Revealing how my history of panic attacks led to a new career
A pain in my chest starts to fire up.
Shit - its happening again.
My mind begins racing with thoughts and I start to feel dizzy. In, out, in, out, my breathing is speeding up and my chest and shoulders are rising with each breath. I can feel my heart beating so hard I wonder if people can see it in my chest.
Why are you so bad at this? Why are you even trying? You’re not fooling anyone.
My neck in tensing and my throat starts to close up.
Act normal, they are still speaking to you.
My hands begin to shake uncontrollably and I get cold and shivery but begin to sweat.
Run away. Run away!
I’m all-consumed by the feeling of panic and danger.
‘OK India let us know when you’ve made those changes’ someone says to me.
What changes? Shit! I didn’t hear anything they just said to me.
‘Yeh sure, not a problem.’ I say trying to hide my panic.
I leave and find a toilet I can cry in and release the adrenaline that's charging through my body. My mind is filled with angry thoughts. You’ve no idea what you are doing. They are going to fire you!
This, my friends, is a panic attack. A rush of different reactions your body is having to a surge of adrenaline that has nowhere to go. And a year ago I was having these on an almost daily basis, triggered by certain situations at work. It took a while to figure out what was going on but now I look back on that time and it seems like a different person.
I have never been particularly academic. In school I averaged a B grade and my biggest sporting achievement was winning the three-legged race on sports day with my buddy Becca. I spent most of my teen years working on the main thing that I felt confident in - Art and Design.
It was my 'thing’. The thing people knew I was good at, the thing that brought confidence and I would waste hours doing.
Throughout my life I never felt good enough (I know most of us can relate to this!). I didn't feel confident enough, smart enough, anything enough. The only time I felt good enough was in art class when I was getting high grades, praise from the teachers and I was making my creative parents proud as I followed in their footsteps.
Because Art and Design was where my confidence came from, I started to seek out external validation and approval of my work. Without any sense of internal confidence, I relied on the praise from others and only in this one area. I would disregard all other areas of my life and focus solely on being the best at my 'thing’.
Never Good Enough
When uni came around there was no question that I would study something creative. I started with an Art Foundation and then studied Product and Furniture Design.
In the final year I started to experience as many lows as highs when I became obsessed with the goal of getting a First Class grade. Achieving anything but the best was non-negotiable in my mind. Increasingly my sense of self-worth and accomplishment was wrapped up in getting that grade.
Well, I scraped the mark I wanted but I still didn’t feel good enough to get a job in the industry. I signed up for another course, this time an intensive technical one.
The Real World
When my studying days were over I got myself a job in a design agency. I was about to make money off of my passion (I know, cheesy right!? But it was true!) and while I didn't feel ready for the working world, I was excited.
I immersed myself in the work, desperate to impress. I was warned about needing resilience in the design world and it wasn’t long before I learnt why. Work was eternally critiqued, stretched and thrown out. I was putting what felt like my only skills, my hobby, the thing that gave me a sense of self-worth on the table for unrestricted criticism. Feelings were not taken into consideration in this world.
‘Don’t take it personally’, a Senior Designer told me, ‘It’s just part of the process to producing a great piece of work.’
His words went in one ear and out the other. Design was my only indicator of success and this felt like I was failing.
After a few months the sting from my colleagues comments turned into a real pain in my chest and eventually I started getting panic attacks. After a while, I concluded the problem was down to that particular agency so I made a move.
Things went from bad to worse. My confidence was shattered. If I wasn’t good at art and design, what was I good at? At this point, I was having panic attacks a few times a week.
It's safe to say I reached a point where I just couldn’t take the stress anymore and I finally decided to quit my job. I didn’t know what was next but I knew I had to do something to stop this pattern.
As I write this blog all these months later, I look back and hardly recognise that person. When I left that job I started learning all I could from books, podcasts, YouTube and had a major reassessment of the path I was on. I now know I was suffering from High Functioning Anxiety, and unachievable expectations of myself were causing it.
But the great thing about my anxiety was, because my panic attacks were entirely self-inflicted, I was entirely in control of fixing them.
Slowly I learnt to reprogram the destructive stories I was telling myself and to rebuild confidence that comes from me, and not just others. I learnt how to meditate and control the self-sabotaging thoughts I was having. I learnt Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques and how changing my values changes my behaviours. I learnt how to take responsibility for my own feelings and, in turn, how to become more level-headed. I learnt how I best work in order to keep my anxiety at bay.
These days I walk to work, I meditate daily, I do exercise I actually enjoy and I put energy into my relationships. I counter hurtful thoughts with kinder ones. I fill up my cup with so many different activities, feelings, people so that I no longer have just one 'thing', I have many 'things'.
Of course I am a work-in-progress, but the difference between then and now is huge.
Through the process of doing all this research and self-development, I formed a genuine interest in the mind, psychology and generally investigating what makes people tick. I now work with a Professor of Psychology and I am training to become a life coach. This blog was born from a need to share my findings and inspire others to make life light, interesting and nature-filled!
To anyone going through a similar wobbly moment, I hope you take some comfort in the story of my recovery and most importantly take action. Begin by cutting out coffee and meditating daily with the help of an app like Headspace. Start understanding whats happening by reading - I recommend the book Owning It - and speak to a CBT Therapist or a Psychologist who will help you get to the bottom of why it's happening.
To those of you who know someone going through something like this, I encourage you to share this story with them and remind them that they are fully in control of their situation. They just have to educate themselves and take action.