by Becky Reeves
I had my first panic attack on Halloween, 2015. I was at a house party I shouldn’t have been at, around people I shouldn’t have been around, and feeling very uncomfortable. What started as awkward discomfort quickly turned into panic, and then into physical pain. I ran out of the house, pacing up and down the sidewalk in the middle of the night thinking “What the hell is wrong with my body?”. The heavy breathing and pacing turned into shortness of breath and a sharp deep pain in my chest. I couldn’t see or hear anything, I couldn’t feel anything but panic and fear. In that moment, I thought I was dying.
To those that have never had a panic attack, this may seem like an exaggeration, but those that have know what it feels like. Panic attacks are the result of panic disorder, depression, anxiety, or any combination of mental debilitations. A panic attack happens when your body goes into a hormonal ‘fight or flight’ mode even when there is no real danger. Flight or flight is a very useful natural sense for our bodies to have, but in the case of a non-threatening social event, it’s not only irrationally unnecessary, it’s embarrassing.
Anxiety has a way of trickling into every part of your life. What began as a seldom triggered social anxiety, turned into full blown social anxiety, and then into anxiety on my career path. I competed for the first time in the 2016 Barista Competition qualifying event, where I first experienced that “Oh my god what am I doing here? Who am I?” career anxiety. I did well, really well. I tied for second place in the west coast region, but when my score came out my instant thought was “Well, the judges obviously made a mistake and it’s going to be really embarrassing when they correct it.” Even after the top six was announced, with my name included, I still felt like an impostor. People all of the sudden cared about my opinion, and I felt like it was only a matter of time before I disappointed someone with my lack of knowledge or flare.
Going into the National Barista competition, I let that impostor syndrome eat at me, I let my anxiety make my decisions, and at nationals, I blew it. Now I know I didn’t actually ‘blow it’ I still did fine, but I didn’t do as well as I could have because I let my anxiety take control. I was too busy comparing myself to everyone else, I didn’t even try. Post competition I really felt that pressure to be ‘one of the best’. There were new expectations of me (mostly from myself) and new assumptions of my skills that made me doubt myself and my credibility even more.
As I started to open up and talk about these issues with other women in the industry, I realized just how common career anxiety is. Successful, beautiful, talented women that I look up to had the same issues as me. These were women who had their names on magazines, owned their own businesses and had tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, how could these pioneers of women in coffee deal with impostor syndrome and anxiety? I even remember reading an article about Beyonce and her experiences with anxiety. BEYONCE. If the most perfect women in the entire world can deal with an issue that millions of women work through everyday, why do some people feel so alone in this?
As I found out success doesn’t make your anxieties just disappear, it often amplifies them.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. Women are twice as likely to deal with an anxiety disorder compared to men.
Anxiety is a real mental issue, not a wave of feelings you get every once and awhile. We should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it. If we want to better our communities and create a safe place for everyone, mental disorders are worth putting into the discussion. Sharing and discussing is a way to build empathy for issues we may not understand and most importantly, a way to create environments where such issues can be managed.
I’ve had a couple, smaller panic attacks since the one I mentioned, but now I know my triggers and I’m able to identify what a panic attack is. Even though I still get anxious and still feel dread doing basic, remedial tasks, I’m glad I can identify what is anxiety and what isn’t. Calling out and identifying my anxiety was a huge step for me. Being able to say ‘This is just my impostor syndrome talking, I’m good at this’ is a big up in freeing yourself from crippling fear. Now as I look towards my future, I think of how to take control and not let my anxiety get the better of me.
To those with anxiety:
Talk to someone. Tell your manager, your friends, your significant others. Be honest with your employer, “I have this illness and I’m working through it, but I need you to understand how real and difficult this is to me.”
Know your triggers. I can’t go to this really hip bar on Alberta St. I don’t know why, I just know that I can’t. Don’t push yourself more than you have too. You’re allowed to not want to do something because you don’ want too.
Breath. Alot. I often take small 3-5 minute breaks from work just to walk around outside. Don’t take your phone, don’t take anything from work; just go outside and breath for a couple minutes. Get your heart rate down for a few minutes before you can ever have any issues.
Watch what you eat and drink. Coffee, alcohol, sugar, comfort foods, those all make anxiety worse. Momentarily they seem reliving, but once that bottle of wine and 6 cookies settle, you’re left feeling more vacant and emotional. As a coffee professional I understand how hard it can be to not drink coffee, but I reiterate again to talk to your coworkers and your managers. No one will fault you for not wanting to do something for your health.
Treat Yo’ Self. As women this is a hard one. Do something you love just for you. Spend some alone time with yourself. Get a manicure, go for a hike, buy some shoes. Do anything that makes you feel good. Confidence is the prefect thing to combat anxiety.
Sleep. Seriously. Get enough sleep, it cures literately everything.
Do your best and be proud of yourself. When someone says you did a good job, take the credit! Hell yeah you’re good at your job! Go you!
You needn’t apologize for your feelings. When you talk to someone about how you feel end it with ‘Thank you for listening to me, I really appreciate your patience and understanding’ and NOT ‘Sorry I’m such a mess, sorry you put up with me, sorry, sorry’. Your feelings are valid.
Do something that’s uncomfortable, but in a good way. I recently did an improv comedy class. I didn’t know anyone, which made it so much better. It was so far out of my comfort zone, but I’m so happy I did it. Try a dance class, volunteer work, learn a new hobby. Put your mind to work on something positive.
Find a doctor who can help. I am not a doctor; I’m only telling you what works for me, and people I know. Handle your illness like you would any other. With a professionals help. There are people out there skilled and honored to work with you. Shopping for a doctor is hard, but it’s worth it. Sometimes talking to an unbiased third party is the best thing you can do for your brain.