Got you burned out by an anxiety attack

Young, successful - and completely burned out

They are the creative people, the start-up founders that everyone wants because they can transform the lifestyle of a city from dusty to hip. But some in the scene are warning that too many young entrepreneurs are on the verge of collapse.

Forrest Gump visits for the first time in June 2014. Early in the morning, Mike Lanner notices that something is wrong with him. On the way to the office in the subway, he cannot think clearly. He feels trapped at his desk in the Impact Hub Vienna in the seventh district. Everything tight, much too hot. It happens a little later. He feels as if fluid is spreading through his body. The throat tingles, the heart beats so wildly, as if it were about to explode. Mike Lanner is terrified, terrified that it could all be over now. A stroke, a heart attack, the last time in your right mind.

He starts to run. From the seventh district to the Augarten in the second. 5.4 kilometers, an hour's walk. Lanner lives right next to the park. In the Augarten he makes more laps. For one, two, three hours. Like Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in the film of the same name, he runs because he obviously has a problem. But Lanner doesn't understand his behavior, he cries, is desperate. It took four hours for him to calm down enough to be able to return to his apartment.

At his desk in the office, Moriz Piffl, with whom he founded the Stitch brothers, wonders why it looks as if his colleague has fled his workplace. What neither of them knew at the time: Mike Lanner has just experienced his first panic attack.

Biologically speaking, a panic attack begins before the person even notices it. The brain evaluates a situation as dangerous and sends a message to all organs. Beat faster, heart, breathe faster, lungs, tense up, muscles. The organs report back: Let's do it. The brain says: that's not enough. This builds up until the person concerned has the feeling of losing control at all levels, explains doctor and psycho-oncologist Markus Jahn, who advises numerous investors, start-up founders, but also ministries.

Mike Lanner, now 38 years old, did not recognize the signs either. With his company Gebrüder Stitch, he and his co-founder Piffl are among the young urban elite in the country. That group of entrepreneurs that a city urgently needs to transform its image from boring and conservative to hip, innovative and up-and-coming. The jeans by the Stitch brothers are organic and made to measure in Austria - and became known within a very short time. The duo certainly also achieved quick success with their cheeky marketing. Who calls their business "ass salon"? Externally, the Stitch brothers are doing everything right. What cannot be seen behind the carefree pink and yellow stitch slogans: In the background, many things are not going so well. Producing jeans in Austria is a respectable but economically difficult task. The production costs are high. To be more than a backyard tailor, they need to sell more jeans and produce more efficiently. But expansion costs money first of all. Investors are brought on board. It's about amounts in the seven-digit range. Just when the year-long search and recruiting for investors is over, Lanner fails. Diagnosis: generalized anxiety disorder. Burnout.


Suddenly others are talking too

Today he knows that others feel the same way. “All of a sudden, people are unpacking that you never thought would affect them.” People like him: managers, founders, entrepreneurs, many of them young, creative, successful, admired by others. The fast-paced domestic start-up scene in particular is affected - this is where the first people are starting to sound the alarm. Founders report burnouts and nervous breakdowns - right through to suicide attempts by their colleagues. A sad international example is the 31-year-old American Austen Heinz from the start-up Cambrian Genomics, who committed suicide in 2015.

"After the roughly five years that the scene has existed, a certain exhaustion becomes noticeable," says Andreas Tschas, co-founder of the renowned Viennese start-up conference Pioneers. “It's also logical, you can't drive at 200 km / h on the autobahn for years.” A typical founder is constantly faced with new challenges that he has to master for the first time. “Then the companies grow, suddenly have 20 employees and capital in the millions. That necessarily leads to stress. Especially if you always have to be in a good mood and positive on the outside, ”says Tschas. But while the problem is slowly being addressed abroad, “it is still taboo in Austria”.

It is precisely the strengths of the young entrepreneurs that are also their weak points, as burn-out expert Markus Jahn explains: enthusiasm and curiosity. Jahn assumes ten basic emotions (such as love, curiosity, enthusiasm, sadness, anger, disgust, etc.) that interact with one another and are pronounced on a scale from zero to ten (loss of control). A person can hold out between three and six for a long time. At seven, says Jahn, the body begins to react. People who are passionate about an idea can generally be classified at level seven or eight with their enthusiasm. "Otherwise they would not be able to get other people such as investors on board and convince them of their ideas."

Ergo, the increased tension becomes physically noticeable at some point. Those who do not learn to "functionally regulate" their high voltage level permanently, as Jahn says, will climb higher and higher in the scale until they collapse. Only has one thing in mind. Don't eat enough, don't sleep enough, let social contacts drag. “An important early warning system in the event of burnout is the break in relationships.” If these no longer work, then something is wrong. Numbers show how big the problem is. Every year psychiatry in Austria records 30 percent of new cases. Not counting the number of unreported cases.


Recognition through achievement

Mike Lanner says today that it was not the pressure of investors, but his own self-worth and incorrectly learned beliefs that threw him off course. “It's about the pressure you put on yourself,” he says. He has always learned that he gets recognition through performance. As an entrepreneur, he wanted to be the “supermanager”. One who solves all problems and also keeps the employees happy. His mouth curls up under his beard in a grin when he tells the story.

Because at some point even the supermanager could not compensate for the fact that the company had slipped into difficulties in the operational area after the long search for investors. Lanner reacts as he has learned to react. Alone. Instead of giving up the work, he takes everything. He wants to restructure the already small company, draw organizational charts and hold meetings that last for hours. And it creates even more problems. The employees are irritated. Wondering why the boss is putting even more work on them when everyone is already at the limit. “Then you have exactly the opposite effect. I want a bond, they react with resistance, ”says Lanner. Today he knows that when he starts planning structure meetings again, there will be a fire on the roof.

After his first panic attack, he gets help from Jahn, whom he knows from school. Work is out of the question. He sits for hours and fills up notebooks. Analyzes himself and his behavior. He still picks up his notebook today when he has to wait in the café. Because the compulsory break only intensifies the panic attacks. Anyone who defines their self-worth through performance has a problem without a job. Burnout, says Lanner, was the wrong word anyway. He had too much energy. On normal days, he says, he felt like he was before high school, when he had a panic attack he felt like a wild bear was standing in front of him. He cannot sleep at night.

Others are left breathless in moments like this, like Ali Mahlodji, founder of the now successful job finder platform Whatchado. Back then, at the age of 27, when he was still working as a manager in a fast-growing tech company. “I had money, a great car and success,” he says. And yet again and again in situations the feeling of suffocating. "Inside, I was always afraid of not being good enough."


What do you want?

When his therapist asks him what he actually wants to achieve in life, he has no answer. For days he is completely overwhelmed until he writes down the goals. Then he quits his job, starts in a creative company, works 60 hours a week, only earns half of it and is still happy. Today the 35-year-old successfully runs Watchado, but is a critic of the local start-up scene.

He rarely shows up at events. He doesn't like the mood. Everything is just about scalability, growth, investments. A friend was recently hospitalized for ignoring the flu. At a start-up conference abroad, he saw overweight people with circular hair loss. “I think reasons are great, but many oversteer because they can't handle it.” He's now giving lectures on the subject of burnout. Also because the answers that many founders give him horrify him. When asked: “How do you relax?” He hears: “With a meditation app”. In response to the simple question: “How are you?” Some people start to cry. Together with Markus Jahn, he now wants to bring his burnout knowledge to various communities. Move them to be more mindful. The target groups are start-ups, but also the teachers in schools where Mahlodji is brought in for advice.


Another crisis after a year

Mike Lanner will return to work in October 2014 after three months. The breakthrough came when he realized that with every panic attack he learned something new about himself, he says. But the topic caught up with him a little more than a year later, in March 2016. He has the signs, the twitching in the eyes, ignored the numerous structure meetings. He calls his co-founder Moriz Piffl and says: "Forrest Gump is back."

He understands immediately. This time Lanner's farewell is final. He ends his activity as managing director. “I didn't think I'd be caught again like this,” he says. That was nine months ago now. In the new year he wants to start his own business again. There are enough ideas, he says. The Stitch brothers have since gone bankrupt, and his colleague Moriz Piffl let the company get up again without him.

Like Mahlodji and Jahn, Lanner also wants to remove the taboo on the subject of burnout. Because he sees a problem. Because it affects so many around him. Especially in Generation X, where there is no longer an outlet for negative feelings. “Weakness is not part of the managerial image. I think it's part of it, ”says Lanner. Entrepreneurs who are also affected by burnout can contact him for an exchange on his homepage mikelanner.com. Because speaking openly about Forrest Gump, he says, helped him from the start.

Point of contact

Mike Lanner founded the jeans-made-to-measure tailoring company Gebrüder Stitch together with Moriz Piffl. He quit after a burnout. Undermikelanner.comEntrepreneurs who are also affected by burnout can contact him for exchange and advice.

("Die Presse", print edition, December 18, 2016)