During my first day of work as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools in 2007, all 60 faculty members gathered in the auditorium.
As is typical of many opening day meetings, employees were asked to stand up and introduce themselves by sharing their name and professional background.
Being seated towards the back of the auditorium, I was one of the last people to speak. One by one, staff shared their information. As the introductions worked their way up and down the rows, I began feeling something I had never felt before: intense anxiety.
With each passing introduction, I felt my heartbeat escalate. By the time introductions made it to my row, my heart felt like it was going to pound itself right out of my chest. “What the hell is going on?” I thought as my blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt jumped off my chest with every pulse.
As the person next to me got up to speak, I felt my throat tighten - to the point where it was difficult to breathe. The room was spinning, sounds were amplified, and it was nearly impossible to process what was happening.
Finally, it was my turn to speak. Shaking uncontrollably, I stood up and mumbled “Jared … Smith” loud enough for only the people closest to me to hear. Unable to concentrate, I looked at my new colleagues with a blank stare.
I stood still for a few more seconds, hoping to say something coherent. However, the pressure in my head was so extreme and the ringing in my ears so intense that talking was impossible.
Unsure what to do next, I returned to my seat.
The person next to me hesitated for a moment before standing up to share her information. Even so, I could feel all eyes on me. "Who is this new guy?" I imagined my new colleagues thinking. "And why is he so weird?"
Once the introductions made their way to the final row, I darted into the hallway, found the closest bathroom, and locked myself in a stall where I hid for the next 30 minutes until we were dismissed to our classrooms.
My school picture from 2007 – please ignore the obnoxious “diamond” earring.
For the next five years, I continued to have panic attacks any time I was asked to introduce myself or share information in a public setting. Too afraid to admit something was wrong - and deathly afraid to come off as incompetent to my peers - I developed escape plans which would get me out of these situations. Whether it was “accidentally” showing up late to avoid formal introductions - or taking an “emergency” phone call to sidestep public speaking - I developed methods to avoid situations triggering my anxiety.
However, I soon realized this approach was unsustainable. If I had any hope of moving up the administrative ranks and fulfilling my limitless potential, I needed help. So, in 2012, I set up an appointment with a general physician to share my concerns.
As the appointment started, I was incredibly embarrassed about my condition. I didn’t want to admit I was a “head case” to anyone, let alone someone I had never met before. However, my mood quickly changed when the doctor assured me that my experiences were quite common. He explained that people deal with panic attacks for a variety of reasons, and that medicine could mitigate these situations.
Beyond panic attacks, the doctor determined that I had a mild form of generalized anxiety disorder. “Oh man, I really am crazy” I thought upon hearing the diagnosis. However, the doctor again calmed my fears by not only prescribing medication, but also by telling me that my situation was very common.
I felt a sense of relief upon leaving the doctor’s office. Understanding my experiences were completely normal and that help was on the way did wonders for my mental health, and served as a turning point in my battle with anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are five type of anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is chronic anxiety and exaggerated worry about everyday life events (such as work, relationships, and finances) for no obvious reason.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) consists of recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities.
Panic Disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event that results in flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety about the incident.
Social Anxiety Disorder can be described as extreme fear and anxiety in social settings that interferes with relationships, daily routines, work, school, and other activities.
It is estimated that 60 million American adults – one-third of the adult population – have an anxiety disorder. And while today’s health providers offer patients a host of therapy and medication options, nearly 25 million American adults (40 percent of those with an anxiety disorder) go without help. And while a small number of adults genuinely lack access to treatment, most adult simply refuse to ask for assistance.
In a world where we are conditioned to visit a doctor for the smallest of concerns, why do so many people refuse to ask for help with anxiety?
Two words: Denial & Stigma
After experiencing my first panic attack, I refused to admit I had an issue. “I drank too much coffee,” I reasoned. So, when the next panic attack happened without caffeine, blame shifted to workout supplements: “I really need to lay off the creatine!” With each passing panic attack, new excuses were formed.
It took dozens of panic attacks to admit I had a mental health issue. And while I was willing to share my story with a few family members, the last thing I wanted was to seek treatment: “I’m a successful person - not a head case,” I argued. “I can handle this on my own.”
Truth is, I was embarrassed about the mental illness stigma. For people who are used to high levels of success, admitting that you have mental-health issues seems counterintuitive and can be viewed as a sign of weakness.
My anxiety issues can be traced back to early adolescence. And while I haven’t quite solved the anxiety riddle (job interviews and hangovers are my kryptonite!), three decades of learning, testing, and reflecting has allowed me to keep my anxiety in check.
Here are seven of my best ideas for dealing with mild to moderate anxiety:
We're In This Together: Jerry Seinfeld – the most decorated comedian of our lifetime – has been vocal about his battles with mental illness. In a recent interview, Seinfeld shared that anxiety “always seems to accompany those who have high levels of creativity.” Hearing these words helped me normalize my struggles. Understanding that Seinfeld and several other highly-talented individuals (e.g., Oprah Winfrey, Johnny Depp, Taylor Swift, Michael Phelps) all deal with mental illness gives me comfort in knowing I’m not alone.
Share Your Story: Being open with staff about my mental health issues has been a complete gamechanger. Not only do employees appreciate my vulnerability, those individuals with their own mental health concerns feel good knowing that I understand their situation. To be clear, I'm not running around yelling "Look at me - I have anxiety!" but rather I search for timely opportunities to discuss this topic. Finally, I have found great power in openly sharing my story with students: “Wow Dr. Smith, I had no clue we are so alike!” is a common response from kids who have their own mental health issues.
Take Medication: People have mixed feelings about taking medication. Personally, I believe that physical activity and a healthy diet eliminates the need for most prescriptions. But anxiety is a different beast. While I’m not sure if it’s the medication or if it’s a placebo … I would highly recommend that anyone with chronic anxiety take medication. Currently, I take 40mg of Celexa (Citalopram) daily. Also, I take Xanax (Alprazolam) when my anxiety is at its worst – usually only a couple times a year.
Journal: When I go through periods of high anxiety, I find comfort in journaling. One thing I often write about is how - in the moment - whatever I am worried about seems like such a big deal. “My anxiety is high because I do not want to face this issue” is a fairly common journal entry. However, when looking back on those comments months later, I realize how exaggerated those worries really were. Understanding that human beings are remarkably bad at predicting how various experiences make them feel long term (see the previous chapter) has helped reduce my anxiety.
Mindfulness: The root cause of my anxiety is often rumination, meaning I’m in my bed tossing and turning at 2:00am while my mind replays something that happened in the past (such a missed opportunity or an ended relationship) or forecasts what could happen in the future (such as an unpleasant conversation or losing my job). In these moments, it’s incredibly helpful to have mindfulness tricks to stop my mind from wandering. One of the easiest tactics is counting out long breaths (inhale … exhale) while blocking out all other thoughts. Can you make it ten? It’s harder than you think!
Social Media: It should be no coincidence the sudden rise in mental health problems has coincided with the explosion of social media. Anyone dealing with anxiety should consider uninstalling phone apps (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) that can be accessed via laptop. Not having these apps at your fingertips may leave you bored (“Gasp - what will I do with my free time!”) but your anxiety gets a much-needed break. Not ready to delete apps? At the very least, turn off notifications.
Workout: Exercise is an absolute no-brainer for anyone dealing with anxiety. Physical activity kicks up endorphin levels, the body’s famous “feel good” chemical that produces feelings of happiness. Whereas I shoot for 45 minutes a day, even 30 minutes three times a week is a great place to start. Looking for a quick win? Rather than watch another episode on Netflix, go for a walk outdoors. Your mental health will love you!
"But wait Jared, I don't have any issues with anxiety. Why should I care?"
Even if you don't have anxiety, it is likely that one-third of your employees do, meaning school leaders must be empathetic of staff who deal with anxiety-related issues.
Have you ever asked a teacher to share an idea in front of the staff, only to have them turn down your request? "What do you mean you don't want to speak in front of your colleagues?" you may have thought. "You speak in front of kids all day!" Understand that anxiety is triggered in different ways ... some of which do not make logical sense.
Also, don't forget about students. Anxiety and depression have been identified by students as the biggest problem facing teenagers ... ahead of bullying, drugs, alcohol, and gangs.
Tell me if you've heard this one before: "What do you mean you don't want to give a presentation?" some teachers ask their students. "Well, I guess you'll just take a zero!" Students must be given the benefit of the doubt with anxiety-related issues. Rather than force students to act or behave a certain way, schools must adjust to meet the needs of students with mental health concerns.
In short, school leaders must view every situation through a lens of compassion - not compliance.
I shared my battle with anxiety not to make anyone feel bad for me, but rather to empower readers who may be going through similar experiences. Chances are, some of you reading this chapter are thinking “Holy crap - he is talking about me!” If this is the case, don’t hesitate to reach out and share your story.
Anxiety can be hugely debilitating and prevent highly talented people from reaching their full potential.
Don’t let this be you.
Understand that you are not alone, and that millions of others are going through similar experiences.
If you liked this article, you'll love my book Learning Curve! Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.