For Mental Health Awareness Week, our colleague, Aasha Cowey, shares her experience of anxiety and recommends some tips to manage
Someone very close to me started talking about how they hated themselves sometimes because of the way they think and over worry about stuff. Anxiety can be your own worst enemy, especially when you don’t really know what it is.
I’ve probably always had anxiety but I didn’t know what it was (or have a formal diagnosis) until a couple of years ago. Through that journey, we have explored depression, Tourettes and even PTSD (mainly from a very bad car crash and the impact of some incredibly difficult situations working in a 999 control room). It’s very easy to brush it off as ‘just’ anxiety. It is also easy to see how anxiety can have complex relationships with the other mental health conditions above, for various reasons. The link with depression for example is unsurprising to me, as you can go through periods of immense self-loathing about the way you think about life.
So what does anxiety feel like? For me I would imagine that feeling before a really important exam, or a first date, or a job interview. For you perhaps it’s watching your favourite football team. It stirs up emotion and physical symptoms – sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, a thousand thoughts running around in your mind. These symptoms are probably quite normal for the above situations.
However, for me, my anxiety would manifest itself as uncontrollable worrying over ridiculous situations I have no or little control over, and in the grand scheme of things relatively minor things that don’t actually matter. The problem is, the more you tell yourself the worrying is irrational, the more cross you can get with yourself and it can spiral.
A turning point for me was the birth of my daughter. I had a difficult birth and was really anxious at the thought of having another child at some point and going through it all again. Being handed a letter that essentially said you should be suitable for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) next time didn’t exactly help. Actually, it made me feel sick. The labour had been long and ended up as an emergency caesarean following me having suspected sepsis and my daughter becoming distressed. My poor husband when the room suddenly filled with doctors (he had repeatedly been told to not worry as if there was an issue the room would fill with doctors. I was out of it at this point….).
Following this, I went to see my GP. Both because I was worrying over something I really needed to process and park so I could focus on caring for a newborn. Additionally, because I didn’t want to worry about insignificant things to the extent they stopped me doing whatever I was trying to do at the time.
Alongside a debrief with a consultant midwife (which was very useful) my GP suggested I self refer for ‘talking therapies’. We have an excellent service in Berkshire and through this I did many sessions with a therapist (mainly over the telephone) and explored a variety of techniques under cognitive behaviour therapy. I continue to do various activities in my daily life.
So having explained my personal journey, let’s bring it back to the workplace. Fact – anxiety has never affected the quality and output of my work. In fact, it’s probably why I pay such close attention to detail and tend to be very logical minded about my decision making, even with very complex things. In fact I am lucky that generally my anxiety does not majorly dictate my life, even if my head is swimming at times.
However, I think it has impacted my relationships in a minority of roles. If I reflect on all the jobs I have done, I have had 16 direct line managers and probably double that if I consider the wider hierarchy. I’ve had two cases where that relationship broke down. Having done a lot of reflecting, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on both occasions I felt micro-managed, not trusted, constantly belittled and doing the wrong type of work. It’s quite powerful knowing this as I can now remove myself from such situations in the future (or at least in theory I hope I would).
I let the worrying over one of these roles ruin what should have been a really fun day out for my birthday one year. That’s not a way to live. While some of this may be my own perception, I felt like the focus turned on me and my behaviours – the anxiety was almost a scapegoat – rather than a shared responsibility for the conditions I found myself working in which were, in turn, increasing my anxiety.
Anxiety and other mental health conditions are on the rise (I think in both awareness and occurrence). While hindsight is a wonderful thing, I wish we could have worked together and agreed on ways of working that benefited us both without me feeling like I was being performance managed for just being me. I’m not saying I need a line manager to be my best friend but they need to both trust me and enable me to talk through mistakes in a learning environment, so I can process things and not beat myself up. In both above situations, I lost all my confidence after becoming so drained.
I probably have enough to say on this topic to write a short book! I will try to close with the following suggestions though. Firstly, if you are reading this and you relate, please remember you are not alone and it is ok to talk about these things. You are not a weak person and you may find, over time, you are able to use it to your strengths as you understand better how to navigate situations.
Secondly, if you manage someone you suspect may have anxiety, please think really carefully about how you talk to them. Don’t ask them if they are stressed in an open plan office. Don’t simply fob them off to occupational health. Don’t come up with solutions for them and please please please don’t write them off as highly strung or difficult. Sit down together, give yourself as much time as you need, and explore how you can work best together.