Anxious Living, Worry, and Hope with Andy Syrewicze (3/3)

Welcome to episode 160 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 3 of our interview with Andy Syrewicze, discussing Andy’s struggles with anxiety, realization that it was a problem, seeking professional help, and some strategies that have helped him cope.

Original Recording Date: 12-29-2021

Andy Syrewicze is a Technical Evangelist for Altaro Software (now part of Hornet Security). Check out part 1 of our interview with Andy in Episode 158 and part 2 in Episode 159. Get the full details on what Andy is up to and ways to contact him here, and don’t forget to subscribe to his Substack!

Topics – Discovering Anxiety, Warning Signs, Breaking Point and Seeking Help, Coping Strategies, Parting Thoughts

3:08 – Discovering Anxiety

  • Growing up and even into early adulthood, Andy was told he was laid back. When you hear things like that you kind of take them as part of your personality.
  • Now that Andy knows he has an anxiety disorder, he can look back at stages of his career and get some interesting insights.
    • There were times were he appeared very driven in his career. He was actually very anxious during those times. When younger, he would take the anxiety (the extra energy) and put it into what was next (which is not sustainable and was really him internalizing the problem).
  • Andy has generalized anxiety disorder. It means you have an excess of worry, and you may not even know what it is about. Andy spoke about this in a 2-part presentation for AmpNavigator 2021.
    • Andy’s struggle when first aware that he had the disorder was looking at the anxiety as a problem to solve.
    • Sometimes anxiety is unexplainable. This can cause extra worry when you’re trying to figure out why it is happening.
  • At one point Andy had the opportunity to go and work for his dream organization.
    • It was a situation where he knew the right people, a new team was being created with multiple openings, and he had sort of side stepped the hiring process.
    • Every conversation as a part of this endeavor was very positive. Andy then heard nothing for a couple of weeks, and when he followed up he received nothing more than a generic "you’re not the right fit for this."
    • In terms of his anxiety, this was the glass shattering. There were some cracks made at different points (i.e. his wife telling him that he might have an anxiety issue).
    • When Andy was let go from the manufacturing company, it did not really affect him. Missing out on this specific opportunity to work for his dream organization was shattering for his self-confidence.
    • Impostor syndrome became a large part of daily life at this point in time.
    • Instead of the anxiety pushing him forward like before, it turned into something much more destructive.
    • Having that seemingly easy shot at a dream job and missing it really shined a light on anxiety as an underlying problem. After this, he had constant anxiety on a daily basis. Things only made more sense after professional diagnosis and therapy.
  • Sometimes people don’t understand mental health disorders. We all have anxiety in our lives, but not everyone has a debilitating anxiety that keeps them from functioning at work, home, etc.
    • We need to deal with these types of issues the same way we would if we broke our leg (seek professional help).
    • There’s a distinction between a disorder and a phase.
  • To take an example, Andy would be going along at work and notice he was worried about something.
    • He used to cope with these types of things with avoidance. Avoidance could mean he’d go tinker with something technical (i.e. doing things with technology to distract himself).
  • Listen to Andy’s example about how helping an end user with a ticket can make the person feel. He feels equally appreciative of therapists because of how they’ve positively impacted him.
    • Therapists tend to queue up thought processes that help you see / understand what’s been happening.
    • Every time you help someone with a ticket in IT, you bring with it all of your experience (your seat time, number of repetitions / at bats). It is similar with therapists (who have many patients with some of the same problems).
    • One of John’s favorite things gleaned from a therapist was blatant honest about how his feeling / situation was not unique (i.e. what is happening is well within the pattern).
    • Once Andy understood his struggles fit within a defined pattern for which there is a set of solutions available, his brain translated that to mean there is a roadmap for the future with skill gaps to fill (not unlike something technical).

17:52 – Warning Signs

  • Nick mentioned the value of an outside perspective on the situation (someone outside your family / close friends).
  • Andy had very few external symptoms and internalized everything. Andy’s wife picks up on all the hints and clues that he is anxious (even able to detect it when he walks into a room).
    • Before diagnosis, the anxiety may have broken out for Andy in the form of getting irritated over something silly or reacting to situations in ways that were over the top.
      • Listen to Andy’s example scenario about his son throwing up in the car unexpectedly.
  • There were also a number of self-destructive thoughts that happened after he missed out on the dream job opportunity.
    • This is one of the catalysts for going to seek outside help.
  • John makes a great analogy about scabs and scar tissue that build up after continued internalization of anxiety.
  • As we get older, the level of responsibility increases and can increase anxiety.
    • Andy had essentially been holding a 10-pound weight straight out in front of him for years and couldn’t hold it any longer.

23:46 – Breaking Point and Seeking Help

  • Andy was always a little hesitant to go see a therapist. The last thing he wanted to do while anxious was talk about his anxiety.
    • There will come a point where you decide "I don’t want to feel like this any more."
    • You get to a point where you are done with it.
    • When he called to make an appointment there was no hesitation.
    • He felt hesitation driving to the first appointment but never since.
    • The entire process was therapeutic for Andy. It was not easy, of course. There were sessions he had that at the time did not feel like they were valuable (but really were in the larger scheme of things).
  • If you’re on the fence about therapy…
    • Know you are not alone.
    • The process works. It helps. It’s a set of skills you need to learn just like a specific technology.
    • At the very least, if you are curious and are told you do not have an anxiety disorder, at least you know.
    • Asking for help does not make you weak. It makes you stronger because you’ve made a decision.
      • Andy found comfort in knowing he had made a decision.
  • Great quote from John White – "I’m kind of worried about our backups, but if I go and check and ask an expert, that will make it real. And I’ll actually have a problem."
  • We likely will see evidence of a physical ailment like a broken leg, but anxiety, for example, is less visible. People may have worked with Andy every day and never knew he had anxiety.
    • Andy believes there were probably only a handful of people who even suspected there was a problem.
  • If the issue is not external, something like anxiety can be perceived as a lack of strength.
    • It seems like our society is becoming more aware of how many mental health disorders exist and that they should be treated (much like we would do for a physical ailment).
  • One of the ways Andy’s anxiety manifested was that he didn’t feel "hungry" like he had earlier on in his career. He didn’t have the passion to go learn something new and missed that.
    • Andy was not being as effective as he could have been.
    • "I was like a SAN that was running in a degraded fashion." – Andy Syrewicze
    • Andy needed to get back to where he was and find some ways to mitigate his disorder’s effects.

30:51 – Coping Strategies

  • Many of the strategies that work for Andy in managing his anxiety center around the concept of mindfulness.
    • Actually playing out his anxiety – trying to figure out the cause and what it is / what he can do about it, but if nothing, accept and move on.
    • Andy had to accept that sometimes he will not know what he is anxious about and that it is ok.
    • If there is a situation where Andy is feeling a high degree of anxiety that is preventing him from doing whatever he is trying to do (blog, make a video, etc.), he has a quick helpful exercise called 5 senses:
      • What are 5 things in the room I can see?
      • What are 4 things I can touch?
      • What are 3 things I can smell?
      • Going through your senses in this way pulls your mind from where your anxiety is into the present.
    • Andy also likes to do a daily journaling exercise detailing what went well during that day, what he was happy about that day, and what could have gone better.
    • A mental health professional may have other tools for you, and consider the list of tools as a playbook.
    • Medication may also be an option for you.
      • There’s a cultural perception of being able to take a pill to fix something as the easy way out or quick fix.
  • It’s too easy to say be mindful and forget how deep that actually goes.
    • Specific types of meditation, biofeedback, having a healthy diet, and types of exercise like yoga are all examples of applications of mindfulness practice.
    • Andy always had an interest in the Buddhist / Zen culture and the reliance on mindfulness. It was interesting to see these types of things come in as recommendations to help with anxiety.
    • Andy will meditate from time to time using the Calm app (one of his favorites).
      • There is a specific session in there called Panic SOS that Andy uses when he cannot function because of anxiety.
      • This session takes some practice but has helped a great deal. If you have never done meditation like this, we’re talking about an audio format where someone provides instructions on posture, how to breath, and teaches you to focus your attention on your breath…all in the spirit of helping you be and stay present (which breaks the anxiety loop of doom).
  • Andy learned that he was rarely living in the here and now through this process.
    • He was thinking about something technical, something related to a video game, and never experiencing right now.
    • Learning about this disorder has really helped with this challenge.
    • There are many people who would not be able to sit alone, by themselves, in a room for an hour with nothing to do. It would drive them insane. As a result of learning these new skills over the past couple of years, Andy is completely comfortable doing that and being in the here and now.
    • Recognizing these things about ourselves is important, and it can give us fuel to take action and make positive changes.
    • This reminds Nick of the deep work series (starting with Episode 141) in which we talked about taking that couple minutes between meetings and seeking to be present instead of seeking distraction (i.e. checking social media).
  • There are a number of apps out there like Calm. This family of apps is based on cognitive behavioral therapy.
    • Therapy comes in different forms, and it’s mostly cognitive behavioral these days (i.e. what is the physical reaction you’re having, is it healthy, what causes it, how we break the cycle).
    • This is practical advice like you’d get from a physical therapist.
  • Andy has wondered why some of these skills are not taught to kids in high school.
    • After you learn these new skills, it becomes so clear you almost kick yourself for not doing something about it sooner.
    • We only teach these to people who are a problem. If someone is hyperactive, they get the tools to deal with that disorder. It’s similar with anxiety. The fact is the skills are useful for everyone.

42:43 – Parting Thoughts

  • AmpNavigator was Andy’s first time delving into this subject in a public facing way. This podcast is only the second time.

  • Andy was touchy about sharing it at first, but looking at skills gained over his career (public speaking, ability to write and tell a story), Andy felt he needed to go and talk about this.

  • Andy has also been working on a SubStack around his experiences with anxiety and weaving in some tech too.

    • One article Andy is working on is called Mindfulness Journaling Using VS Code. There is a VS Code Journal extension that adds hot keys to easily open up mark down entries, automatically creating a folder structure for you based on dates.
    • He’s trying to teach people in tech how to deal with anxiety.
    • As of our recording, Andy did not have a name for the SubStack but thought about anxious musings as one option.
  • As a society it seems like we’re coming around to addressing mental illness, but there is still work to do.

  • In the outro we reference these episodes:

    • Episode 140 and Eric Brooker’s disconnected vacation that helped him be present
    • Episode 129 and Episode 130 with Jon Towles – there are parallels to what Andy experienced to neurodiversity.
  • Don’t forget to follow Andy on Twitter. Get the latest on what Andy is up to including other ways to contact him here.

  • Be sure to subscribe to Andy’s Substack to keep up with his writings on today’s topic.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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