As Steps have just received their third award for a mental health awareness programme at BAE Systems, and a number of my colleagues have just witnessed me have an anxiety attack while at work, it seems like a good time to create a blog about living and working with anxiety.
I find it hard to explain my anxiety when it is not mild enough to easily brush off (like situational anxiety – being really nervous to speak in a meeting for example – something that can be overwhelming leading up to the meeting but leaves no effect once it’s over) but not strong enough that I need medication or extended periods of time off work. I’ve always been confused by my own anxiety for this very reason, as I’m still able to get on with my day to day life and my resilience has helped me learn and move on from specific anxieties; but I still can’t escape it. To me, it seems my brain is wired to be anxious. I will automatically find a worrying thought and when that one thing upsets me, my brain then snowballs, collecting memories of the fifty other times someone or something has upset me, and sometimes – like in my meeting today – I don’t know how to make it stop.
Most days go by without my anxiety affecting me largely. I can separate small worries and rationalise, or I can feel fine for weeks on end. Sometimes however, I cannot always pinpoint why I am feeling anxious – my mind is not focused on one thought or another, but I feel on edge and unable to concentrate. These days make going to work very hard as I really struggle to push the anxiety down and put on a brave face. Everyone can see something is wrong, but I don’t want to draw attention to it, especially if I’m not sure I can explain it.
I’ve been very lucky in some places that I’ve worked, Steps included, in that I’ve had very understanding team leaders/managers. I’ve received support in a caring and extremely understanding way. To know that I can talk openly with my manager about exactly how I’m feeling, or what’s been going on that I think might have heightened my anxiety, is so helpful. However, there have been one or two times when my mind has been so incredibly clouded that I couldn’t wade through it, even to focus on one email, and on those occasions my manager didn’t even contemplate asking me to carry on with work that day. Luckily, I’ve not needed many of these days, and none since I’ve started here at Steps. Here, I have regular check-ins with my team leader so she knows what’s going on outside of work, or if I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, and I know she’s there whenever I need her – that in itself has really helped me here in my new job and can help me carry on with a day that starts as one I’m not sure I’ll be able to get through.
However, it’s not always been like that. The Director at a previous place of work was not very understanding at all and even used the phrase: ‘you need to leave your feelings at home.’ When I explained that it wasn’t always possible, they simply could not (or would not) understand and I found this very distressing. The conversation increased my anxieties and insecurities as I struggled to communicate that this is how I am, this is me – and, to them, that wasn’t OK. In a different place of work, I was not only experiencing anxiety, but I was also quite depressed at that point and it was really difficult to ‘leave this at home’. I tried to let my manager at the time know what was going on and they told me that they understood, but eventually I was brought into a meeting with that manager and another senior colleague to let me know that the way I was behaving at work due to my anxiety wasn’t acceptable. It was really difficult.
How could I ever feel comfortable being myself and confident I’d progress in my career, if I was constantly facing the battle of workplaces reprimanding me for those days that I am not in control of?
For me, my main source of medicine is counselling. I’m lucky that here at Steps they support flexible working and I’ve been able to arrange a working pattern, for however long my therapy will last, that will fit around it. This flexibility and understanding is a great deal of support and is incredibly appreciated.
I don’t feel ashamed or awkward in openly saying all of this and that I’m receiving counselling. At the risk of sounding cliché, ‘we need to talk about it’. The more people say it in general conversation, the more people will realise that it is a useful tool to cope with the everyday struggles of life that can sometimes overload you emotionally. I hope also that people will be encouraged that counselling may be an option for them, even without being ‘diagnosed’ with anxiety or depression – I myself do not have this diagnosis.
I hope that more of Steps’ clients and prospects will invest in and engage with mental health programmes for their businesses, as it’s the most invaluable experience for someone like me. Even despite knowing the amazing praise we received from our work in this area, I personally know how useful it is to finally be understood by colleagues who, in my view, aren’t able to understand what it feels like to live and work with mental health struggles if they haven’t had the opportunity to have a truly open discussion about it with colleagues at all levels.