Nathan Ziehnert

9 minute read

TRIGGER WARNING: I know that talking about anxiety can be a trigger for some. Just know that I might touch on some of those things that trigger you or me.

Taking a detour from my normal content here to get a bit personal. Last week was MMS and boy howdy did I have a good time! So many people I got to talk to who I’ve previously only talked with online and I had a great time giving back to the community. The rub for me however is I from time to time suffer from generalized anxiety that many times lead to panic attacks. In the weeks leading up to MMS (wholly unrelated to the conference - there were many issues at play) it had gotten pretty bad. For those of you who do not suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, let me give you a little primer on mine (people experience panic attacks in many different forms).

Maybe skip this section if you get panic attacks easily

You’re just minding your own business one day and then all of a sudden your heart skips a beat (a palpitation). You’ve been to the doctor before and they’ve assured you that it’s a completely normal phenomenon (they’ve found no underlying heart conditions that would raise alarm). But now this little seed of doubt creeps into your mind. “What if it’s actually serious this time?” So your heart begins to beat faster and a bit harder. You latch onto this feeling. You notice every pounding beat of your heart and it begins to move a bit faster too. “Am I having a heart attack this time?” you think to yourself. Now you’re a bit more nervous. Then your mind starts to wander (and here’s where the panic really begins to set in) - “What if I die right here, right now? Will my family be taken care of? Who will cover my speaking slots? What will people think of the situation? Would they be able to revive me if I am having a heart attack?” Absolutely none of these thoughts are rational (like seriously, you think someone is really going to be concerned about filling your speaking slot?), but they send you into a spiral. You can’t seem to gain control of your racing mind. You start to have more anxiety about the situation which raises your stress levels more causing you more anxiety and more intrusive thoughts which… well, you get the picture.

So now I’m hyper focused on my body and racing heart. I’ve removed myself mentally from any conversation I might be having with you and reduced my responses to very short answers or head nods as I try to fight for control over my mind.

I’m not present.

I’m not engaged.

I will forget almost anything we talk about in this moment.

Mostly safe here again

So I do what I can to reduce stress on a daily basis. However, conferences can be stressful and full of a LOT of interaction. You can choose to not be involved in the community - just drink from the firehose, hit the sack at a reasonable hour, and wake up to repeat the process.

I’m not going to tell you that is wrong. I will absolutely and unequivocally admit that the community that MMS brings is super important. So much so that interacting with your peers afterhours can possibly bring you more value than some of the sessions themselves. I will also absolutely admit that for someone suffering from crippling anxiety in the midst of an attack - it can be a daunting feat to jump into the waters headfirst. I might have firsthand knowledge of it.

Here’s a couple ways I try overcome and deal with it (I don’t always succeed 100% of the time). They might work for you, they might not, or you might already do them. I feel like if any of these even help one person it was worth taking time away from my normal posting to talk about it.

Take a moment for yourself.

It’s very easy to feel like you need to be present 100% of the time for every hour of every day of a conference. We also call it FOMO (“fear of missing out” for you non-millennial speaking friends of mine). I get it. For me I don’t want to miss out on anything potentially fun that takes place or some hilarious situation that everyone is laughing about the next day and feeling like I’m outside of some in-joke. The problem though - if I feel like anxiety is beginning to take over and I don’t take a bit of time to relax and calm myself - I’m not going to be that present in the moment. I’ll be more focused on trying to keep my anxiety level from turning into a full blown panic attack than trying to be present in the conversation.

I become the fly on the wall.

To combat this, I tell myself the following things:

  1. Forget FOMO: I don’t have to be involved in every. single. event. In fact, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to be involved in literally everything. If you miss the “in-joke” moment, enjoy the story that’s being told by those who were there. Use it as an opportunity to let them shine in telling a story! Everyone loves to tell a good story.
  2. Escape IS okay: It is okay if I escape to my hotel room (or any other quiet space) to find some peace and calm. If I’d like to be engaged in conversation and not focused on my anxiety, I need to find the time to take care of myself and remove myself from any situation where I feel like I NEED to be involved. What I ACTUALLY NEED in this moment is to center myself and work through it.

Don’t feed the need to drink.

I DEFINITELY didn’t do so hot on this one this last week, which VERY LIKELY led to an increase in my anxiety levels. There are a couple of things at play here:

  1. Social anxiety: I get it. In the moment, having a couple drinks in your system can make you a bit more outgoing and might make it easier for you to engage in conversation. It’s just science. Our inhibitions drop and maybe those things holding us back from having good conversation are temporarily removed… temporarily.
  2. Generalized anxiety: In the moment - I’m going to be 100% honest here - it ABSOLUTELY reduces my anxiety levels. However, it’s short lived and can easily lead to more drinking. Almost guaranteed however, I’ll have worse anxiety later (especially the next day). It might “cure” me in the moment, but for sure it will make things more worse later.

If you feel like anxiety is going to overcome you for the conference, maybe it will help you to abstain from it entirely or force yourself to a limit of one or two drinks. No one should EVER fault you for abstaining from alcohol for ANY reason. If they do, they can come talk to me and we’ll have a heart to heart about it.

Additionally, one of the fun things about not drinking, or minimizing your drinking if you choose to do so, is you get to see all the crazy drunk people and hear the crazy drunk stories. Also, you have a tendency to make it to your 8am sessions on time and without a headache… :)

If you’ve got meds, don’t be afraid to use ‘em

For the longest time I avoided taking my “in the moment” anxiety medication for a number of different reasons.

  1. “I’m not having THAT bad of a panic attack.” (he says as he paces around the room trying to calm himself down).
  2. “It might cause me to be too sleepy to engage in events”
  3. “This particular medication could be habit forming!!”

I definitely don’t advocate abusing your meds - but your doc prescribed them to you FOR A REASON. They’re medically necessary. If you’re afraid of forming habits ask you doc for non-habit forming meds (if they’re effective for you - for some this isn’t an option, and I’m sorry). If you have to convince yourself it’s “not that bad” of a panic attack - there’s a good chance that you probably are having a bad panic attack. If you’re afraid it might cause you to be too sleepy/sedated to engage in situations - reframe your perspective - “I’m too wired and worked up to actually be present in these events as it is, so the risk of being too sleepy is outweighed by the need for me to calm down”

THE LONG PLAY: Find a good therapist

I’m still in the process of landing one who I click with, but I can tell you that the visits I’ve had have helped immensely. There are also some promising techniques out there (like CBT) which have shown to have pretty significant impact on those of us who live with anxiety.

Know that you’re not alone

This one can help - or it might not, but know that you’re not alone in this. If you suffer from anxiety and we run into each other and you’re having a bad day, know that I’m open to talk with you (or just listen), or give you a hug, or give a shoulder to cry on (sometimes the best release from anxiety I get is just from a good cry).

Final thoughts

As I look back on MMS I’m pretty sure I did a good job of maintaining my cool and being engaged, but if I seemed distant to you while we were having a conversation I fully apologize. It definitely wasn’t my intention. Also know that speaking at MMS is in the top 5 most fun things I have ever had the chance to do in my life. MMS itself didn’t cause me any anxiety, just some of the underlying conditions of my life caused me to have a little less focus than I would have desired during the conference.

I’ll leave you all with one of my favorite quotes: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” and if you ever catch me being unkind slap me upside the head. :)

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