How I turned a week-long panic attack into positive change

Advertising can be a brutal game, especially as a creative, explains Ben Smith, executive creative director at Edge. We put ourselves into every idea, we bare our soul daily and then invite the world to pick apart the things that came from our own brains.

At every keystroke, the voice in my head is muttering, ‘Why would anyone care about your feelings, Ben?’, but that’s the point. As a creative industry I think we should be more open about our mental health, so screw you, voice-in-my-noggin.

It’s essential we make mental health a priority, because as leaders in the advertising industry, we need to remove the lingering stigma around speaking up and reinforce that it’s not a weakness to be open, it’s a strength.

I’m telling my story to help normalise the discussion around mental health, because we should be able to share how we feel without fear of judgement.


One day, in October last year, I was riding the train to work. It was an unremarkable morning – until I thought I was dying.

The carriage swayed as we pulled into Town Hall and my head started spinning and didn’t stop.

I stumbled off the train and fell to the platform floor.

I was sweating, my vision all blurry, my heart felt like it was going to burst through my button-down shirt, my fingers tingly.

Then I started vomiting, shaking, I was freezing cold, but sweaty as hell.

I was taken to St Vincent’s in an ambulance and as soon as I got there, I was surrounded by doctors who were doing all sorts of weird tests. It was terrifying.

They scanned my brain and thankfully I was given the-all clear, they put it down to vertigo. I headed home, wiped out, to my pregnant wife and five-year-old son.

As a creative freelancer at the time, and with talk of a global recession, I was a little stressed, worried about money and I felt like I couldn’t take time off to recover, so a day later I went back to work.

Luckily, we were going on our last holiday before our family of three became four – a few days in the sun would sort me out.

It was on a tropical island, my glowing wife, about to pop, my son never happier. Me, I was miserable. It was the worst week of my life.

As I lay by the pool, I couldn’t escape this sense of doom. A thick cloud suffocating me.

Out for dinner and it felt like I was glued to the chair, I couldn’t play with my son as thoughts would constantly invade my brain ‘Will I always feel like this?’, ‘What the f** is going on’.

I’d wake up in the morning sweating, I couldn’t hold a conversation or read without the text going blurry. I was suddenly scared of heights and crowds were overwhelming, it was heavy.

As soon as I got back to Sydney, my wife took me to the doctor because I didn’t want to drive myself. Then when the doctor asked how I was, I started crying.

The uncertainty around having another child, worrying about my career, where the next project was coming from and stressing about mortgage rates turned a week on a tropical island into a week-long panic attack, my fight or flight response in overdrive according to my doctor.

It felt as if this came from nowhere, but I’ve come to understand us humans can only take so much worry, some more than others, and my brain had just had enough, and all the stress manifested itself in physical symptoms that were akin to a heart attack or stroke.

There had been a few warning signs, that I just put down to life stuff, but mental health doesn’t discriminate, and it grabbed me around the neck when it was least welcome.

Beyond Blue reports that 5.6 million people (28.8%) in Australia have experienced an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, so it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone. And I’m sure the unique world of advertising – deadline driven, high pressure and its competitive nature can make things more acute.

Now, I’m feeling really good, thanks to the support of amazing family, friends, colleagues and professional help. And if I’m really honest, I’m glad things came to a head, because I’m healthier for it. More aware of my mental health and what makes me feel good and bad.

And I hope that it’s made me better at my job. I believe more empathetic to those struggling with their mental wellbeing as i know how tough it can be and I try to ensure people at work know I’m there to support them, because that’s what people did for me.

While coping is different for everyone, and mental health is a complex matter, I wanted to share four things that helped me.

1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling

The first thing that worked for me was to actually acknowledge that I wasn’t feeling great, to face up to things, because pushing those negative thoughts away doesn’t make them disappear, you enter a loop of avoidance, and they build up and come back for more. But when you accept things, the power shifts to you, putting you back in control not your bad vibes.

2. School up

I found it really helpful to school up on mental health. Knowledge really is power. Podcasts are my jam, so I listened to lots. I found a few particularly beneficial – The Imperfects, Huberman Lab, Mamamia and Modern Wisdom. I’m also a big documentary fiend, and Stutz from Jonah Hill is excellent. As well as arming you with lot of intel, science and coping strategies, you’ll hear so many stories of hugely successful, creative people, like Jonah Hill and Mia Freedman, who have had similar experiences, and it helps normalise what you’re feeling.

3. Be kind to yourself

Exercise, sleep, eating right and hanging out with friends and family all make me feel good. And we all know that when things get busy, they’re the first to go. You skip a friend’s dinner because of a deadline, you eat pizza when you’re working late, you miss a lunchtime workout because of a meeting. So, I try to ensure that even when it’s hectic, I don’t neglect stuff that makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I’m just better.

4. Talk and listen

Talking really, really helps. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re not feeling great, so reach out to friends, family, colleagues and be honest if you’re struggling or overwhelmed, sharing stories is enlightening. You’d be surprised how many people will have had similar experiences and hearing how they got through it, helps you get through it too.

As a creative director, we’re trained to question everything, to interrogate briefs, to look past those first ideas, yet when it comes to how we’re feeling we just accept things as they are and if we’re struggling, we just keep going.

But if we were real and honest about things, we’d help create a culture of openness, support and care and we’d all be better for it.

So, shall we talk about our feelings?

Ben Smith is the executive creative director at Edge.



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