Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to anxiety. We’ve known each other for years. I don’t remember life without it because, for me, it began in the mid-90’s when I was just 6 years old. We didn’t know it was anxiety at the time. It was mistaken for a phase, then for an eating disorder and at one point, doctors even contemplated the possibility of some sort of Philippine parasite as I’d visited the year before. Anxiety wasn’t even a consideration initially. It took several relapses and a few years to pass before we really started to understand what was going on in my head.
I wish I could write this with my head held high, exposing my identity to the World but, unfortunately, I’m not brave enough because (and I’m ashamed to say) there is still a stigma attached to suffering from a mental illness. It’s easy for people to say there isn’t, but when you live it, it’s not as easy as you think to just come out with it. It’s not for me, anyway. Truthfully, I don’t want people to think that there’s anything ‘wrong with me,’ and as much as I praise the media for drawing attention to mental health in recent years, anxiety has been a very personal, isolating experience for me and I’m simply not ready to scream about it.
However, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, and I’ve been asked by the team at Only Marketing Jobs (who know me pretty well!) to write about anxiety in the workplace. Last year I suffered what was probably the worst relapse I’d had in years, and it was the first time that I’ve had to deal with anxiety as a working adult. I’m pleased to say that I sit here today on this sunny Thursday in May, feeling amazing and as it stands, I’m virtually anxiety free. I know how quickly this can change, but I really feel as though I’ve regained control over it and I wanted to share some of my top tips for beating anxiety whilst still being expected to work a full-time job. It’s important to note that everyone is different, and everyone’s experience of anxiety and mental illness is completely unique. Here it goes:
Open up and TALK
Opening up and talking to my directors and certain colleagues in the workplace had one of the biggest impacts on my recovery. As I eluded to earlier, for me, anxiety is a very isolating illness and it’s something that I’d managed to hide for much of my life. This time, it was different. Something about being grown up and more aware of what was going on made this time round one hell of a lot harder. Speaking up was one of the best decisions I made early on. I never once felt under pressure by work to get better quickly. I had their full support. I never took time off, but I knew that if I needed to go home suddenly, I could be honest about it and there was understanding. In a year full of terror alerts and attacks in London, it was a tense place to work, and my boss could not have been more accommodating and considerate during this time. I was also quite shocked upon confiding in colleagues, to discover that I was not alone in this and that there was an awful lot of empathy and support around me. This made coming to work and maintaining my performance whilst at work a lot easier. I hid my anxiety for 20 years, so I know what it’s like to bottle things up. Don’t be afraid to confide in people.
I’m not a doctor and everyone is different so I’m not saying this is what you should do, although I would recommend seeking professional help if you do become ill. I’d had so many rounds of therapy throughout my childhood, none of which I believe helped me. I’d grown sceptical about therapy, but I’d also become desperate. I was lucky to find the most incredible therapist first-time round and embarked on a course of acceptance and commitment therapy. I’ve tried CBT and various other forms before, but I’d never heard of this and it really worked for me. Give it a Google. Work were incredibly flexible in allowing me to leave early for appointments when I needed to, and the therapy itself really helped me to decompartmentalise, particularly from a working perspective. I was able to put my work into a category that was ‘safe’ for me and it gave me some focus.
The power of smell
This might sound a little odd and perhaps it's one of my quirks, but scents really helped me to keep calm during my days at work. My friend actually sent me the Neom 'Scent to De-stress' kit as a gift to help me through my worst point and I literally became obsessed with it. I don't know if this is a proven thing, but it really helped me to keep my breathing regular if I was feeling anxious or panicky. I treated it like a ritual and even got my boss involved with it! This particular line smells just like a spa, so it might have helped through some positive association. Another scent that helps me, and one that I have used since I was a teenager for anxiety is Olbas. I always carry an Olbas inhaler with me and I keep a little pot of oil in the house. I think it helps to ease some of the nausea that's associated with the onset of panic and whilst it doesn't get rid of it completely, it certainly helps to keep the anxiety at bay and at a 'safe' level. Much needed for office survival let me tell you!
This is something I’d underestimated my entire life up until last year; the power of exercise. I’d always read that exercise is one of the best things you can do to support your mental health, but I’d never appreciated the truth in this until I did my research. Whilst it was difficult for me to go last year (ironically, it gave me anxiety), I woke up on New Years Day this year on a mission. I’d hit a rock again just before the turn of 2018 and something needed to change. I wanted to do everything I could to treat my body well because I believed that this would automatically improve what was going on in my head, and it did! There is science behind it. It’s a fact that exercise has a positive impact on your mental health, and I feel like I’m proof of that. I went from leading a majority sedentary lifestyle, to attending the gym around 4 or 5 times per week and the change in me has been phenomenal (my Dad can’t believe it.) Now it’s an essential part of my week and it’s something I prioritise for myself. Work also pay for half of our membership and give us extended lunch hours to train, so it’s something that is hugely supported internally. Having it just down the road from the office also means that I’ve been fortunate enough to have access at almost any time I like, whether it be morning, noon or night.
Take your time
I’m not going to lie, living an adult life with anxiety can be hellish at times, especially when you’re going through a bad patch of it. Concentrating on work is a task for most people, but when you’re battling anxiety or any other mental illness for that matter, work can seem like the last thing on your mind. However, I couldn’t just quit my job! I had to keep going and I was determined to continue living my life. It was important to maintain some normality. I am a creature of routine after all. I knew that once I did something drastic I’d get caught up in the reality of that decision and I think that continuing to work was something that helped me to recover as quickly as I did. The most important thing when you’re trying not to panic, is to take your time. If I felt overwhelmed, I broke it down and slowed it down and that really helped me get everything done. I never missed a deadline. I’m proud to say that last year was one of my strongest years professionally and I managed to do an awful lot whilst battling against the waves of extreme thoughts and feelings, all of which could have prevented me from working at all.
Don’t stop living
I didn’t start getting better until I started facing my triggers. It’s different for everyone, but for me I struggled with social situations involving food and alcohol. I’d also developed major anxiety about flying because it’s a flight that triggered my relapse last January, so I avoided these for a very long time which was not easy, believe me. Oh, and I had anxiety about anxiety, just to top it all off. To continue to perform in my job and role as a prominent member of staff, I needed to work hard on recovering. It was horrible. I didn’t just turn up to a bar one day and it was fine, it took a whole year to feel comfortable doing ‘normal’ things again. Slowly but surely, I introduced these triggering situations back in my life, and over time, it just got easier. This improved my time at work because I was then able to cope with the more sociable demands of my role. It also meant I could do typical work-related things again such as incentives and lunch meetings.
The realisation that life simply is not fair
When you’re faced with a mental illness, it’s very easy to kind of wallow in it. There were times when I was so low, that I just didn’t see the point in anything anymore and of course work fell into that category. It took all my strength and energy to simply get through a full day without panicking. I was so consumed by it at the time, I just couldn’t believe it was my life. It didn’t feel like a life and I’d completely lost who I was. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and I didn’t think my mind or body could ever recover. Now I realise how powerful both those things are. The understanding and realisation that life isn’t fair was a huge factor for me, and the appreciation that there are also much worse things that people are dealing with really helped me. It’s difficult to hear that when you’re really sick and at your lowest ebb, but it’s so important to remember this.
I hope that these snippets of my experiences are something that you can identify with. I’ve been with my current company for a few years now, but I’ve never appreciated them more. If you’re in a job or at a company that you hate, struggling with any kind of mental illness is going to be nothing short of torture. Next time you’re searching for a new job, bear in mind just how impactful it can be to work somewhere wonderful doing something that you love.