Health and Wellness

A Super Bowl champion on living and playing with anxiety: 'I don't want sympathy from anybody'

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Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles walks off the field after a game at Lincoln Financial Field on December 21, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Mitchell Leff | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

On the outside, Philadelphia Eagles star right tackle Lane Johnson seems to have it all.

Drafted by the Eagles in 2013 as the fourth overall pick, Johnson became a Super Bowl champion in 2017. Two years later, the three-time Pro Bowler signed a four-year contract with the Eagles worth more than $72 million.

But internally, the 31-year-old says he was often "living in hell" — battling bouts of high anxiety since his high school playing days. On game days, Johnson says, he typically found himself throwing up or "dry heaving" to deal with the pressure.

He describes life as an offensive lineman as feeling like "you are jumping out of an airplane, and you don't know if you have a parachute on or not." That's because making even a single mistake amidst an otherwise perfect game can draw intense scrutiny. "I give up a sack or my $100 million dollar quarterback gets hurt, my name is in the newspaper," Johnson tells CNBC Make It.

For years, Johnson says, he managed his anxiety with medication and therapy. Then, the medication became a problem. Last season, in early October, he took a leave of absence, missing three games to address his mental health while weaning himself off antidepressants.

At the time, "getting through a day was a lot," he says, adding that the "monster" inside of him kept building, especially after suffering an ankle injury earlier that year.

It wasn't Johnson's first absence from his team: In 2014 and 2016, he was suspended by the NFL for violating the league's policy against performance-enhancing drugs. He admitted to the mistake in 2014, and tried to appeal his case in 2016, ultimately losing.

Today, he says, he's in a mentally healthier place. He credits the turnaround to learning how to more effectively handle and manage his mental health, and says he's now focused on helping others going through similar struggles — while still continuing his football career with the Eagles.

Sharing his story, he says, is one way to help others. "I don't want sympathy from anybody," he says. "It's just part of my story and part of who I am."

Here, Johnson discusses his early symptoms of anxiety, how he found help and the daily tactics he uses to manage his mental health.

How Johnson first experienced his anxiety symptoms

It started, probably, during my senior year in high school. I went to a very small high school. I only had 30 kids in my graduating class, so it was easy to get overlooked. At the time, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get a scholarship offer [to play college football].

[At first], I didn't know what it was. I just knew that it affected my eating, and I felt I was on edge all the time. Your body is in a constant state of high alertness and your body can never decompress. I could never turn the off-switch from football.

I kept it to myself because I wasn't educated on it. I didn't know how to describe it until it became more intense.

Lane Johnson stands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) as they hold up a jersey on stage after Johnson was picked #4 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 25, 2013 in New York City.
Al Bello | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Why he decided to 'put my pride aside' and get help

Ever since I started playing football, I'd get up in the morning and be so on edge that I'd go throw up. But I didn't have anything to throw up, so it was just, like, dry heaving.

Things amplified after I got to the [University of Oklahoma] at the grander stage. My roommate and teammate, who was going through similar things, heard me [throwing up] on game day. That's when I decided to get educated on it.

I went to a place called the pro's office at school. Once I sought help, and understood more about what I was feeling, [I could] communicate the feelings instead of balling stuff in. I put my pride aside and just tried to work on myself and figure myself out more.

I feel like when you are able to figure yourself out, you have more to offer this world.

Inside the daily tactics Johnson uses to help manage his mental health

The biggest step for me was talking to a sports psychologist to help me manage and compartmentalize my life and what's happening, making it a lot clearer.

I learned a lot about stress control — like they teach in the military, with breathing techniques like box breathing. I learned that having a perfectionist-type mentality (like I have) is not a bad thing. It's bad when it affects your life in other ways, but it can make you who are in your sport. I learned that fear is a natural thing, and [it's about] how we cope with and understand it.

My escape is exercise. Whatever energy I have, I just try to get it out for the day. I also try to maintain a schedule and stick to that schedule. Being busy and distracting your mind instead of being complacent or stagnant helps, too. [Eagles center Jason Kelce] and I play Sudoku and different brain games to try to challenge ourselves.

Try to put your focus on others, and not put so much into yourself. Try to be someone's else helper.

His advice to others who may be struggling

Really self-evaluate yourself. Be vulnerable. Whatever you want to accomplish in this world, the more you understand yourself and how you think and operate, the better your quality of life will be.

Being educated in the field of psychology — and removing the stigma around getting educated — is the biggest thing. There are people all over the world that suffer from [anxiety], and I'm just another person.

Especially in sports, you really have to figure out life outside your bubble. Good help is out there, and you will become a far better person at the end of it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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