Should I Apply For Training Jobs If I Have Panic Attacks When I Train?
April 30, 2016 1:27 AM   Subscribe

One of the primary roles in my last job was training. At some point I started having panic attacks when I began my training sessions, which was a cause of real distress in the moment, but also longer term as I was now worried about my ability to do my job. Now that my company has closed down, I'm looking for a new job, and I've become aware that I'm subtly discounting opportunities which involve training out of fears related to panic attacks. I really don't think I can afford to overlook these positions in the current job market, but my brain keeps imagining turning up at a new job and having a panic attack in front of a whole new group of people, and naturally things grind to a halt from there. Any thoughts, advice or previous experience would be most welcome; comprehensive history inside.

I was pretty good at training - I'd prepare well, create relevant documentation, and generally put a lot of effort into ensuring everyone had what they needed to succeed.

When the panic attacks started (in Nov 2010) I really didn't know what to do, but my therapist recommended trying different approaches to my training/ trying to find and avoid triggers.. She also said medication was an option, but that it'd be best to try and work with the problem first - and I agreed. I actually had a series of 5 training sessions which were all the same, so I figured I could use the series to experiment. But the same thing kept happening: folks would come in, I'd make small talk, everything would be fine, and then the second I went to start the training, I'd have the panic attack. In those 5 sessions, the only things I learned were (a) altering my style had no effect, and (b) how to excuse yourself, find and empty office and have a meltdown, and then return and continue as if nothing had happened. By the 4th session, I was at my doctor's getting a prescription for Xanax.

But Xanax isn't a cure for panic attacks - it's more a cure for the anxiety you get from knowing that you're probably going to have a panic attack. It also makes me a bit sleepy and slow, which isn't good for training, or for any other tasks I had to do after my training session. So I also got prescribed Propanolol, which is definitely better - when I take it I feel the panic attack coming on, but I'm also able to ride it out - although again, I'm not sharp during the session. So I then got into the habit of heavily preparing my script before the training session, and then sticking to that script because I wasn't really able to ad-lib or go "off-road" with questions etc on Propanolol (and again found that it too impacted my ability to do other tasks after my training session).

I always knew that medication was not a long term answer, and fortunately my local university had a 10 week course on treating anxiety, which I attended and completed (it was weekly specialized therapy sessions with take-home tasks). Attending this course made me feel good that I was doing something to address my problem, but it didn't actually help with the panic attacks. It did however give me the confidence to sign up for a public speaking course - also 10 weeks, also at the local university - which wasn't really so much about technique, but more just about giving you the exposure of practicing speaking in front of a group. And again - after making it half-way through the course (using avoidance techniques like not volunteering one week so that I'd have to come in early and do the speech to a smaller group the following week) I just couldn't do it without medication.

Since then I've always worked around this problem, taking medication, managing my time after the sessions knowing that I'm not going to be on the ball. And I've tried on several occasions going cold turkey, hoping that maybe it'll have gone away, but it hasn't.

And the way I see it is that in my last job, I had the ability to manage this - I did all the scheduling etc, so I was able to only have one session a day (I don't know what I would've done if I had to do a 9am and a 4pm - take meds twice?). What I'm worried about now is that I'll wind up in a job where I won't have that kind of control, where I won't be able to manage the problem with medication, where I will have to go "off-road" with questions and then likely sink like a stone - so it's no wonder I'm not jumping in for new training jobs with two feet (I'm also worried that because I'm trying to change industry, I wouldn't be a subject matter expert as well as a trainer, as I was in my previous role). But training is such a big part of my skills and experience that if I put it to one side, I'm kind of left with babysitting and bramble picker jobs.

Finally, to add insult to injury, my back-up plan if I'm not able to get a job for now is to teach English as a foreign language - what am I thinking!

So, TL;DR - am I thoroughly barking up the wrong tree considering training jobs? Or maybe this isn't unheard of among trainers and you just get it on with it? I'm at a loss - I just know that I can no longer afford to go through the process of finding training jobs and then not applying for them because I'm scared. I have to bite a bullet, one way or another.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a little concerned that your therapist's recommendation was to avoid triggers rather than desensitize. And I'm also concerned that during your public speaking course you again mention using "avoidance techniques." If 10 weeks of anxiety courses left you with the idea that avoidance is the best way to manage anxiety, either the course wasn't very good or you got the wrong message from it. Avoidance paves the way for more extreme levels of dysfunction. Which is what you're experiencing now, actually. You've gone from taking pills and excusing yourself to have a panic attack to just not applying for a whole class of jobs due to fear. So avoidance is proving to be maladaptive in your own life.

Plenty of people have suddenly developed panic or phobias surrounding a vital component of their employment. Travelling salesmen who develop fears of driving or airplanes. Performers who become crippled by stage fright. If training is your jam and the easiest road to employment, it seems worth it to eke by on medication until you can do CBT with a licensed therapist who specializes in anxiety. At the very least, pick up and do the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook.
posted by xyzzy at 1:53 AM on April 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Were you creating the training that you delivered? If not, did you work closely with the people who did create it? If so, and if you enjoyed that part of the process, you might see if you can leverage your experience into a training design/development position. In many/most cases, we instructional designers never actually get in front of the classroom to teach what we've created - at most, we'll be on-hand to lead the "train the trainer" sessions to prepare faculty, observe a pilot run of a course we've developed, and/or lead sit-down focus groups to get faculty/participant takes on a course - but generally we are not the ones actually standing in front of a classroom to teach a course.

Don't get me wrong, there's not a 1:1 correspondence between aptitude at training design and aptitude at training delivery - and I would also add that most (not all) designers I know have graduate degrees in the field, and that you'd need to be comfortable having lots of meetings - but if training in general appeals to you but it's the delivery aspect that's giving you problems, maybe read up on the field of instructional design and see if that could be a better fit for you. Happy to talk if you have questions - feel free to PM, and good luck!
posted by DingoMutt at 7:09 AM on April 30, 2016

Maybe not the same thing, but it's well known that many professional performers (actors, stand-up comedians) have serious stage fright. The real question is what happens when the curtain goes up. Do you do a great job?

I've taken Xanax. I don't think it would be an asset once you got started.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:17 AM on April 30, 2016

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