Anxiety: Hibernate, Adapt, or Migrate: Summer Beretsky at TEDxWilliamsport

I want to tell you I have the stool here first thing I want to say because I'm in front of a very large crowd I have these lights shining down on me and I have panic disorder I just wanted to throw that out there so this stool is my backup plan in case I get a little too lightheaded so I want to start off by saying that this is a story about giving up giving up is not always a bad thing and I'd like to show you how today we heard a lot of speakers earlier talking about how they can help their communities but you can't help your community until you help yourself so who here has read Catcher in the Rye okay we're familiar with Holden Caulfield Holden Caulfield's big concern about Central Park he would go there in the winter and he thought where do the ducks go in the wintertime that was one of the the core Holden Caufield thoughts of the book he wondered what happened to these animals when they were suddenly in an environment that no longer supports them I wondered – I read this book in high school I took that thought with me to college and at some point in college I was watching some type of animal related documentary and probably on Discovery Channel or whatnot and one part of that documentary stuck with me they were talking about animals and they said that when an animal is in an environment in which they don't feel supported an environment that can't support the animal they can do one of three things they can hibernate like bears they can adapt and I like chameleons or they can migrate we're animals to us humans I want to tell you about my time working in a call center now how many of you have called in to a customer service call center we okay yeah we've all done it it's a miserable experience isn't it it's even more miserable for the people who are answering the phones let me tell you a couple things about call centers first of all the fizz environment is extremely stressful it really is a cubicle farm rows and rows of gray fabric lined cubicles you log into a phone queue you put a headset on kind of like this one you answer the phone thank you for calling customer service my name is summer how can I help you over and over and over again it's algorithmic tasks all day long if X then Y you follow scripts you listen to people yell at you for things that you didn't do wrong but you have to help them with their problems and this can be extremely draining for anybody so every time I walked into work in the morning I would pass one of those inspirational motivational posters in every workplace across America and this particular one had a picture of a leaf on a tree and it said never give up what why why a leaf wildly if I pass this every day and it really started to irritate me first of all because I don't like motivational posters they do completely the opposite for me I was walking into a call center a place I didn't really want to work at but I was there because the economy wasn't good I just finished grad school I needed a job but it wasn't really fulfilling so I saw the sign that said never give up and I started thinking so it's kind of an unfulfilled job working in a call center at the environment did not support me I eventually realized but I hibernated I hibernated to that fact I kept my eyes closed I just tried to go in and out of each day trying to you know I answer my phone calls improve my average handle time you know because the average handle time boy and when you're working a call center it's all based on metrics they judge you they judge the quality of your work in the quality of your personhood by numbers you are scheduled by numbers there's an equation called Erlang C part of queueing theory mathematics dictates when you have to sit down at the phone every day when you are allowed to get up and take a break when you are allowed to go and have your lunch and when you're allowed to get up and go to the bathroom if you have to go to the bathroom at a call center edit time when you're not scheduled to go you're limited to five minutes so at some point my eyes started opening I can only hibernate there for so long so eventually I woke up and I thought this environment still is not supporting me I have to try and adapt in some way and so I tried here's how I tried weaving myself into the call center culture I did what I could I really did what I could to try and be a good worker I I measured my self-worth by my average handle time I tried to climb through the ranks at work I tried to you know be go from a customer service representative level one to two to three I tried to rise I really tried to become part of the culture and I tried to create a name for myself because I was getting tired of these algorithmic if X then Y tasks I wanted something challenging and everyday I continued to pass never give up but little leaf on the tree and I kind of took that to heart I thought you know I really don't like this job but I'm gonna try to adapt I'm gonna do what I can and I'm gonna see what happens well here's the big paradox when it comes to adaptation okay adaptation sounds like a fine thing right you know the environment doesn't support you so you kind of change a couple things about yourself so that you you can then adapt and feel good in the environment okay that that's fantastic sometimes sometimes but here's the paradox part adaptation itself emphasizes the very fact that you didn't quite fit in in the first place and so that thought stayed with me now let's talk a little bit about my panic disorder which is the reason this stool is here just in case but I'm doing fine so far so I'm thrilled but it hasn't been easy I've had panic disorder for about ten years now and for those of you who aren't familiar panic disorder is basically the pathological reoccurrence of panic attacks to the point where you become so fearful of the next panic attack that you can't leave your house I developed agoraphobia for a while hasn't been a good time my very panic attack was when I was in college just down the street I was in my dorm room at about 2:30 a.m. and I laid down and all of a sudden my body felt felt a little funny on the right side and I'm a healthy 19 year old at this point but the first thing I thought was this is stroke oh my god what's going on here what's going on here and my body felt kind of weird and I got up and I started getting sweaty and nervous and I started thinking my having a stroke what's going on with my body this is what happens in your head when you're having a panic attack what's going on with my body I feel funny so you get up and your heart starts racing and once your heart starts racing you start getting lightheaded and when you're lightheaded you think god I really must be having a stroke right right and then then once that thought goes into your head then your your fingers and your toes start tingling and then once those start tingling you start thinking I think I'm gonna pass out and so your mind and your body interact in this downward spiral that basically just takes you into hell so that's what a panic attack is why do we panic well let's go back a couple couple years to our ancestors hunters gatherers they came in contact with some type of wild animal you know let's let's say a mountain lion we need a nervous system we need a nervous system to protect ourselves right okay you see an animal you get the adrenaline rush to either fight or flee and that saves your life but what about now if we walk outside are we going to see a panther roaming down the street that we have to fight off no what are our big threats now we have bosses we have deadlines we have angry customers calling in to a call center these are all threats these all trigger our nervous system response so do we fight or do we flee should we do either of those things maybe if your boss yells at you you can run away but you probably shouldn't stick up your fists and try to fight him that's not a very good idea so this is a biological artifact that we still carry that doesn't really fit in with a culture of life today now the panic attacks started in college I went through grad school they continued you know I've tried some meds tried some therapy got everything kind of under control by the time I went to work for the call center so i hibernated and then I woke up and I tried to adapt but my attempt and adaptation created a fertile breeding ground for panic again okay now here's the thing I'm I'm not an algorithmic kind of person I like challenges okay and working in a call center isn't really a very challenging environment so I picked up a Daniel Pink's book called Drive it's a book about motivation and in there he said that mastery autonomy and purpose are the three nutrients that feed our intrinsic motivation and they promote our greater physical and mental well-being and I started to think I answer phones all day long I answer 50 phone calls if X then Y where is the mastery I can't master anything here because things are changing every day there's new policies new procedures new scripts new things to to manage I'm not I'm not really developing a skill yes I'm memorizing account numbers but what good is that doing for my personal satisfaction absolutely nothing there's no mastery do I have autonomy no I have no autonomy over my time or my tasks people tell me what to do and mathematics tells me when I can do it mathematics tells me when I can go and use the restroom and I had no purpose I didn't feel good about working there so I began to panic on phone calls I began to hang up on customers because I would get still lightheaded that I couldn't just you know finish taking their their bill payments over the phone and I would run out to my car the only safe place that I could really get to and every time I passed that motivational poster never-give-up ran light headed heart racing at a million miles per hour on the way to my car where I never really felt quite safe because once I got out to my car I kept thinking oh god I'm out of the phone queue I'm out of the phone queue managers are gonna be able to see that I'm out of the phone queue for more than five minutes the allotted five minutes and I'm gonna get in trouble and that made me even more anxious and then eventually I started to panic at meetings as well there was yeah there was this one point where I was in a meeting with about seven or eight other people and it was a small room and my heart started a race and I got lightheaded and I started shaking and I thought I need to get out of here I need to get out of here or I am gonna pass out and embarrass myself or I'm gonna throw up or something horrible is gonna happen so I had a cup of water and I intentionally spilled it on myself so that I had an excuse whoops excuse me I need to run to the bathroom too to fix my mess that's what panic drove me to do we get to do some really really weird things but it got worse I got so nauseous at this call center and so sick every day my panic got that bad it got so bad that I couldn't eat I would come to work I would sit down at my cubicle and I would put my head on the edge of my desk pull out my garbage can and sit and just wait i sat nauseous Lee waiting to throw up it was a horrible feeling it was a horrible feeling all I could do was eat saltines every day I tried to deal with customer calls if X then Y but I couldn't even do that because my nerves were so shot I was unhappy I was unhappy this was unfulfilled work and by this point the panic cycle had established itself so firmly and I had no control over my unfulfilling work and no control over my body and then there was the day that changed it all I got up in the morning changed got ready for work got my keys went out to my car and I couldn't even get in my car I was shaking too badly at this point never give up really becomes a cruel joke so I went back into my house and I took leave leave of absence from work and I felt very defeated this is the point where some people would say you had a breakdown I call it my breakthrough there's a very tiny difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough when you have a breakdown you don't find value in it but when you have a breakthrough you do extract the value from it and you use that to change your life so at this point I've tried to hibernate I've tried to adapt my only option really was to migrate right I've done cognitive behavioral therapy before which tells you to face your threats lest they become amplified if you are afraid of shopping at the grocery store okay and you panic at the grocery store you're supposed to go back because if you don't go back guess what the threat level of that grocery store Rises if you panic on the highway you're gonna be scared to go back and drive on the highway again but if you if you avoid it the threat level rises so cognitive behavioral therapy tells you to face your fears so I pondered quitting and I thought if I quit am i avoiding the threat the thing the work the job that is triggering all this panic or am i taking a healthy step to overcome everything I didn't know the answer to that question I spent a lot of time trying to answer that is there an upside to quitting should I seek mastery autonomy and purpose elsewhere was I using my panic disorder to make this decision or was I using my heart that sign that said never give up that sign made my decision I'm sure the makers of the sign didn't intend someone to look at a sign that says never give up and then decide to give up and completely quit her job but I didn't fit the environment didn't support me like those animals on the Discovery Channel like the Ducks in wintertime that holden caulfield wanted to know about the environment did not support me but here's the thing I didn't tell you about that motivational poster the leaf was orange it was an autumn leaf and it said never give up I'm sorry but what happens to orange leaves they fall they give up they leave the tree they move on cycles continue seasons move on and so with that thought I decided to quit my job they say that quitters never win but I disagree my life lightened and my decision to migrate put control back into my life and eventually I gained control over my panic attacks and my world grew larger again I was no longer afraid to leave my house it started small I can go to the grocery store again and I can drive on the highway again and then I got a job again and I began teaching and I began speaking in front of groups it all came back slowly and I've learned a lesson for me and I've got a lesson for you to hear I will no longer squeeze myself into an environment that does not support me if you don't feel supported at work or elsewhere in life you have options you can hibernate you can adapt or you can migrate and I don't advocate any one of those choices one of them worked for me but another choice might work for you but that's the beauty of it the key is that you have control you can make these choices if work is not fulfilling for you if you cannot find mastery autonomy and purpose then there is something else out there that you can choose it is very important that you write your own script write the script of your life you cannot go on to do great things if somebody else is writing your script thank you you


  1. God bless you Summer !! Thank you from the bottom of my heart !! What inspiration and truth !!I have and still do suffer from an anxiety disorder. Since I was fifteen, due to PTSD. I take Paxil. It helps tremendously!! It helps you make Serotonin. Anyway, your so right! We have the ability to make choices in our lives to improve or fulfill our desires. We are responsible for our well being. I am so proud of you getting through school and speaking in front of a group!! You were great !! I enjoyed every minute !! Bravo sister !! Jesus Christ is number one !! Sincerely Sheree CavesπŸ’’πŸ’’πŸ’’πŸ’’πŸ’’πŸ’’

  2. I would like to choose migrate, instead of hibernate, because I want not only my life, but also myself to be better…but apperently my mom doesn't support me to move on from my past

  3. This was so spot on. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR STORY because I can relate to this on EVERY level. You ROCK!!!

  4. An orange leaf will now be a personal symbol for me. I've had to hibernate but have used the cave as a refuge instead of just a place to sleep. My life is "out there".

  5. 7:00 A girl in my school who was otherwise perfectly healthy had a stroke when she was 14.
    You can have a stroke at any age.

  6. 1:50 Actually they can do 1 of 4 things. Adapt, migrate hibernate, or die.
    Find the person who made that motivational poster and try to kill them. if they ask you why, just say, "You said never give up. So I have to keep trying.

  7. This. But in reality you have to work which causes more panic. Everything is panic. People think it's fake. I wish I could make everyone watch this.

  8. This makes so much sense but sometimes you only have bad choices. I think more people would leave if it was easier and they had some kind of security or option they can see

  9. I relate to this so much. I manage with my panic disorder but I never completely feel like I'm "safe". This was very helpful.

  10. Right now I'm at the point where I don't want to leave my house. My anxiety sucks I get a little stress at the grocery store or in public and want to run and hide from everyone. So I'm doing this thing where I want to avoid everyone and everything and just stay home. Also, feel like everyone is staring at me watching me is so scary and awful :,(

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