As Stephen Colbert opens up about his anxiety, panic attack sufferers tell us how they cope at work
Mindful breathing, medication and therapy does wonders for those like the ‘Late Show’ host, Ryan Reynolds, Carson Daly and Meghan Trainor, who get panic attacks on the job.
You’re just going about your business when suddenly, your chest gets tight, your heart starts pounding and you can’t breathe.
That’s the terrifying experience felt by someone suffering a panic attack.
“It was like there was a weight on my chest and I was suffocating. The more I fixated on it, the tighter my chest felt,” Alex, who declined to give his full name, told Moneyish.
His panic attacks were misdiagnosed as asthma for almost a decade, until he had one at his desk in 2014. He’d just moved to Chicago and started a new job. He had also recently come out as gay and was getting married. “The more I started thinking about all of it … the more the anxiety built up. And I just couldn’t function,” said Alex, now 34. He told his supervisor and went to the hospital, finally identifying his suffocating episodes as panic attacks. Now when he feels one coming on at work, he takes Klonopin. If he’s home, he’ll take a nap, go for a walk or do handiwork around the house to refocus his nervous energy.
Panic attacks are becoming more recognizable as more power players come forward with their experiences. “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert opened up about his life-long struggle with anxiety in a new Rolling Stone cover story.
“I had a bit of a nervous breakdown after I got married — kind of panic attacks,” shared the 54-year-old comedian. “My wife would go off to work and she’d come home — because I worked at night — and I’d be walking around the couch. And she’s like, ‘How was your day?’ And I’d say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ Just tight circles around the couch.”
The nine-time Emmy winner disclosed that he used to take Xanax for his anxiety, but has found performing puts him the most at ease. “Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel,” he said. “And I haven’t stopped since.”
And in May, irreverent “Deadpool” star Ryan Reynolds, who appears as cocky and confident as they come on screen, told the New York Times that he suffers from anxiety: “Both in the lighthearted ‘I’m anxious about this’ kind of thing, and I’ve been to the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun.”
He would wake in the middle of the night in his 20s “paralyzed by anxiety, agonizing about his future,” according to the report, and self-medicated until a few of his friends died from overdoses. Now the father of two daughters with Blake Lively meditates using the Headspace app, or deflects the fear by doing interviews in character as the sassy superhero Deadpool.
“When the curtain opens, I turn on this knucklehead, and he kind of takes over and goes away again once I walk off set,” he said. “That’s that great self-defense mechanism. I figure if you’re going to jump off a cliff, you might as well fly.”
Carson Daly also recently disclosed that he has been dealing with generalized anxiety disorder for decades — including panic attacks that began when he was hosting MTV’s “TRL.”
“I had a hard time breathing. I was terrified for no apparent reason … you feel like you’re dying,” he shared on the “Today” show. “I’ve had heightened anxiety and mild panic attacks at the playground with my own children and wife there. The feeling was so gripping and so terrifying that literally I had to leave and excuse myself.”
Actor/comedian Bill Hader made a similar revelation at SXSW in March, confessing that, “Any time you saw me on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I was basically having a panic attack.” And his anxiety-ridden “SNL” experience has inspired his new HBO series “Barry,” about a depressed hitman who’s good at his job, but finds true happiness in an acting class.
This also comes on the heels of singer Meghan Trainor revealing that she went to the ER last year for a panic attack that made her feel like “my throat was closing.”NBA star Kevin Love just wrote a column about the panic attack that benched him at a game last fall. And Kendall Jenner told Harper’s Bazaar that she often suffers “full-on panic attacks” in the middle of the night.
And it is very likely that your friends, family and colleagues are also suffering in silence. The World Health Organization reports that the number of people with depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50%, from 416 million to 615 million between 1990 and 2013. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults (or 18.1% of the population) each year. And panic attacks are common among all of them.
“Some 90% of adults will have at least one panic attack in their lifetime,” Dr. David H. Rosmarin, Director of the Center for Anxiety told Moneyish. “People see it as a weakness, but it’s not. That’s being human.”
But the stigma still surrounding mental illness keeps many people with anxiety disorder from sharing their experiences, especially at work. “I’d rather keep it to myself than have people know I’m taking medication to control how I feel,” said Alex. “I don’t want to be treated any differently.”
And only 36.9% of those suffering anxiety disorder get treatment, even though it is very responsive to cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Samantha, a Boston dietitian and mother of two young children, told Moneyish she doesn’t share her anxiety struggles because, “I don’t want to worry anybody.”
So Samantha, 34, has just started taking Medterra’s CBD (cannabidiol) oil, which is a legal hemp extract free of THC that research suggests can be effective in treating anxiety, to sleep better at night. “I just feel like this is something that I can handle myself,” she said
Mark Henick, 30, a mental health advocate and TEDx Talks speaker who has been diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder since he was 12, told Moneyish he discloses his anxiety to his employers, and manages it with mindfulness meditation and exercise. “But most people aren’t talking to their supervisors about their mental health problems, because they are afraid that they might be seen as less capable at their jobs, or they might get passed over for a promotion,” he said.
But stressed and untreated workers will miss 12 billion working days to depression each year up to 2030, according to WHO, costing the global economy $925 billion, so it’s in the employers’ best interests to make employees more comfortable addressing mental health. Lancet reported that while the cost of setting up mental health treatment for 36 countries for 15 years would be $147 billion, the return would be $310 billion – handily covering the cost – thanks to a 5% improvement in labor force participation and productivity.
For now, St. Louis anxiety specialist Kelsey Torgerson suggests setting a phone timer to remind you to take “breathers” throughout the day, such as going for a five-minute walk outside or taking some deep breaths, to prevent panic attacks. And if you do feel your anxiety level spiking, “it’s not super obvious if you ask to leave a meeting to ‘use the restroom,’’ she said. “Or if you have an understanding boss, let them know that you may need to duck out now and again.”
You can also find more coping mechanisms here.
This article was originally published in March 2018, and has been updated with Stephen Colbert.
Aug 30, 2018