How to deal with interview anxiety?
May 26, 2021 5:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I, an accomplished editor with severe anxiety, get through job interviews without panicking? (More inside.)

A couple of times, I’ve interviewed for positions I honestly think I would be great at, and I’ve bombed them. My friends and colleagues don’t believe me, they think I’m being hard on myself. This is maybe partly true, but I know that when someone asks me a question and my mind goes completely blank and I say, “I’m sorry, my mind’s gone blank” MORE THAN ONCE, and I can’t seem to pull myself out of it, it ain’t great. (These are fairly senior positions in the editorial field, if that's important.)

I do suffer from severe anxiety. The anxiety has become even more of a problem with the pandemic—in addition to existential stuff, video conferencing makes me incredibly nervous and uneasy. I even get sweaty and nervous before Zoom calls with friends, or my therapist. I hate it.

What can I do to deal with my interview anxiety/panic? I’m on medication, and it’s only partly effective. I take Buspar, among other meds, and it seems to do nothing. I took .25 mg of Klonopin before my last interview and it took the edge off, but I still had the problem of my mind blanking. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Any interviewing secrets or techniques for people with severe anxiety would be hugely helpful. As well as stories of times you’ve bombed an interview but still got the job—although I don’t think that’s going to be the case for me.
posted by brooklynlady to Work & Money (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
My best interview ever (and I got the job, which they didn't plan to give me becquse there was someone else in the role) I looked up every question and appropriate answer (over 100) on the internet and researched the interviewers (you can ring and ask who they are) and I congratulated one of them on a recent award. There was no question I hadn't researched but at one question, I asked to refer my notes to answer.

Since then, I had one interview where I made grunting noises (autism mutism) and none of my other applications got me an interview, even though my high level clients tell me (even today) that I can read their minds. So I'm good at work but crap at interviews, unless I treat the preparation for the interview like a job.
posted by b33j at 6:12 AM on May 26, 2021 [11 favorites]

Rehearse! I'm surprised with how many people never actually say their interview answers out loud, or out loud to another person, over and over again.

You say you have Zoom anxiety (I hear you there!) so I'd find the most trusted people that you feel most comfortable with, and ask them if they can sit in as interviewers, or even just sit across from you on the Zoom screen, and listen to your answers as you give them, over and over again.

For me, that kind of "exposure exercise" helps to rein in my anxiety, and also lets the answers be right at-hand when I need them in talking to people.
posted by xingcat at 6:29 AM on May 26, 2021 [14 favorites]

Beta blockers - have friends with severe anxiety who did very well in job interviews with one pill, and professional musicians often take a beta blocker for auditions. Just explain to your doctor, they would give a prescription for the number of interviews you'll do. Not a good solution for anxiety in general, just a very punctual solution for certain exams, auditions, and interviews.
posted by plant or animal at 6:29 AM on May 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

I've had a few great interviews and many that were not even base hits!

What worked for me:

For the nerves before hand--breathing exercises. Inhale for five counts, hold, than exhale for five counts. Also lavender oil or scent.

For the actual interview, over training helped me alleviate a lot of anxiety. There are tons of examples of questions, and they all tend to ask similar things. Practice saying them a lot, out loud.
At the very least, you should be able to answer:
"Give us a summary of your background"
"How did you add value/solve something/improve in what situation."
"What are the hardest parts of your job/things you hate/ things you are not good at.
"What do you like about this field/role.

Also, have a few questions memorized for the "Do you have any questions for us?" There are tons of examples out there.
posted by rhonzo at 6:42 AM on May 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

I also found beta blockers very effective for that kind of fight or flight response to interview questions. I really did consider running out of the room a few times!

I've now found that it kind of broke the pattern so that I now can look back on relatively successful interviews and imagine myself doing that again, rather than inevitably coming up blank every time. So it's not like it's an either/or on finding coping techniques or using medication. Personally, I was never able to apply the techniques I learned in therapy until I was calm enough to actually think during an interview.

I also keep a running list of examples of difficult situations I've faced and times that I think I handled something well, and practice shoehorning them into the common STAR-type behavioural questions that are really common in my industry. Nothing makes my brain go blanker than "Tell me about a time you used good judgement to resolve a situation." I'm sorry, could you be a bit more vague please??
posted by pierogi24 at 6:47 AM on May 26, 2021

And do square breathing - practicing that, too - before the interview and even during if you need to.

Square breathing is this:
1. Take a deep, slow breath and inhale for four seconds
2. Hold that breath for four seconds
3. Release slowly for four seconds
4. Hold for four seconds
5. Repeat three more times (for a total of four)

This will lower your heart rate and help you manage some of the physical feelings. It works wonders for me.

You should also always know it is perfectly acceptable to say, “that’s a great question, let me think about that...” and take a second to answer. I’ve interviewed a lot of people for jobs and that was a measured, composed way to address a question that needed some thought. Much preferable to “I don’t know”
posted by glaucon at 6:58 AM on May 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'll add my support for using a beta-blocker. I'm usually the last person to recommend using drugs for psychological issues, but beta-blockers are safe and effective -- and they work way better than the Klonopin that you had tried. My doctor gave me a prescription for propranolol to use before I have to give presentations at work. It acts by blocking the effect of adrenalin, so you don't get the feeling where your heart is racing, your palms get sweaty, and your voice quivers. The drug works in a fundamentally different way from benzodiazepines, like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, or Ativan. Those last drugs I mentioned are less effective at blocking this kind of "fight or flight" response, they have worse side effects, and they're prone to abuse/addiction.
posted by alex1965 at 7:04 AM on May 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Nthing actual question prep.

Other folks have covered approaches to the anxiety, but as to actual answers/your mind going blank, I really really recommend 2-3 sentence responses to common questions, word smithing them so they are in your voice, writing out by hand and then running them by a friend out loud. Them have a cheat sheet of your common responses ready to go in front of you.

I also have done "informational interviews" with acquaintances to get in the habit of interviewing before applying for a job. It's a skill and one I personally need to practice.

Good luck!
posted by larthegreat at 7:09 AM on May 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

From someone who once spilled a glass of water all over the table in an interview because my hand was shaking so much, the most useful thing I've ever done was really take the advice on pre-interview breathing exercises seriously. I always looked a bit sceptically at this, but tried it out and it was revelatory.

At one of my more recent (successful) interviews, I was told that I was by far the calmest person interviewed, which is so far from my past experience it was hard to comprehend.
posted by knapah at 7:21 AM on May 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Great advice above. I would only add that you should practice the story of your career and every job you’ve had, over and over. I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing candidates lately, and you can tell who knows their own story well, and who fumbles. Pick any line in your resume and imagine someone asking you about it. What did you learn? How did you help others? How were you successful? What were challenging parts? I’ve probably spent dozens of hours at this point talking to myself and others about my career path and my strengths and challenges. It’s become really engrained, and when people ask questions of me now, I have something somewhere in my memory that I can pull from.
posted by umwhat at 7:43 AM on May 26, 2021 [14 favorites]

Aside from what everyone else is saying about practicing and so on, I've found that in the moment, at the interview, if I can focus on getting excited about what I'm talking about instead of whether my answers are perfect, that can make the exchange feel a little more natural and less anxiety provoking. I try to do everything I can to practice leading up to the interview, but then when it comes to the actual interview just to focus on being engaged in the conversation.
posted by knownfossils at 7:53 AM on May 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi! I'm an editor and I've hired people, too. Adding so many +1s to all the above, but also two more things:

1. Interviews can feel a lot like your worth and value is being judged. As a job-seeker, it might help you to reframe this mentally by seeing it more as a friendly conversation with the goal of exchanging information, which really helps to balance out the implied power differential. After all, you're both there to see if the work would be a good fit for you. You're both there to see if it's a match. Turns out you're actually interviewing each other, and it's not an adversarial thing at all.

You know yourself better than anyone, and not every job will be right for you, so consider what's important to you in your next role and explore that based on what your research about the company has yielded. For example, at my last job, I wanted them to know that I was looking for a role collaborating with clients and consultants. Obviously some people prefer the type of job where you sit alone at a desk hammering out edits with your headphones on, and that's fine! But it's just not something I enjoy doing all day every day. So we talked a lot about that, and whether/how my more collaborative approach would work well with their team structure.

2. Sometimes it's better to listen. Like, of course be friendly and maintain the conversation, but give the interviewer room to talk while you actively listen -- they'll tell you so much more than you'd ever expect! A few leading questions, like asking how long they've been with the company, how the company/industry/department has changed recently, etc. will help build a connection. And it gives you a ton of insight on red flags and green ones, too.

And when giving answers, try to land on one or more touchpoints when you can:
- Being someone who adds value and helps others
- Being a kind and honest/decent person to work with
- Being someone who is proactive in addressing problems and conflicts
posted by mochapickle at 8:03 AM on May 26, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Interviews can be really high pressure, the more you need/want the job the worse they are. I think the best interviews I’ve done were where I was 90% convinced I had no chance, or where I didn’t really want the job. Just really relaxed and chatting freely.

I’ve tried to psych myself into that mindset - tell myself it isn’t life and death, if I stuff it up there will be another day, another interview, maybe I don’t want the job anyway. I’ve really tried to take the pressure off myself, and I do think it works. Ask a Manager has some stuff about how the ‘Dream Job’ isn’t really the dream job. That website has some good advice in general.

Also, very much agree about research and rehearsal. Practice making eye contact (but not fixed stare) at the camera and answering the most common questions (summary of your job history, why you are interested, what relevant experiences etc) over and over until it is second nature. Most of the interviews I’ve done/conducted have involved the ‘tell me about a time when…’ questions, so I’ve made a list of useful examples and memorised them. Sometimes they don’t fit 100% but can be adapted, emphasising the point to be made. I would really rehearse those to minimise the ‘blank mind’ thing.

Also think of as many questions for them as you can, it’s annoying when you come up with good questions and then the interviewer proactively covers the topic, then you are left with nothing.

Finally, I’ve conducted a lot of interviews and having a ‘blank screen’ minute is not that unusual and really not that bad. Collecting yourself and moving on well is important but please, please don’t beat yourself up too much. I wouldn’t count it against a candidate at all - we’ve all been there. I try to be as encouraging and helpful to candidates as possible, I want them to show me their best, not to try and trip them up.

Best of luck, you can definitely do this!
posted by ElasticParrot at 8:56 AM on May 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

The advice above is great, but in the worst-case scenario, if it's on Zoom, you could always fake a dropped call, give yourself a minute, and then reconnect. Maybe knowing that's an option might help you feel a little more relaxed.
posted by pinochiette at 9:01 AM on May 26, 2021

The OP didn't specify how patterned (corporate?) her interviews are. I'm in a related field, and my interviews aren't patterned at all. I, too, have tanked interviews by simply going blank, though not always. I've studied the STAR method and different ways to summarize my resume, but frequently I don't get asked questions like that at all.

At one notable interview, I mentioned Chomsky in response to a question, and got chastised for it. In another, about six months later, I purposely did not mention Chomsky, and it turned out that was the wrong answer (in that case), too. In still another, I gave an example for crisis communications in my cover letter, and thought I was all set. In the interview, the interviewer asked me for a second example and that's when I got flummoxed. In another recent interview after a successful pre-interview with HR, the interviewer told me he had a question that he always asked everyone: If I could be any animal what animal would I be? The only other time I'd heard that question was from a Freudian psychologist who used it to infer character traits for treatment. Things in the interview started to go downhill after that.

I've only ever had success with two strategies. The first is studying the company beforehand (website, news) so I'm unusually familiar with what they do, and it gives me fodder for conversation, comparison and questions. The second, which I stumbled upon after a couple of hard tanks that made me realize part of my problem was giving myself too much self-instruction,  I simply told myself to "be charming" instead. Sometimes I've found that works extremely well, but it depends on the chemistry. I think a lot of interviewing does.

Finally, on the basis of advice here on the Green, I did recently get myself a prescription for Propanolol. In non-interview experiments, it seems to take off the edge just enough that I relax my shoulders and stop wishing for a glass of wine, so I think there's definitely something to that advice.
posted by Violet Blue at 9:21 AM on May 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rehearse and beta blockers. Not a doctor, specifically recommend reading about propranolol/inderall. It's a beta blocker used for stage fright or performance anxiety. It's gentle and very affective.

One element to CBT (often annoyingly and emptily overrepped in the psyche community) - rehearsal/mock ups, acting based or situational play can be incredibly effective.

I had to do some mock ups recently. Sometimes it can involve 5-15 takes to filter away the nervousness. Recommend recording yourself to understand the tone you're setting. Eventually, you may be surprised extreme anxiety is an exceptional motivator and a tool, down to every detail you'd like to collect. It can create an impressive, academic or skilled worker. But you have to tame it first.

Also recommend mock interviews with friends, or even friendly acquaintances. Anyone who can provide a third party opinion. A therapist or life coach can totally help with this, you may not have to pay. Educators, too.
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:46 PM on May 26, 2021

I have a brilliant friend who like you is an editor, and who interviews really, really badly. (She is one of those people who meta-commentates in her own head, and in interviews she does it out loud in the room. Plus she over-shares, can't shut up, loses her train of thought, makes weird faces, etc. I have seen it & it's bad.)

She eventually just started telling people up front that she is really terrible at interviews, that that's in no way indicative of the quality of her work, and that when they assess her, she would love for them to lean on work samples and references rather than the interview.

She says it's worked surprisingly well. She says that interviewers mostly seem to get that what she's describing is essentially a quirk, and not important, and she feels like once she's told them about it, they like her more and are rooting for her. And she has gotten two new jobs since she started doing it :)
posted by Susan PG at 5:53 PM on May 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Interviewing well is a skill. The trouble is that it's not often practiced enough. A bit like being judged on the basketball court when you only play once every few years.
One thing is to seek professional help - there are coaches out there who will put you through mock interviews over and over again, and providing you with feedback. One of my friends does this for a living. Another idea is to join Toastmasters - they will help you deal with public speaking anxiety by having you give presentations on Zoom, but as well they have something called Table Topics at every meeting. This is where you are asked a question on the spot and you practice giving a coherent answer of 1-2 minutes. This is where you can overcome the "mind blank".
posted by storybored at 6:59 PM on May 26, 2021

I used to find that my mind would blank in interviews a lot - relaxation prep and practicing answers are both helpful but they key for me has been to realise I think better with a pen in my hand (it's related to kinesthetic learning). In-person I usually try to jot down something on the papers I've brought with me to make it look like I have a reason for having a pen, but on zoom you can just hold one.
posted by london explorer girl at 3:34 AM on May 27, 2021

Before you do anything with drugs, consult a psychiatrist if you're able to. I saw a recommendation for beta-blockers above and just wanted to point out that there are also so so so many other medications that don't increase the chance of heart failure but also have an effect on anxiety. Going to your PCP for beta blockers is definitely possible but they're not going to be up to date on current regimens and treatment pathways that a psychiatrist would be.

Therapy is also a gold standard and generally regarded as a safer route since it doesn't produce side effects and should be something you pursue if you're able to financially. In situations like this, you might find exposure therapy by way of simulated interviews helpful but IANAP and IANYP so take that with a big grain of salt.

Ultimately, what works for others may not work for you - and vice versa. It's possible to work these things out through trial and error but a quicker route is usually through consulting with a mental health professional as I'm sure you're already aware.
posted by paimapi at 7:58 AM on May 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: palmieri makes a great point. I was prescribed beta blockers and it wasn’t a 100% positive experience for me. Others have had more success but it’s best to do this under a doctor’s care.

I was thinking more about your question this morning, and another option might be hiring a leadership/executive coach to help coach you through this. I had a deep fear of public speaking (it was so bad I’d get a rash on my neck!) and avoided it so much that it was holding me back professionally. So my boss scheduled a private two-hour session with a leadership coach who is a fellow introvert but a compelling presenter, and we were able to talk through the issue and apply some workable techniques.

For me, the issue resolved when I learned how to prepare in advance and how to connect personally with the information/audience. I also learned that it’s okay to have your own style, so long as you’re being genuine. Speaking became something I genuinely enjoyed, but it turned out I needed that session to help me get there.
posted by mochapickle at 8:20 AM on May 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older Anyone Seen A Unique Water Pitcher Like This Seen...   |   Can/should I eat it? Whole sack o pork patties Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments