The Panic Attack
I met Jay* a couple weeks ago over coffee. He was your prototypical San Francisco startup founder: an engineer in his twenties who found his way to Silicon Valley by joining a startup as their first employee. He’s someone you wish you had on your team: smart, fast, and also courteous and kind.
He sat in the quiet corner of the coffee shop, taking a call, when I walked in. I learned later that he was asking a former cofounder for advice on his new startup.
We’re all good friends now. It wasn’t always like that. There was a specific point of the company where things were so bad that our employees weren’t happy and my cofounders and I were at each other’s throats. Well you know, I’m sure you deal with a lot of cofounder drama.
That I do (p.s. love you, Ti Zhao!) . And that’s where Jay’s story begins:
How did you meet your cofounders?
We met through a mutual connection. They were looking for a technical cofounder and my friend told them, “It sounds like you should work with Jay.” We jumped into this thing together. We basically got married…but without knowing each other really well.
Were there growing pains?
For sure. Along the way we had our highs and lows both personally and as a company. We put a ton of pressure on one another to perform. At one point we were doing over a million dollars in annual recurring revenue but when things weren’t going well, we would all point fingers at one another.
What was the worst part about that?
The levels of stress took me for surprise. You have to manage so much stress–your own stress day-to-day but then also your cofounder’s stress and your employee’s stress. That was something that I just didn’t understand well at the time.
The stress from the company led into my personal life, too. I was checked out by the time I came home in the evenings. Whether it was friends that I was close to or the person that I was dating–I wasn’t there mentally and so I had to deal with the guilt of not showing up in my personal life as well as the stress of the company failing.
We eventually shut down the company. That’s when I started dealing with anxiety–like, real anxiety. I realized then that I had dealt with anxiety when I was younger but I just didn’t know it at the time.
What was the anxiety like?
I remember thinking–and this sounds kind of silly– but I remember thinking as a kid that I had asthma. I never had asthma, though. I had tightness in the chest from stress, like mild panic. I figured this out when I had a panic attack while running the startup.
“It was three or four o’clock in the morning. I woke up and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having an asthma attack.”
We were fundraising. I was running around with my cofounders to meetings with investors. At the same time, I was trying to get a new build out and manage the engineering team. I couldn’t sleep the day before we had to meet some investors. It was three or four o’clock in the morning. I woke up and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having an asthma attack so I drove myself down to Silicon Valley Hospital in Mountain View. I was freaking out.
I told them, “I can’t breathe. I’m having an asthma attack or a heart attack or something.” They asked me if I was on drugs. They checked my lungs and they checked my heart; they told me that I was fine. Then they asked me if I had ever experienced anxiety. I told them that I didn’t think so but I had all of the clear signs. They gave me something–I don’t know if it was Xanax or another drug–and I calmed down. They made me see a psychiatrist the next day.
That was when I learned what a panic attack was and what it felt like. From there, I was able to start dealing with my anxiety, [recognizing panic] as a tightness in my chest, and learning how to cope.
How did you cope?
I went to therapy.
Did you go to therapy right away?
I was definitely hesitant about getting therapy. I thought that I didn’t need therapy, that it was just stress, and that I’d figure out a way to deal with it. I wasn’t managing my own mental health and it was a disservice to the company and a disservice to myself. I thought I was putting the company first but you need to take care of yourself first in order to do a good job at work.
Once I realized that I needed help, part of the struggle early on was finding a therapist whom I connected with. The first few therapists were super unhelpful. One of them, a psychiatrist, decided that the way to diagnose whether I had anxiety or panic attacks was to put me on Xanax. He said that if the medication worked, and my troubled breathing went away, then that means I had anxiety. In my mind I thought, “Really? This is scientific? You’re a doctor?!”
“I thought I was putting the company first but you need to take care of yourself first in order to do a good job at work.”
What did you do next?
I tried more therapists. I eventually found someone who I really connected with. Instead of quickly giving me a drug, she helped me figure out what caused the anxiety.
It was a process–over the course of weeks to months I learned how to deal with panic and anxiety. We figured out that it was more than just stress at work. The stress at work inhibited me from sleeping. The stress made me think that I was too busy to exercise. I wasn’t taking care of myself so that I could manage the stress and all of those things were causing me to panic. Through therapy, I was able to treat the core issues. For instance, we figured out that when I exercised, I slept better.
How often did you go?
At first I went once a week, sometimes twice a week. Then as I got better, we switched to twice a month and then once a month.
How did you figure out whether a therapist was good or bad?
The therapists that worked for me–and I think everyone’s different–were warm and empathetic. One of the first therapists I saw was very cold. He wanted to be referred to as Dr. So-and-So and he would speak down to me. He would preach to me about what anxiety is and why it happens in our brain. I learned some important things from him but he wasn’t very empathetic. I learned that I needed someone who was going to let me talk through the shit I needed to talk through.
I finally found a therapist whom I really connected with and who helped me so much. She was really warm and caring and she would let me talk through whatever I needed to talk through during the sessions. She would offer advice really subtly and she didn’t preach. Again, I think everyone wants something different. For me, I needed someone who was really supportive whom I felt like I could trust. That was so huge.
Did you tell anyone?
I told my partner. I told my parents. I didn’t really wanna talk about it at work. I told some friends and they responded to it in different ways. Some people were supportive and others were a bit weirded out.
That’s when I really felt the stigma around anxiety and depression. I think anxiety specifically is something that people just brush off. I mean, everyone has anxiety. That’s true but not everyone has severe, crippling anxiety. So some people whom I told just brushed it off.
Did you tell your cofounders?
Yeah, I did. I told them like a few weeks into therapy and they were supportive, but even so–I still felt like it was something that was viewed as a weakness.
“You start breathing intentionally and put your hand on your stomach. It’s simple but just sitting down and chilling out can really make that panicky feeling go away.”
How did therapy help?
The biggest takeaway for me was learning what caused my anxiety. Everyone is different and has different triggers. For me, I know that if I’m not sleeping enough, I’m more prone to get panicky, so the most important thing for me was figuring out how to make sure that I get 5–6 hours of sleep every night. I do that by exercising, eating right, cutting back on caffeine, and not drinking heavily on a night out. If I can maintain those habits, I sleep well. If I start feeling panicky, which still happens, then I’ll practice deep breathing exercises that I learned in therapy.
How do breathing exercises work?
You start breathing intentionally and put your hand on your stomach. It’s simple but just sitting down and chilling out can really make that panicky feeling go away.
Did your performance at work change?
I think therapy helped me become a better manager. One of the most stressful things for me as a first time founder was learning how to manage a team. I felt that I was a pretty good programmer–I’d built the initial version of the app by myself–but I sucked as a manager. I hired talented people but didn’t know how to manage them. I wasn’t very empathetic to what they were dealing with day-to-day or what they needed to be successful. That was a hard learning process.
Therapy helped me become a better coworker and supportive cofounder, too. I started taking time to learn about what people needed in order to be successful at their job. I could recognize the signs of stress and burnout and then tell employees to take a break or cut them some slack.
Did anything else change as your anxiety improved?
Anxiety and stress mess with your confidence. I got better at faking being confident when I wasn’t confident and being aware of when I was stressed. I remember when we were fundraising, we would pitch to some impressive people and I would put them up there on a pedestal like they were gods or something. I would get really nervous before meeting them. Eventually I realized that these investors are just people. A lot of these people we worship have had their own failures–you just don’t hear about them [or their failures] in the news. It’s not a part of their mythology that they’ve failed, too.
Was therapy worth it?
Oh for sure. I needed to figure this out. I think it’s so important. I’m starting a new company now and we’re just trying to figure out health insurance for our employees. For me, making sure they can manage their health–mental and physical–is so important. Employee happiness is so crucial to the success of the company so everyone’s general mental health and stability matters a lot to me. It’s insane to me that insurance panels [used to] just cover a few visits unless you are diagnosed with something severe.
“I really think that founders should be speaking to someone whether it’s a mentor, coach, or a therapist. And I mean they should be speaking to someone from day one.”
When is the right time to go to therapy?
I was in denial about a lot of stuff. Clearly I didn’t go until I literally wound up in the ER having a panic attack. I had a few panic attacks across the life of that company but after that first one, I could recognize when the others were happening. At first, while I was trying out different therapists who weren’t working, I tried to deal with it on my own. That was hard. I definitely should have gone earlier but I was in denial about everything. I was overwhelmed and burned out. I would encourage people to go sooner. I really think that founders should be speaking to someone whether it’s a mentor, coach, or a therapist. And I mean they should be speaking to someone from day one.
Need help now? You’re not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK. It’s available 24/7 and staffed by crisis response professionals.