stress (Photo credit: bottled_void)
I’ll never forget the first time I had a panic attack. I was in graduate school in Athens, OH and had spent a long, caffeine-fueled day working in the lab. At the end of day I met my wife at a local coffee shop, and I could sense that something was off with my body. I had no idea what was going on at the time, but I could feel pins and needles all over my skin, my heart was racing, my vision was blurred, and I felt an overwhelming desire to escape from the situation.
I told my wife that something was up, and we went outside to get some air. I was terrified, and thought maybe something was wrong with my heart. After a few minutes I began to calm down, but I was afraid. That fear remains with me to this day.
Over the following weeks I felt a persistent anxiety that I couldn’t seem to shake. I was miserable, and I wanted to know what the heck was wrong with me. I finally mustered up the courage to go to the college clinic and get checked out. Turns out my health was good, and there was nothing at all wrong with my heart. That was a relief, but it didn’t explain why I was feeling the way I was. The doc suggested that I might be suffering from anxiety, and that what had happened to me was a panic attack. He prescribed me some drugs to take – Xanax and Paxil. Xanax was for emergencies, Paxil for daily use.
Dealing with an anxiety disorder can be debilitating. Even with the drugs I was under almost constant stress, and fear of having another panic attack seemed to be what was driving it all. Panic attacks are terrifying, there’s no other was to describe them. I developed a sensitivity to overstimulation – going to the grocery store was a nightmare, the combination of lighting and packaging was overwhelming to a brain on high-alert. The other source of acute stress was being put into a situation from which I couldn’t easily escape. Meetings, lectures, and the like were nightmares. Fearing lectures was not a good thing for someone who wanted to be a teacher!
As time went on I did manage to get a bit of a hold on the anxiety. I did a ton of reading on the topic, and got to understand the physiological basis for a panic attack. I developed coping strategies for when I could feel one coming on. But, they did still happen from time to time. I can remember one time in particular when I desperately wanted to escape from a panel discussion that I was on. I think at some point I was doing well enough that I weaned off the Paxil – I hated being on the drug and the side effects were not fun.
All through this experience I was ashamed. I’d never dealt with mental illness before, and the only person who knew what I was going through was my wife. She was incredibly supportive, and I’m not sure that I would have made it through the acute stages without her. I didn’t even tell my parents about it at the time.
The odd thing was that despite what I was going through internally, I was excelling at my studies and my dissertation was coming along very well. I graduated from my Ph.D. program with a 4.0 GPA, and was “grad student of the year” for my department on one occasion. I had published most of my dissertation before I even defended it – it makes it tough for a committee to be critical when your chapters have been through peer review! My laboratory teaching was getting high marks as well. I was on a trajectory to accomplish big things in the academic world, but I’m not really sure that I was happy.
During my last year of grad school I started applying for jobs and postdoc grants. I wound up with a three-year teaching offer at a small college in NH, and my grant application to the NSF was funded, which meant I had a paved path to a high-level university job if I wanted to go in that direction. We had recently found out that my wife was pregnant, and New Hampshire was close to both of our families. I think I kind of perplexed a lot of my mentors by deciding to take the non-tenure track teaching position over the prestigious postdoc. This was the first time I chose happiness over ambition, and in retrospect it was by far the correct decision.
Moving to NH was great, and I wound up in an awesome department with great people. I was living in a place that felt like home. But, as is typically the case, the first year was incredibly stressful. In my first semester I was tasked with teaching two courses I had never taught before, and my son was due during finals week. We had piled on about every major life stress possible into a period of about 6 months. I was doing great at work, but crumbling again on the inside. I went back to the doc, talked about my previous experience on SSRI drugs, and he prescribed Zoloft instead of Paxil, and Klonopin instead of Xanax. I also went to see a therapist for a bit, but found that she didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know.
If you’ve never been on an SSRI anti-depressant it’s hard to describe what it’s like. Getting on and off of them is the hardest part. When I start taking a drug like Prozac/Paxil/Zoloft I get incredibly tired. It’s all I can do to drag myself off of the couch. Parts of your body start functioning a bit off (stomach, nether-regions). Getting off is a lot harder – if I forget to take a pill my eyes get messed up, like I’m seeing trails of objects in my line of vision if I turn my head too fast. You get these weird zap-like sensations. Not fun.
Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Klonopin behave differently, side effects are milder, but I’ve taken them only sparingly as the last thing I want is to get hooked on a tranquilizer (I think it’s been at least 6-7 years since I last took one of those).
As time went on the anxiety once again improved and I found that there were really only a few specific situations that triggered acute bouts. One was the beginning of the school year – I’m terrible at transitions, and the first few lectures when I didn’t yet know my big class were always a source of stress (I usually taught a large lecture of about 100 students in the Fall). I never had a full-blown panic attack in a lecture, but there have been a few close calls where I managed to head one off before it got too bad. Large classes were always more of a stress than small classes, but after a few weeks the stress pretty much dissipated (I’ve found that many teachers experience stress like this at the beginning of the school year, I think mine was just a bit exaggerated).
The other stress-inducing situation was a large, formal lecture. Every year I had to give a lecture to the entire sophomore class at my college on Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory. It’s a topic I love, but standing on-stage in a huge auditorium in front of 300+ students who mostly did not want to be there was acutely stressful. I’d worry for weeks in advance about it. Presentations at academic conferences were also awful, so I began opting for poster presentations whenever possible.
Once again, my job performance did not reflect what was going on inside my head. Students at the college elected me as teacher of the year twice, I earned promotion and tenure without issue, and I rose to being the Chair of my department in 2011. Fortunately my issues never interfered with my ability to get things done, they just made it more challenging from time to time.
My anxiety, though still present at times (like when I started to write this post!), has diminished a lot over the past 5-6 years. I think there are a couple of reasons for this:
1. I found a drug that was a good match. I take a daily, low dose of Lexapro (10mg right now). Side effects have been minimal, and I barely know I’m on it. I’ve been doing so well lately that I keep considering coming off entirely, just need to muster up the courage to make the final jump.
2. I started running. Almost daily exercise is a huge stress-release for me, and really helps to keep the anxiety at bay. It’s probably a bigger factor than the drugs, but hard to measure. I just need to prevent running from becoming a stress in and of itself!
3. I understand what’s going on inside my body. There’s nothing really physically wrong with me (it’s not my heart!), it’s just that my sympathetic nervous system likes to sometimes go into overdrive a bit. Somehow understanding that makes me feel better
4. I’ve developed coping strategies to deal with periods of acute stress. The first lecture of the school year was always tough. But, I found that if I got to the classroom early, chatted with the students as they came in, and practiced deep breathing I could mitigate the worst of the stress.
5. I’ve identified the trigger, and I can mostly avoid it. Large, formal lectures to audiences I don’t know are what trigger my issues. It’s pretty much standard performance anxiety. I’m like the Barbara Streisand of academics!
Most people who have seen me speak probably have no idea that I suffer from these issues. Most of my former students probably have no idea, though I have discovered from years of watching them give class presentations that fear of speaking in front of an audience is by no means uncommon. I’ve even read a statistic somewhere that more people fear public speaking than fear death. You’d think that after giving probably a few thousand lectures that this would get better, and it has, but the fear always seems to come back at select times.
The benefit of having identified the trigger is that it allows me to avoid situations that I know will induce acute stress (i.e., large, formal lectures). I’ve found that my medium of choice is the written word. Although I’m a pretty quiet guy around people I don’t know well, I also thrive on one-on-one interaction and working with small groups. I loved working with students in the lab and teaching my small, upper-level courses. I love working with groups like I did up at the Crafstbury Running Camps this summer. I love working with clients at my new job (more on this soon). But, I could never run for president since the thought of having to give campaign stump speeches to large audiences day-in and day-out scares me to death.
Given all of this, you might think that my anxiety was why I decided to quit my job as a college professor. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t part of the decision process, but it was far from the main motivating factor. Teaching was actually the part of the job I liked most, and helping students find their way into a career was a source of great joy. The reason I quit that job was to once again pursue happiness over ambition. I had climbed nearly to the top of the academic ladder (made it to dept. Chair and one promotion away from Full Professor), and the higher I got the less I liked what I saw, and the more stressful life became. This was good, old-fashioned job stress, not anxiety, and at times it also could become acute. I would have been much happier as an adjunct or lab instructor where teaching was my only duty and it involved a kind of anxiety I could deal with. The endless committee work and academic politics are what really wore me down – they drew me away from the part of the job that I loved, and made me miserable.
I came to realize that living with persistent stress is not healthy, and that I had alternative career options that would significantly reduce the amount of stress in my life. My happiness stems from helping other people make positive changes in their lives. I loved imparting knowledge to students who go on to do great things, and I love helping people who are trying to get healthy and active. The latter is what I do now, though I won’t count out going back to teaching at some point. I’m trying to make decisions these days based on what will make me happy, and it’s going well so far.
I’ll finish by admitting that I had no plan to write this post today. The post was triggered by an email exchange with a good friend who had asked if I’d be willing to give a lecture at a conference. It would have been a good experience professionally, and at first I said yes. However, after realizing that it would take place immediately after a family vacation in Florida, I began to rethink the choice. This was a stress inducer, and it could quite possibly put me in a state of acute stress while on vacation. Not good, not going to make me or my family happy. So I backed out and felt guilty in doing so. I offered to attend and write about the conference instead
I’m actually surprised that I’ve made it this far as I find it very hard to talk about things like this. It’s hard to admit to weakness in a public way, but I’ve held this in for far too long. Once I started typing the words just started to flow. Writing has become a release for me, and if someone can benefit from what I have written here then it was well worth it. Anxiety sucks, but it can be managed and overcome.
If you are suffering from anxiety-related issues and need advice, I’m happy to help in any way I can. Feel free to contact me.
Update: Adding the following video that was shared by my friend Brian Martin in the comments. Pretty much speaks for itself. Also wanted to thank everyone for the outpouring of support, both private and public. It means a lot!