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May 4, 2023
Min read

“I kept my anxiety secret for years. Then I opened up at work—and everything changed”

Written By
Miranda Gabbott
Nicole Gottselig | Senior Brand Editor, Hotjar

When Nicole started having regular panic attacks aged 17, she had no idea what they were. Growing up in British Columbia, Canada, she was a confident and friendly teenager—never someone you’d associate with anxiety. 

But she’d just be living her life when, without a clear trigger, a rush of adrenaline would take over her body. It was a violent physical sensation that often felt like a heart attack.  

“My heart would start pounding—I thought I was dying.”

Other than her parents—who were understanding—she never told anyone about them.

Until, one day, 17-year-old Nicole was waiting in line at MacDonald's with a friend when a panic attack started to come over her. She tried to describe what was happening in her body, but it was impossible—she didn’t know. She still remembers the look on her friend’s face: somewhere between bewildered and incredulous. 

Nicole felt absolutely ridiculous. 

“People would just be like, what the hell are you talking about? What do you mean you're panicking?”

Growing up in the 90s, there wasn’t widespread education about mental health issues. Hardly anyone understood panic attacks. So to avoid the stigma of losing control in public, Nicole tried to keep her panic attacks secret—as much as she could. 

But, worrying about having an attack in public made her panic—which made them more likely to happen. She felt like she was losing her mind. 

Nicole bounced from doctor to doctor and tried a string of anti-anxiety medications. Nothing worked.  

“I didn't have any tools or techniques or working medication. I was just free-floating with these strange symptoms that were making me more and more scared.” 

Suffering in silence to appear “professional” 

The panic attacks caused Nicole to drop out of college, but they didn’t dictate the whole of her twenties. Her talents and personality shone through to employers, and she found an interesting job in the HR department of a technical university.

She coped by leading a double life. Sometimes the attacks were so intense she felt like she was dying—she’d even call ambulances to her house. But her colleagues had no idea.   

“I never told anybody. I called in sick all the time.” 

One day, the university held an employee workshop about anxiety and depression. Nicole realised that the talk was aimed to help people like her. With this encouragement, she tried going to the doctor again. This time, she took along a friend who worked as a nurse as backup.

“That first course of SSRIs saved my life”  

Nicole was put on a type of antidepressant called SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which work by allowing more serotonin to pass between the nerve cells in your brain. At the time it was a relatively new-school antidepressant, but now they’re the most common  variety. 

Finally, she’d found a medication that did something for her.

“Within four weeks of starting the medication, I remember I was driving and I looked out the window and noticed what a beautiful day it was."

<quote-author>Nicole Gottselig<quote-author> | <quote-company>Senior Brand Editor at Hotjar<quote-company>

"It was the first time I’d been able to just appreciate where I was. That course of SSRIs saved my life.”

This kicked off a vicious—but very common—cycle. Nicole would take a course of antidepressants, see symptoms improve, stop taking them, feel worse, start taking them again, repeat. 

She couldn’t accept that she was never ‘cured’—that a condition she felt so ashamed of might be part of her life forever.

Then a round of layoffs hit the university, and Nicole lost her job. She’d always felt grounded by work, so unemployment was particularly tough. 

“A lot of people with panic disorders are high-performers at work with perfectionist tendencies. I like the focus work gives me—I’ve always found joy in it.” 

But Nicole eventually found a new job—a dream job, in fact. She’d be working on the planning committee for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Taking off the mask

Nicole’s career was skyrocketing. She suddenly had a wonderful opportunity and was surrounded by brilliant, highly-motivated people. 

But working on the most important sporting event in the world came with immense pressure—so the panic attacks intensified. She knew she couldn’t get away with calling in sick all the time: this job needed her A-game.

If she was going to stay employed, she had to do something she’d been avoiding all her career: tell her boss about the panic attacks. 

“So many people told me, don't tell your boss you're gonna get fired. But I was like, I have nothing to lose at this point—I don't care anymore.” 

Nicole scheduled a meeting with her manager and—finally—told her what was going on. 

She described how all-consuming the panic attacks were. And how she was starting a new course of SSRIs—which might cause some side effects for the first weeks. 

Nicole braced herself for the reaction. But her boss was incredibly supportive. As it turned out, her ex-husband had also suffered from panic attacks, so she understood how miserable they can be. 

“When I finally told my boss, I felt relief like you can't imagine.” 

The conversation was nothing short of life-changing. 

Nicole found a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) program a few months later and was given time off to attend. CBT is a kind of talk therapy that helps you change the way you think and act, with the aim of changing how you feel. Sometimes, it’s done in groups—which was a perfect fit for Nicole. 

“I do really well in group therapy because I don’t feel like an outsider. Suddenly I had a group of cool people around me who felt like I did, and the panic wasn't a big deal.” 

Meeting so many other interesting, capable people who also suffered from panic attacks helped Nicole dismantle some of the shame she felt about having them herself. 

A few months later, her boss took her aside to wish her congratulations. She could tell from Nicole’s behaviour that she’d made a lot of progress—the transformation was great to see. 

Uncovering the root causes  

Now Nicole had some strategies to treat her panic attacks effectively, she wanted to understand the issue as fully as possible. CBT gave her some effective coping tools—but to understand the cause of the problem, she needed to dig into her own psychology. 

With the help of a mental health professional, Nicole pulled the pieces together. She’d had a loving childhood—but at the same time, she realised there had also been a lot of trauma and uncertainty. 

When Nicole was three, her mother almost died from a brain aneurysm. She was in and out of hospital for years. Nicole’s father struggled to cope and suffered terrible panic attacks himself—which led to an addiction to prescription tranquillisers. It was the 1970s: mental healthcare just didn’t exist. 

“My dad was given literally handfuls of tranquillisers. When I was young I saw him have a seizure at the table because he stopped taking these tranquillisers all of a sudden.” 

In the end, Nicole’s panic disorder was no mystery—her formative years were full of fear. As a child, she always had a sense of impending disaster, that something terrible might happen to mum or dad any day. And little wonder. It sometimes did. 

Healthy coping techniques, healthy discussions  

Nicole now has a complete toolkit of strategies to reduce the frequency and intensity of her panic attacks. 

When the panic starts to build, she uses mindfulness techniques to ground herself, including exercises like counting the colours she sees around the room, tapping, and alternate nostril breathing. 

She’s also trained herself to accept the panic when it comes.

“I do a lot of self-talk. I tell myself: this is just anxiety. It's a hassle, not a horror. It always passes—in 20 minutes, you're gonna be out of this.”

<quote-author>Nicole Gottselig<quote-author> | <quote-company>Senior Brand Editor at Hotjar<quote-company>

More generally, she’s found that keeping a balanced lifestyle reduces her panic levels. As well as all the usual good habits—exercising daily, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding cigarettes—for Nicole, this means working in a psychologically safe company. Somewhere ‘being professional’ doesn’t mean faking invincible mental health. 

Now a Senior Brand Editor at the scale-up Hotjar, Nicole is open with her colleagues about the challenge she faces. This has helped reduce her panic—and to create an open discussion about mental health at work. 

“I just began being really open with my story and people come up to me all the time to talk about their own struggles.” 

Removing the mask at work, Nicole has become the person she needed in her early career. She’s helping build a culture where no one needs to struggle with their mental health alone and in secret.

Oliva therapist photograph

5 tips on managing panic

by Oliva therapist

Bliss Pidduck

Acknowledge how you’re feeling

Simply noticing that you’re feeling a bit panicky or anxious is a great first step. Feel good about noticing—it means you can now control what you do next.

Stop what you’re doing

Find a quiet corner or step to the side, and remind yourself that you’re safe. Don’t try to run away from the situation. It’s your panic symptoms telling you that you’re in danger. But this isn’t true—you are safe.

Focus on something you can touch

The toggle on your hoodie, a button on your shirt, that screwed up tissue in your pocket—touch it and focus on what it feels like. How would you describe it to someone? Try it now—see how it focuses your mind.

Shock your system

Panic gets you so caught up in your head that you neglect the rest of your body. Ping the elastic band on your wrist. Sniff the perfume or aftershave on your clothes. Wiggle your toes in your shoes. Shock your system into remembering there’s more to you than just panicky thoughts.

Tell someone

If you’re with people that you love or trust, tell them: ‘Hey, I don’t feel too good right now.’ Your tribe will want to support you during this heightened state. It might seem scary, but telling someone will help get you back to your normal, stable state faster.