wound up, and their nervous system is in constant fight or flight mode.
- Panic disorder. This affects 6 million adults. Panic attacks are the symptoms of panic disorder. They happen without warning and are intense, brief periods of overwhelming fear. It feels as if you can’t breathe and don’t have control over your body.
One of the key takeaways is that those of us who live with anxiety are not alone. There are millions of people who are struggling with some sort of anxiety disorder, and almost anyone reading this has had some interaction with an individual dealing with a mental health struggle.
Working with anxiety and panic attacks
The panic attack I had at my first job left me feeling overwhelmed, lost, and exhausted. Like many workplaces, mental health was not a topic that was openly discussed.
How was I going to explain what I was dealing with to my boss, when I wasn’t even sure what was happening? I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. At first, I brushed my feelings aside and kept working hard. That was the only way I knew how to cope, and didn’t want others to view me differently.
Even though I’d made the commitment to get help, I didn’t know where to start or what to do. After some initial research, I figured out that my company had a traditional EAP, but the idea of calling a 1-800 number seemed like a daunting task that I was not ready for— especially while struggling to stay afloat.
Fortunately, my mother was a social worker and able to guide me to a therapist that I connected with right away. I know that I was lucky to have found a provider that worked for me in that crucial moment, and still see to this day.
How therapy can help you become your best self
Therapy has allowed me to develop what I believe to be my superpower: the ability to get to know myself, and peel back the layers of my inner being, like an onion.
Through consistent therapy, I've learned some strategies and tools for managing my anxiety and panic attacks:
- I’m better now at paying attention to the physical symptoms of anxiety and recognizing what’s happening in my body. Instead of going on autopilot and disengaging, I am now extremely attuned to how anxiety manifests physically.
- I notice when the wheels of my mind start to spin and I feel powerless. Instead of feeling like things aren’t under my control and I’m just along for the ride, I now use deep breathing as a way to get out of my thoughts and into my body to relax myself.
- Therapy has taught me how to slow my thoughts down, recognize anxious feelings, and proactively do things that I know will help keep me from feeling like I am not in control.
For me, that means going on a meandering walk outside, meditating, stepping away from work for a reset, hiking, and getting out into nature and disconnecting, to reconnect with myself and be present.
I’ve also learned—and am still working on—how not to fear my anxiety.
I’ve come to accept that anxious feelings are part of who I am. I try to invite them in and talk to them, understanding that those feelings are valid and part of me.
All feelings, no matter what they are, come and go. They are temporary and cyclical, and I want to be okay with experiencing the full range of emotions.
Normalizing therapy for men
I’ve noticed a narrative within my social group, and in society, that discourages men from exploring their feelings or seeking therapy. The idea seems to be that men just need to power through any difficult emotions and not openly talk about them. This was my attitude when I was younger and struggling with anxiety at school and work.
For men who are skeptical of therapy, it’s easy to identify with the challenge of improving and becoming the best version of yourself that you can be—whether that’s at work, in personal relationships, or in other areas of life.
In my own journey to become better in every aspect of my life, I have framed it as a competition of me versus me. It’s not possible to improve and be your best self without knowing who you truly are, and that requires looking inward.
How People leaders can provide support
People leaders are the frontline for supporting employees living with anxiety and panic attacks. They can help by:
- Fostering an environment where open communication about mental health is practiced and celebrated at all levels.
- Allowing employees flexible scheduling to fit their mental health needs into the work week. Employees who are able to attend therapy or coaching sessions, meditate, take walks, and generally take care of their mental health will be their best self and able to be more productive at work. It’s a win-win for employees and their employers.
- Providing access to an innovative EAP eliminates barriers to therapy, coaching, and other forms of mental health support.
The national average wait time for a new therapy appointment is 25 days, and someone who is experiencing anxiety and/or panic attacks does not have this much time to wait.
With Spring Health, an employee can schedule a therapy appointment in less than two days. Every enrolled employee has access to their dedicated Care Navigator, who is a licensed clinician and always available to guide employees through the process. This includes clinical guidance and referrals, as well as follow ups and general support.
How Spring Health is removing barriers to employee mental healthcare
My first two panic attacks were defining experiences in my life and the start of my mental health journey. I felt so overwhelmed and unsure of how to get help, or what kind of help I even needed.
I am so fortunate that my mom had the experience and the knowledge to get me the right help right away, but I realize not everyone is that lucky. I don’t want anyone else to live through anxiety and panic attacks without the proper guidance and support, which is one of the main reasons I started working at Spring Health.
Spring Health recently conducted a landmark, peer-reviewed, three-year study that was published in leading medical journal JAMA Network Open. The study found that nearly 70% of participating employees enrolled in our workplace mental health program showed improved mental health, fewer missed workdays, increased productivity, and less likelihood of leaving their job.
Supporting employees' mental health isn’t a competition for resources that takes away from the bottom line. Employees with better mental health are able to be their best selves at work and bring more to the table.
Watch this webinar on demand to learn more about why investing in mental health pays off, and how your organization can gain proven clinical outcomes and financial ROI.