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I have been working as a Software Developer (mostly programming) for a few years now but I am really unhappy in my current company.
I want to change jobs, but potential upcoming interviews are making me anxious. This has prevented me from sending out applications for quite a while.

I have some mental problems, one of them is some type of social anxiety. I experience panic attacks sometimes in several social situations. In mild cases I'm just extremely nervous but that's nothing unusual.
In severe cases I start to tremble, feeling dizzy and experiencing extreme fear, usually causing me to "run" away from such situations. This can even happen in just a supermarket when I'm in the line to pay.
In the worst cases, I break down. My knees just give up and go down. But fortunately this happens very, very rarely.

An interview is for sure such a situation, where I'll experience intense fear and start to tremble. When this happens, I can of course not solve any problems or answer any questions anymore. I couldn't hold a pen for example, to solve a small programming exercise on paper and I couldn't answer questions as well as I am able to when I'm not in a panic. Blackout, whatever.

I've been in therapy for a while and have medication for such situations. But it's unlikely a panic attack won't happen.

My question to you is, how can I deal with such a situation when it happens?
Should I just explain the problem? Or is this for sure an absolute no-go? Is it even possible that people would react understandingly in such a situation?
The thing is, it's totally possible that I calm down after a few minutes if I see that people actually show some understanding, and after that I can continue the interview.

Alternatively I could just stand up and leave the room, saying sorry I can't and stumble out (provided I'm even able to enter the door and not just run away).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jun 2 '15 at 0:14
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    Not wanting to add to the existing plethora of answers, but I don't see this in any of the answers. Phone interviews can help, slightly less stressful, and when you start shaking, they can't see it. (you can also mute the phone except when answering) I know, because I also shake under stress, and it did interfere with interviews in my early 20's (not that long ago). A good recruiter is also worth their weight in gold. Find one who will listen to your concerns before they demand you come in and register. – TolMera Dec 31 '16 at 4:13

12 Answers 12

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I recommend you write up a small card that very succintly explains what is happening. It might say:

I am having a panic attack and may have to leave now. I may be able to calm myself in a few minutes and if so I will return; otherwise I will contact you as soon as possible to apologize for disrupting our meeting.

(Adjust the wording as needed for you.) Put this card in an easily accessible pocket. When you feel overwhelmed, hand it over and leave or sit there silently knowing that at least the interviewer understands what is happening. If you can't return, you can email the interviewer with more details (reassure them they didn't trigger it, tell them you're on medication and don't normally have these attacks outside of interview situations, and so on) and request a reschedule.

The advantage of the card is that if you don't have a panic attack in the interview, they never need to know you thought that you might. Whereas explaining up front just in case leaves them with that information when it turns out they never needed it. It is also possible that knowing you have information to hand over can cut some of the "oh no, now I'm messing up this interview, if I don't say something soon I won't be able to explain why I'm reacting like this" cycle that ratchets up the anxiety.

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    I support this for the sheer fact that initiating a meeting with verbally mentioning an uncomfortable condition is probably heightening the chance for a break-down. A note-card 'escape' or message at the start is probably less stressful. – Xrylite May 29 '15 at 19:44
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    This is an excellent answer. – Octopus May 29 '15 at 20:42
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    I don't know anything about the condition, but having the card in your pocket may also reduce the likelihood of a panic attack. It might turn it from an impossible nightmare situation that you just have to hope doesn't happen, into an outcome that is bad, but planned for. The added sense of control might help you maintain control. – Peter May 29 '15 at 21:22
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    Would it be a good idea to add something to the card saying if there's anything the interviewer can helpfully do or even just that they shouldn't worry about you? I don't think I'd know what was expected of me if I was handed the words suggested in the answer. – David Richerby May 30 '15 at 19:47
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    @someone: As someone who's had to conduct a number of professional interviews: If I were faced with an interviewee suddenly looking terrified and acting withdrawn and unable to interact, I'd feel nothing but concern. I wouldn't feel they'd lost face. If they handed me a card such as suggested here, I'd be impressed that they'd had the foresight to be prepared and to give me the information I need to act appropriately in the situation (without it, I don't really know what to do). Interviewers worth working for know that job interviews are unusually stressful for the interviewee. Best, – T.J. Crowder Jun 1 '15 at 8:02
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My question to you is, how can I deal with such a situation when it happens?

My understanding of panic attacks is that you can't really deal with the situation once you're in it. You need to flee from the stressors and recover.

Should I just explain the problem?

Yes, before the interview starts, explain your medical problems and that interviews are serious triggers (but that day to day work stress isn't really). Not only does this let the interviewers be more understanding, but it shows that you can plan ahead, communicate clearly, and face difficult communication topics.

If you can work to prevent the attacks (medication, therapy) great. But such things are pretty widely known these days, and most people are very understanding of things like this that are outside of your control.

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    As a fellow sufferer of panic attacks, I agree that it is important to let them know upfront if an interview will trigger you. Having a panic attack is vastly different than just being nervous in a situation, it's more like being suffocated while you're having a heart attack at the same time. Most people will be nervous during an interview, but are expected to be able to remain calm for the most part, whereas someone who feels anxiety, dread and feels like dying just walking through the grocery store (one of my biggest triggers as well) can't have the same expectation. – Kik May 29 '15 at 18:13
  • +1 for explaining before it happens that it may happen in interviews, but doesn't happen day-to-day – user56reinstatemonica8 May 30 '15 at 19:43
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I feel for you, and I wish you would get over your problem soon.

There's no harm done in explaining your problem during the interview. The worst that would happen is you won't be considered for the job, but then, not performing well on the interview due to anxiety doesn't put you in any better position either.

However, you need to phrase your statement carefully, especially if the interview is in a language which you are not fully comfortable with. Declaring "I am sorry, I am really scared of interviews." right before the interview starts won't impress anyone, even if your problem is genuine.

Instead you could try saying something like this:

I have a condition which makes me more anxious than usual in certain social situations, and often need some time to gather my thoughts. Is it okay if I take a few minutes to answer the questions?

This sounds a lot more reasonable, and unless the interviewer is a complete jerk, I would expect they would accommodate this request.

A couple of other alternatives I would suggest before the interview are:

1. Mock Interviews

Get one of your friends to interview you. This person should be someone who is understanding of your problem, and you are comfortable having your panic attacks before them. Do this several times, perhaps with different people.

2. "Entertainment" Interviews

A lot of the interview anxiety results from Analysis Paralysis. "What if I don't get this job?" "What if I answer this question wrong?" "What if they laugh at my solution?"

I have myself been a "victim" of this, and to overcome this problem, I started attending what I like to call Entertainment Interviews. These are interviews I attend without any kind of expectation as to getting an offer, or in other words, interviews for entertainment. If I get an offer, that's a bonus, but the primary purpose is entertainment.

Not worrying about the outcome of the interview means that I can focus entirely on the interview. After some practice, you start seeing the interview questions as some random stranger (such as, an undergrad student on an online forum) asking you a technical question, and then you can answer them much more freely.

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    +1 for "entertainment interviews." They're excellent practice for the more crucial ones, and, as long as you're not applying to jobs totally outside your field, can be great networking opportunities--at the very least you can make another contact for your LinkedIn profile, and at best the interviewer may say, "Well, I can't really see you in this position, but your qualifications are solid and I think Marcy down the hall is hiring for people with [skill X] in the near future--let me give you her direct email." – dodgethesteamroller May 29 '15 at 20:41
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    I would be extremely cautious about 'entertainment interviews' - as someone who has been an interviewer, it takes a fair bit of prep to interview someone, and if you'd just wasted my entire morning "for fun", then I'd be pissed off. If you are going to do recommend practice interviews, please do them sparingly. (I'd say just the first one when you're looking for a new job, it helps you get things off your chest that you shouldn't say in interview - like how much a dick your boss is - that often you can't help saying) – gbjbaanb May 30 '15 at 14:37
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    @gbjbaanb I wasted a vacation day (= $$$) to attend your interview, you get paid for interviewing me, so my time is "wasted" more than yours, and yet you don't even have the courtesy of informing me of your decision until I call up a dozen times. So you see, it is a fair game which two people can play. Also, I have nowhere claimed that I am not interested in getting an offer in the "entertainment interviews", nor that I wouldn't accept the offer if I get one. I am not worried about the outcome of the interview doesn't mean the same thing. – Masked Man May 30 '15 at 15:40
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    Whether fair or not, you could end up offending a company or a group of people if they guessed you were really wasting their time with no intention of joining their company. Its a very small risk, but a risk nonetheless. – Mark Rogers May 30 '15 at 15:44
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    @gbjbaanb That aside, it would take an incredibly stupid candidate to openly tell the interviewer that he is here only for "entertainment". The interviewer never needs to find out. You might say that is unprofessional, but I wouldn't agree, because if the company is always dishonest with the candidate ("We can't pay you that much." -- Oh yes, you can, you just don't want to! "We will inform you within a week" -- Oh no, you don't! etc.), so the moral high ground on honesty doesn't belong to them. You are, of course, free to believe in whatever you want, it doesn't matter to me. ;-) – Masked Man May 30 '15 at 15:48
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Multi-pronged approach:'

  1. Get the expert help you need from a mental health specialist.

  2. Change your attitude toward interviewing. I lost all fear about interviewing when I realized that the worst possible outcome is that I don't land the job - in which case, I am no worse off than when I started the interview. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So I give it my best shot.

  3. Change your attitude toward failure. If you lose the fear of failure, I surmise that almost all of your anxiety attacks go away. I've personally found fear of failure more than a little irritating and needless to say, a hindrance to what I want to do. Accept failure as a constant in your life. I've had failures that turned into blessings. And some of my greatest successes arose from some of my worst failures. Unfortunately, vice versa. Failure is my fist name, my middle name, my last name and my oxygen :)

  4. Change your attitude toward fear. I live with Fear. Fear is the best friend I ever had. But I don't let Fear run my life.

If you change your attitude and you get the help you need, you won't have to leave and you will have nothing to explain.

I'll finish my answer by liking you to one of my all-time favorite poems: If, by Rudyard Kipling

  • +1 for your point 1. Panic attacks and what appears to be debilitating social phobia are really not stuff that Workplace.SE is good at counseling for. The OP mentions he takes medication, which suggests that he already is seeing a therapist. He should definitely take this topic up with this therapist. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jun 1 '15 at 13:19
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I would take a dual-pronged approach. Take your medication as appropriate on the interview day, but also do a lot of preparation before hand.

First, I would write a flow chart of what could happen in the interview if you start to panic, what options you have, so if something does happen you aren't just relying on instinct. Include worst-case scenarios, too. Give yourself permission to leave if the response is hostile or you feel unsafe.

Second, I would make "excuse myself" the main back up option and practice doing it. Many people will be understanding, but they may also be uncomfortable if suddenly confronted with a situation where they aren't sure how to comfort a stranger. Practice what you'd like to say. "I'm sorry, I can't" is short but too vague, and likely to worry people. I know it's unfair that you have to juggle that too, but in an interview, we all like to put our best foot forward.

Prepare a short line you can say, like "I have social anxiety, please give me a moment", leave room, calm down, come back, make a brief apology/explanation, thank them for understanding and continue. Something shorter like "Panic attack, one moment" is something they can understand. If you want to be a little vague "Excuse me, I feel unwell" (and take yourself off to a nearby bathroom) should work.

But the key thing is to prepare. Practice (act it out -- sit in a chair, wait a minute, say your line, get up and leave). Try to learn where nearest bathroom is, so if you do have to leave, you can have some privacy. Practice coming back too, sitting in the chair, and saying "Thank you for your patience, I apologize for the interruption". Do it often enough that you're used to it so if you have to do it in an interview, you'll be ready.

Resilience is a great career skill. I know nobody wants to have a panic attack in an interview, but it doesn't have to be the end of it, and handling it as gracefully as you can will demonstrate that you have resilience.

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    When I went to see a psychologist for panic attacks, I got advice that can be summarized as "worrying is coming up with clever solutions to problems you don't have". There's a risk that a lot of the intelligent, well-intentioned advice here feeds into this cycle of worry by trying to anticipate problems that might come up. I'm not sure if there is a better way to answer this question, but it's something to bear in mind. – Marius Jun 1 '15 at 1:40
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I'll take a slightly different tack here - You might consider either looking for a place that offers them, or if you're interested in a place you might reach out to the recruiter and say something like:

Hi, I'd love to come work with your company. However, formal interviews are a high-stress situation for me and trigger panic attacks. Would it be possible for me to do some short-term contract work so we can get a feel for each other?

The whole goal of interviews is to make sure you like the company and they like you, and you fit well in their culture, and doing some contract work is a pretty good alternative.

Just be sure that you're not violating any non-compete/disclosure agreements that you may have signed with your current job.

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Others have already mentioned ways to let interviewers know about your anxiety, I esp. liked Kate's answer though it would be better to explain in your own words if needed, provided its not such a severe attack that you have to use a prewritten card.

Note that there are many ways to have a break during interviews as needed:

  • ask for a glass of water
  • take a restroom break between 2 different interviewer slots (just to freshen up & calm down, if you don't need to actually use the toilets)
  • when interviewer asks for your questions after he's done, use the chance to chat a bit about what you now know about the technologies used, his personal coding philosophy / pet peeves etc.
  • accept offers of mini breaks, say when the 3rd or 4th interviewer comes in and asks if you'd like a 15 min break for rest

If you're anxious during interviews, probably you want to be done asap and be out the door before you can make a spectacle of yourself. However, keep in mind that increasing the total interview time by taking multiple short breaks may be a good way to mitigate your stress.

As for the interviewers, they are interested in knowing if you can handle the work, not whether you can sit through marathon interviews without water/coffee/restroom breaks; so it shouldn't affect your assessment and doesn't need you to explain about anxiety conditions either (which process may itself become a source of anxiety)

When I'm giving coding problems to solve on whiteboard, sometimes I prefer to think it through for a few minutes during which I may appear to be just staring at the board. I simply explain that I'm taking a few minutes to think - not even asking if I can, since its clearly a reasonable act. Between questions, you could mention that sorry, I tend to get stressed in interviews, can we take a short 5 min break? and that should be fine for any decent interviewer.

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My suggestion is to avoid treating the interview like its a big deal. Sure, it is assuming you really want the job, but it should be more of a chat between two people trying to understand each other than it is a gameshow with consequences.

Whenever I interview, I will always meet the candidate in reception and try to have a little chat about trivialities as we make our way to the interview room. Once there, we continue chatting about each other (or rather, me asking them about themselves, their current jobs, travel, similar). I do this because all interviews are stressful, but there's no need to be. The interviewer doesn't want to catch you out, he wants to find out what you know (and remember what you get told by the agent is not always what the company wants anyway!) and whether you'd be a good fit in the team. In my experience, fit is much more important than skills anyway, assuming someone who can learn new things - you'll have to do that anyway with the company codebase.

So if they do not try to put you at ease (and I know a lot of rubbish interviewers who sit down and start slapping you with questions), try to slow proceedings down with questions of your own, try to engage with the interviewer as a person (probably a geek who doesn't have much interpersonal skills anyway) and talk more about the work you have done - forget those tech skills, demonstrate that you used them usefully instead.

This can turn an interview from a back-and-forth "contest" into a discussion. Most interviewers don't know what to ask besides quiz-style questions anyway, so providing them with opportunities to ask you questions about work that you've just told them makes them happy as it makes their task easier.

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Believe it or not you can use this to an advantage of sorts. As has been suggested, before the interview, explain that in interviews you have attended in the past you have had anxiety issues. Explain, directly and honestly, that in your experience the condition can be somewhat exacerbated when you really want the job. Most interviewers will be completely understanding, accommodating and helpful and should you have a anxiety attack, as you have suggested you most likely will, then they will associate that positively with a desire to get the job. I expect it will also help you as the mental association of the interviewers being able to perceive your anxiety attack as an association of desire to get the role should as an added benefit help you to compose yourself and gather your thoughts in order to continue with the interview.

I am epileptic and have a similar situation in some ways. I can sympathize and I expect you will find that the most understanding and accommodating employers at interview also make the best employers full-time. If you find they are not helpful or understanding then you are probably better off going your separate ways anyway.

Good Luck!

  • If he doesn't have a panic attack then will the company assume he doesn't want the job? Also: will not having a panic attack make him realize that the company will think he doesn't want the job and will that thought cause him to have a panic attack about not getting the job because he's not having a panic attack? – bpromas May 29 '15 at 18:56
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    Positive reinforcement and honesty in this situation is best in my opinion, theres something to be said for heavy analysis in most situations but i dont think this is one of them. – Anthony Cregan May 29 '15 at 19:17
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I will give you some practical tips that I hope will help you.

1- Work on your diet. Eat healthy food. I don't have an evidence for this but try to avoid sugar. If you can, go to the gym regularly. The secret to a healthy mind is a healthy body. Avoid alcohol, beer and caffeine.

2- Arrive at the interview's place one hour before. Or even a day before. Walk around the building of the company. Get to know the environment. If there is a garden next to the building sit in it and watch and stare at people and the trees. This will help you to relax, get to know the environment, and feel comfortable with the idea of having a social interaction. Have a walk in the park or so while looking at people and smile.

3- Research your interviewers. Look at their pictures and understand their qualifications. Even look at their social media accounts ... Facebook/Twitter and read how they interact with people. Understand their social style. Get to know them. This will help you to see that they are just normal people out side the job and not some kind of monsters or so. Probably you find some stupid pictures and you'll laugh. That will just make you feel better.

4- Before you arrive at the interview put in your mind that you are going there to fuck up and have fun. You really need to argue with yourself that you don't give a shit if you get that job or not, because (and hopefully) you currently have a job and having or losing this opportunity is not a big deal because you are secure anyway.

5- Make sure you have a bottle of water with you during the interview. Once you feel you started to get nervous, drink from the bottle. I can't stress how helpful that is. I always do it. When I'm really nervous I sometimes drink every couple sentences I say and that is always fine with interviewers.

6- Try to avoid their eyes when you speak to them. Have couple glances at them but avoid direct eye-to-eye contact. Believe me, I was once talking to a CEO with 10 years of experience and I'm just a fresh graduate. He was the interviewer. At the end of the interview I started saying that he was really friendly and nice. Guess what happened, this guy directed his eyes away from my eyes. He couldn't stand direct eye contact with me. I was looking at him directly in the eye and saying those things but he got a little shy I guess and couldn't stand it that he had to remove the direct eye contact. So such things are just so normal.

One last note, I'm not a doctor, but personally I don't believe in such medications. The only medication is to actually go and get social experiences. I know a lot of computer science German friends who suffer from your situation.

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    Thank's for your answer but i think you underestimate the amout of fear, anxiety and panic enormously. Your answer is very, well, naive. – someone May 29 '15 at 20:11
  • @someone have you actually tried all of those tips before at once before an interview? – Jack Twain May 29 '15 at 20:17
  • No, not before an interview, but in much more harmless situations. I have social anxieties in a lot of situations. Like, just for one of many examples, sometimes (not always!) when i'm in the supermarket. I've tried a lot of things to calm down and a lot of things my therapist told me, but when it comes over me, i cannot handle it anymore. An interview is a much more intense situation – someone May 29 '15 at 20:23
  • i'm so sorry to hear that ... it seems that indeed i underestimated the situation. I wish you good luck. – Jack Twain May 29 '15 at 20:24
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Here are a few things I've learning with interviews that have gotten me pretty far,

1) Take the interview as a chance to show someone what you can do! Try Get Excited about this and the opportunity you are looking for.

2) Look for companies that are doing things you are interested in learning. Not necessarilly something you have done before. Explain what you have done and how you can apply it to the opportunity you are interviewing for.

3) Honesty, Honesty, Honesty! You can easilly kill yourself when an interview is going well if you don't answer something truthfully.or fumble an answer because your trying to embelish on the fly. This is what cant induce a panic attack. "I Don't know and I'm not sure" are perfectly exceptable.

None of my advice is overly technical or even remotely following structure. I have always just been myself when it comes to interviews. Most of the time I have been sucessfull. The ones that I wasnt I totally fumbled the technical part (which is embarassing) or it wasnt a good fit for both me and the company.

2

At one company/employer, when I was a candidate, before the interview, their HR contacted me to ask whether I had any disability for which I wanted "accommodation" during the interview.

If there's anything the company could do to make the interview easier/better for you, I may recommend (though this recommendation might vary depending on your national laws etc.) that you tell them in advance (before the interview) what they can do to help, especially if "it's unlikely a panic attack won't happen".

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