I have always been a naturally anxious person. I’m somebody that likes to plan and doesn’t like uncertainty. The feeling of knowing what’s going to happen next and what role I play in that is really important to me.
I like to keep a sense of control over my life – I always know what holidays I’m going to have in a year and in a work context I plan for every possible scenario and rehearse how meetings will go, what I’m going to say and what I think other people are going to say.
But my anxiety only really started to become a problem for me last year after I got a promotion at work. While it was a positive thing, it also meant I started to pressure myself to deliver – and although I was given ambitious targets, I wasn’t being supported with resources or a bigger team and had to deal with insecurity over what I was meant to be prioritising.
My anxiety is led by my expectations of myself, not other people’s expectations of me and trying to meet the demands pushed it higher, causing depression. By November I had had a couple of panic attacks on my way to work and by February I started experiencing suicidal thoughts.
I decided to go the GP, who gave me medication and a referral, but luckily, I’m surrounded by people who are open about mental health, so I had others to talk to. My mother is a counsellor, which is great, although it can be difficult to have somebody close to you in ‘professional mode’ when you talk to them about things.
I was also open at work about the fact I was struggling, although it was fairly obvious as I was getting quite emotional in the office. I initially tried to work from home for a week, because travelling in was becoming a barrier for me, but I felt bad about not being there for my team, so I went back in – and probably too quickly.
I realised then that I was actually making things harder, because I was creating uncertainty for everyone else. They never knew from day-to-day whether they were going get the ‘achieve everything’ or the ‘everything’s awful, there’s no point’ version of me. That’s when I decided that taking time off was the right thing to do, and I was signed off for two weeks – which felt like failure – and started therapy through my work’s Employment Assistance programme. I also read up about self-care on the Mind website, which really helped.
The week before I went back to work some businesses had already shut because of Covid-19, so I knew it was likely to happen at some point. My own return to the office lasted exactly one day – by 8.30pm that evening we’d been texted to tell us not to come into the office the next day. I felt relief that the decision had been made, and thankfully there was then a lot of distraction over the following days dealing with the practicalities of setting up home working.
I am a digital leader for a not-for-profit business whose services will be massively stretched both during the pandemic but also as a result of the long-term impact, so we were – and continue to be – incredibly busy, which in some ways has really helped me. As an anxious person I’ve always been planning for ‘the terrible thing’ to happen. So, in some ways I think I’ve dealt with the shift quite well compared to other people I know who are not used to the feeling.
But from the first week onwards my real issue has been dealing with the uncertainty and this crisis has really brought to the fore the level to which I catastrophise. My therapist said to me that good things will come out of this and so will bad things but that I couldn’t know what those would be. So, I’m trying to notice my thoughts and stop myself when anxiety arises. If I can act on a thought, then I will. If not, then I try to be strict and start thinking about something else.
I am being confronted by how little control I have, both around the pandemic itself, but also how the Government is able to say you should not be doing this or that. I can have some control over the small things in my life, but beyond that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week.
I’ve been trying to focus on the things I can control instead – going on long walks, which is sometimes when the anxiety is worse because it allows your mind to wander, as light exercise does help me to sleep better. I’ve also started keeping a gratitude diary, which I was originally quite cynical about, but research shows that noting down three things you’re grateful for that day can have a positive impact on depression. Even on bad days I can find three things I’m grateful for. Mindfulness and meditation are useful too – I do a weekday guided meditation on Zoom as I find pre-recorded meditations don’t work for me and feeling connected to other people on the call really helps when I’m feeling jittery.
Workwise, the lockdown situation has helped me to maintain boundaries between my work and personal life in a way that I probably wasn’t doing before – I can shut my laptop lid and walk away from work into another room any time. During this period my team has been great at delivering and I feel I’m able to let people get on with things in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable doing before, and these are two lessons I will hopefully take with me post-lockdown.
However, my anxiety around what other people think of me is definitely made worse by remote meetings, with fewer cues to be able to read. I play meetings back in my head: have I spoken too much? Did I not make the point at the right time? Aas I too abrasive? I often don’t know. Working like this also means there has been miscommunication, which I’ve found hard and wondered if I need to take responsibility for?
Through this though, the biggest thing I’ve realised is that my anxiety is all about me, really. What has been hard, but useful is understanding that other people are also holding a level of anxiety that they would never normally experience – and that the fraught conversations at work are often about a wider context issue. Sometimes they are about me and what I’m doing, of course – but it’s been helpful to remember that everybody is uncertain and anxious right now.