It seems I’m late to the party when it comes to joining the conversation on mental health.
I struggled in the past with what I now know is anxiety, but I never recognised it in the context of mental health. I always thought I was untroubled by labels such as “anxiety,” “depression” and “panic attacks.”
Then, three months into a new job—my first since leaving university—I reached a point where I had to force myself to acknowledge something was quite wrong; or continue in a vicious cycle of guilt, anxiety and denial.
I was (and still am) experiencing anxiety and panic attacks at work. The smallest things set it off, and at its worst I was glued to my desk all day; my tense body frozen, incapable of standing up. As soon as I walked out of the office, I shed this anxiety like an old skin, returning to my happy, confident self; enjoying life as a graduate in London.
This meant that for a few months it was easy to ignore the problem and hope one day it suddenly wouldn’t be there. Why interrogate the eight hours a day where I was wedged in a cold crevice of anxiety if I could saunter off for drinks with my friends after clocking off?
I was in total denial.
I didn’t have anxiety, I was just in a new job, wanting to do well. I’m ashamed to admit that I scoffed at the idea, and saw it as an excuse for my nervousness and lack of confidence; things I’d “grow out of” if only I tried harder.
So, when I was bent double in the bathroom at work for the third time in a week; struggling to breathe and crying uncontrollably, I knew there was a problem. However, I had no idea what it was or how to begin to solve it. I cringed when my manager suggested afterwards, in a kind but firm chat, that I seemed to be extremely anxious and maybe seeing a counsellor would help?
It took a few weeks and a lot of talking in circles with a good friend, but I finally agreed to start seeing a counsellor on a weekly basis. My shrugging off and effort to soldier on blindly had clearly not served me well; and I was starting to realise that.
I would like to offer you my take on realising you have anxiety, and how you can function anyway.
For me, it was the apparent baselessness of my fears that held me back from action for so long. I have kind and supportive managers who understood and even shared their own experiences with me. I’m in a well-paid, varied, interesting job that I got straight out of uni. Why then am I breaking down over an email, and unable to go and make myself a cup of tea?
Anxiety is not rational. It is a physiological reaction designed to help us escape danger. But my danger radar was way off. I was hiding it well, but my physical reactions to simple tasks or slight pressure were hindering me. However your anxiety manifests, it may seem mind-bogglingly irrational, and that’s fine. That shouldn’t make you turn away. I was still half shrugging it off even during my counselling sessions; which, although in themselves interesting and helpful, weren’t giving me the practical skills I needed to get through a day at work.
Two days after two panic attacks and feeling like I’d taken a massive step back having just finished my counselling sessions, I was put on furlough. At that point, honestly, it was a relief. I was mentally drained and tense to the point of snapping. I needed the time to work out for myself what I had to do.
Until that point, although I had acknowledged the problem, I wanted to hand it over to someone else and say, there you go, please fix me.
Forced to not work—and with limited connection with the office—I found I had the space to see that I was going to have to do the work myself. As the days slipped into a weird, placid rhythm, I explored hobbies, learnt new skills, read for hours and started a blog. And without really realising it, my brain worked out that maybe I could do this job; maybe I could be more confident and maybe there were things I could find myself to do that would help.
I decided to sign up for a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program on the NHS, write positive affirmations, and three things I am grateful for each day. Two months before this I would have rolled my eyes at the thought of penning what I’m thankful for; but it took me out of myself, and put things in perspective. By forcing me to look at what was good in my life and what I had achieved that day, I started to believe maybe they hadn’t made a mistake in my job interview.
Maybe I could do my job.
I am back at work full time now and my anxiety hasn’t magically disappeared. I had an anxiety attack one morning on the phone to my manager; she calmly gave me the time to speak, even if it was through choked tears. I was in a familiar spot on the edge of the panic attack cliff. But stead of slipping off and into the chasm of uncontrollable crying and loss of breath, I managed to reign myself back; like a surprise arm reaching out to grab the back of your coat. That was my work, and that is what I’m focusing on.
Everyone is different, and I am by no means providing a straightforward answer to “cure” anxiety. I hope it is helpful to offer another perspective. The conversation around mental health, as I say, is one I was late to join. But now I have, I hope my two cents is a small but welcome contribution.
The most helpful thing I have realised, and it took time, is that anxiety can be a part of you and not define you. It’s not going away, but it can be noticed, controlled and dealt with, so that your days don’t become write-offs.
You can’t run away from anxiety; you have to stop, turn and look at it face on. Not in defence, or defiance, but openly and bravely, and in my case slowly and gradually too.
I’m not someone who lives by quotes, but one from Gloria Steinem has stuck. It is the crux of living and dealing with anxiety:
“Being brave is not being unafraid, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”
This story was published anonymously.