“When you’re past this, which you will be soon, you should share your story because it will help other people — especially entrepreneurs”, said Dennis (who I credit for helping me move past my health anxiety over the last few months — more on that below).
So that’s what I’ve decided to do with this post.
It’s not pretty, but mental health issues for entrepreneurs can be especially debilitating. Rand Fiskin opened up about his depression in 2014 (read his post here) and today I want to share my story about GAD / health anxiety.
As an entrepreneur you have the usual day-to-day pressures of (for me) being a great husband and father, combined with the stresses and ups-and-downs of growing a business and helping other entrepreneurs grow their businesses (I advisor/mentor 20 other founders).
It’s damn hard.
My story started late last year when I lost a friend to suicide. I didn’t see it coming and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. In the weeks following his death, 4 other people I knew passed away and a (young) family friend was diagnosed with cancer.
I’d never been comfortable with death or grief — being honest, it scares the hell out of me — so all of this bad news sent my central nervous system into “fight or flight” mode, thinking I was next.
For those of you who don’t know what the “fight or flight” response is, you can learn more here, but it’s basically your body reacting to a (perceived) threat and protecting you from a predator, such as a lion, which we had to avoid back in our hunting days thousands of years ago:
In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
I had constant chest tightness, a fast heart beat (up to 160bpm resting), trouble breathing, tingling in my right arm and a constant feeling of confusion and fear. The entire time I was awake. For 4 months straight.
The first thing I did, of course, was see my doctor and get tested for the physical sensations I was feeling. Over the course of a month I visited my doctor, hospitals and specialists about 15 times just to make sure that I was physically OK — which, thank god, I was.
The second thing I did was see a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT) who “diagnosed” me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) with a specific focus on my health, AKA health anxiety.
Despite the physical tests coming back fine, I had an underlying belief that the doctors had missed something and that I was going to die or had a serious illness or disease.
This, I would come to learn, is one of the many tricks health anxiety can play with your mind. I had evidence I was OK, but didn’t believe it.
Knowing that I was OK physically and being told it was “all in my head” gave me short-term relief and would make one physical sensation disappear, only to have another one turn up to take its place a few days later.
If someone had told me how close the mind-body connection is before experiencing all of this, I would’ve laughed. Now I’ve seen first hand that what you create in your mind manifests itself in your body in unexpected and sometimes scary ways.
The only things that relieved me of the constantly-changing physical sensations and worry was 1) rigorous exercise, or 2) valium — which I took for 6 weeks but stopped cold turkey because I didn’t want to depend on drugs to get me past this, or 3) being so deeply focused on a specific task (such as writing, interviewing someone, etc) that I almost “forgot” my brain was in constant survival mode.
Most of the time I would be in a meeting and have such a tight chest that I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. Or I’d be out at a dinner with friends and have to leave the table because I couldn’t breathe properly. Or I’d be in bed by 8pm because when I was asleep I didn’t feel any physical sensations.
My entire day became focused on answering one question — “if I start to get a physical sensation, how quickly can I get to the gym or go for a run so it goes away?”.
I’d leave my calendar blank for most of the day so I could “escape” to exercise. It became all-consuming and I lost count of the number of times I broke down and felt helpless, not knowing what to do next. I cried more in 4 months than I had in the last 20 years combined.
After 3 months of enduring these physical sensations every day, I was convinced I was going to die and that it was just a matter of time. I started to wonder if my kids would be OK without me and hoped that whatever illness or disease I had would take me quickly so my family didn’t have to see me suffer in pain.
Without a doubt, this was the most difficult experience I’ve had in my life. And I’ve been through some shit. When I was growing up we were poor, my dad was an abusive alcoholic, my step dad was a heroin addict and I saw things no child should ever have to see.
But all of that paled in comparison to this.
In February of this year I found Dennis Simsek’s incredible Youtube channel and podcast — and I started watching and listening for a few hours each day. I started to learn the tools and strategies I needed to convince myself that I was OK and that what I was experiencing was the result of “faulty wiring” in my central nervous system.
Within a few weeks I had engaged Dennis as my “anxiety coach”. Over 30 days we met 26 times on Skype. It was a marathon of learning about myself and my mind. Dennis shared with me his entire “playbook” to overcome anxiety and I took endless notes during our calls.
Through a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), visualization exercises and learning to be patient, Dennis helped me get back to my normal positive and optimistic self.
It didn’t happen immediately — and at times I thought I would never get back to my old self — but it DID happen. I just had to be patient and continually put into practice what Dennis was teaching me.
The main reason I’m writing this post is to tell you that it’s OK to ask for help if you have a mental condition or a mental illness.
It doesn’t make you weak. Being vulnerable and needing help is what makes us human. Strength comes from vulnerability and reaching out for help.
Sometimes as entrepreneurs, I know we feel like we should be able to solve all of life’s problems (because that’s our “day job” as we build our businesses), but that’s just not true.
No one will judge you if you tell them about your mental health challenges. No one will look down on you or think any less of you. No one will make fun of you or stop wanting to spend time with you. I promise.
As I started to tell my family and friends about my challenges, I received endless support and encouragement — and I have no doubt the same thing will happen to you.
If I hadn’t reached out to Dennis, I’m sure I would still be stuck in the anxious state I was in — maybe for a few more months, maybe even a few years. There are people out there who are willing to help you — you just have to take the first step and ask for their help. The rest will take care of itself if you’re patient and stick with it.
And then one day, just like Dennis suggested to me, you can share your story with others to help them on their journey.