How Panic Attacks Saved My Life

I don’t know how people do it. I tried. I worked at Google for four years, trodding along every day in the corporate hamster wheel. And it drove me crazy. Literally. I developed anxiety disorder. I was diagnosed and everything.

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Every day became a struggle.

For the latter half of my time there, I worked as an executive admin assistant. So my time and schedule were already not my own. I’d accompany my exec to meetings (or go in their stead if they were double booked), prep them for the next one, and make sure they were fed and caffeinated in between. So now my days had become: go to meeting, run to bathroom, have a panic attack, cry, hyperventilate, maybe throw up, then fetch lunch, go to another meeting, run back to the bathroom, and so on and so forth, on loop all day long in a vicious cycle.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying working at Google (or other large corporations) is as horrible as I’m making it sound. Google was actually quite a magical place to work. The rumors are true. There were so many perks, especially at the mothership Mountain View headquarters where I worked most of the time, that it was hard to ever justify leaving. We had a gym, twelve cafes (each with a different culinary specialty), free laundry machines, dry cleaning delivered to your desk, and ridiculously discounted massages you could grab between meetings (a 15-minute chair massage was only $5!). We called it campus. It was basically college 2.0. You might call it heaven. And it was, for a time.

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But as with all good things, it’s perfectly natural for it to eventually come to an end. It’s also true that no one person is the same, so no one work life will fit everyone the same either. This one simply did not fit me. I just didn’t see it. So my body forced me to stop and pay attention.

It’s as if it was saying to me,

“This life is hurting me. You don’t feed me well. You don’t rest me enough. I’m unhealthy and weak and tired all the time. I don’t know what I’m getting out of bed for anymore. I’m going in circles and it hurts. So I’m not going to function for you anymore until you change it.”

“Until you do, I’m going to give you sleepless nights with restless limbs and cold sweats and bad dreams. I’m going to make you hyperventilate and shake all over and throw up. I’m going to give you cough after cold after flu. I’m going to mess with your head, so that you question the devotion of your friends and family, and fall into a deep depression. I have that power and I’m going to use it until you listen.”

The way I like to put it, my body had an allergic reaction to corporate life.

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One day my amazing exec pulled me aside and asked if I was okay. She said, “The light’s gone out of your eyes.” She could see something was wrong. We talked and she encouraged me to take some time off to first get healthy, then reassess what I want to do. So I found a therapist, met with our HR, and together we made a plan to give me three months of paid medical leave – which I was incredibly touched they offered despite the very real possibility that, after all that, I might decide it best to leave Google altogether.

So off I went. Once a week I saw my therapist, learned about cognitive behavioral therapy, and attended group panic classes. I sat in a circle with other anxious Annies and Adams like me and learned breathing exercises. Or how to calmly stop and evaluate the realistic changes for all those worst-case scenarios running madly through my head. They were helpful, to a point. And I gave them my all.

But the perhaps far more valuable exercises from my three-month leave were the ones I did with myself.

Now now, nothing dirty mind. Just good clean soul-searching fun. I spent hours alone doing countless introspection exercises on myself. I read every career book and took every personality test I could find. Meyers Briggs. Strengths Finder. The 4 Quadrants. What Color Is Your Parachute?

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I journaled every day, stream-of-consciousness style, and analyzed what came out. I tried to remember and write down my dreams first thing every morning, and pulled what insights I could from those too.

I made lists upon lists. 5 things I truly love about my current work. 5 thing I hate about my current work. 5 things I honestly think I’m great at. 5 things others say I’m great at. 5 things I know I suck at. 5 skills I’d like to improve. 5 subjects I’d love to study more. 5 careers I’ve always wondered about. And so many more.

I really do love making lists.

Then I took a long hard look at all of those great insights, and at myself, and identified my 10 “passion core” – the core values I must have in my daily work to feel excited to wake up each morning and fulfilled at the end of each day.

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Here’s where my 10 Passion Core landed:

  1. My Tribe – More than anything else, I’ve learned it’s the people I work with who have the biggest positive impact on my professional joy and fulfillment.
  2. The Subject Matter – It’s gotta be something I’m passionate about, or can get passionate about. Even if I don’t know much about it yet, I do love to learn.
  3. The Implementor – I prefer to take a more behind-the-scenes role implementing others’ ideas, rather than struggling to come up with great ideas myself.
  4. Location Freedom – I love being nomadic and multi-city, so I don’t want any work that might compromise a healthy balance with that travel and lifestyle.
  5. Constant Learning – Again I love learning, so I want opportunities to constantly expand my knowledge on a variety of topics from people who are better than me.
  6. Cyclical Change – Expanding on variety, I prefer work with a natural rhythm of frequently changing projects, roles, and topics for fresh perspective and challenge.
  7. Creative Development – I love storytelling, particularly in fiction, and want to have significant creative input with whatever project or team I’m on.
  8. Tangible Results – I also love building things, and prefer to do project-based work where I can easily see the results of my work with my own eyes (and often hands).
  9. Frequent Movement – Stagnancy is my greatest fear, so I want work that keeps me moving, building strength, rarely sitting still – both physically and mentally.
  10. Livable Pay – Money is of least importance to me, but it’s still a reality of life, so my goal is just to make enough to comfortably thrive in this unconventional lifestyle.

Identifying these 10 Core Values was not so much a reinvention of the self as it was a reconnection to the self. The self that I’d lost somewhere along the way. I was lost and now I am found. It wasn’t easy. It never is when you’re trying to find your way back from lost. But I did it. I put in the time and work and a whole lot of reflection.

Now I believe looking back is only has useful as it helps you look forward.

And move forward. It’s not about living in the past, but rather learning how to be better in your future. I didn’t get back to the way I was pre-anxiety. I became a newer, stronger version of myself. There is a reason we grow up, grow older, and grow more into ourselves as we go.

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Because living is a verb.

It involves doing, moving, growing. The opposite of stagnant.

I never would have done all of that self-discovery and learned so much about myself, let alone made such a huge change down a new exciting and challenging path, if I’d never gone crazy in the first place. If my mind and body had never forced me to. If it weren’t for that, I could still be stuck in that comfy corporate routine, going through the monotonous motions of the same daily grind, puttering around in a cloud of corporate processes and org restructures and watercooler talk, a shell of what I was, not fully living or truly alive.

Now I have this amazing, ever-changing, untethered, unconventional life. It’s not comfortable. Far from it. But it’s mine. And it’s still teaching me new things about myself all the time, even now over eight years later. That’s what happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. You grow.

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So I don’t regret any of it for a single second. My anxiety sparked a whole new journey that reminded me what I’m living for.

You could say panic attacks saved my life.

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