The first time I became aware of my anxiety, I was nine years old. You see, I’m someone who likes routine and that went out of the window when a family member fell ill. My home was full of worry, upset and tension.
My anxiety manifested itself in restlessness, nausea, and a pit of dread in my stomach. I loved school but would have panic attacks and tantrums most mornings before we left. Anxiety, after all, is irrational.
Almost twenty years later I still experience generalised anxiety. Speaking on the phone, driving, meetings, and meals out all present day-to-day challenges for me. But it was when author Matt Haig wrote that “My anxiety is best understood as an injury that flares up when I am not doing the right things,” like sleeping well, eating well, and so on. I related to this a lot – and I’ve had my fair share of flare ups.
One, in particular, became a formative experience.
Heading for a breakdown
I was 24, in a job I loved – but I was finding things very stressful and felt tearful much of the time. I feared how my anxiety might be perceived in a professional setting if I tried to explain that I was struggling. Especially as I’m someone who enjoys losing themselves in a project – and I’m ambitious!
It was the perfect storm.
I’d felt privileged to be given a project of my own to look after. If it turned out that I couldn’t do it, what would that mean for my career? I had to prove to myself that I could do it.
But I was losing sleep. I’d wake in the middle of the night, and frantically make notes. Things I’d forgotten, or not considered. Stuff I had to get done the next day. Every morning I woke from disturbed sleep, worried about the mistakes I might make. I worried every evening that I wasn’t doing anything right.
Eventually, I just had a breakdown, right there in the office.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I sobbed. I was gently encouraged to take some time off, and soon enough a doctor signed me off for stress.
This is sadly not uncommon. According to HSE, work-related stress, depression or anxiety were responsible for around 12.8 million lost days of work in 2018/9.
The golden rules
I was off for two weeks. Alongside some much-needed self-care, I took time to think about what led me to this position. I gave myself some rules to move forward – that really only require me to be honest with myself:
- Stop pretending
It’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay to find things difficult. It is most certainly okay to ask for help. You are not going to be an expert at everything the first time you try to do it. Pretending that everything is fine does not serve you in the long run.
- Seek help when you’re struggling
I signed up for cognitive behavioural therapy to better understand how to properly look after myself. Getting help isn’t a sign of weakness – what could be better than strengthening your resilience and equipping yourself with the tools you need to thrive?
‘Help’ could also be something way less formal but just as restorative – a cup of tea and a chat with friend can be just the ticket.
- Talk about it
Thanks to the work of mental health charities like Dorset Mind, the stigma has reduced significantly over the last few years.
I try to do my bit by talking openly about my mental health, my ‘flare ups’, and the day-to-day obstacles I face. Being open about my anxiety has led me to have wonderful conversations with colleagues, friends and strangers alike – you’d be surprised at what insights they might share with you, too.
A parting thought
I’ve made peace with the idea that I may never be quite ‘cured’ of anxiety, and it’s something I’ll have to manage as I go through my life. I’m sure as I navigate my career, buying my first home and whatever else life has in store for me, I’ll have natural ups and downs.
There’s no shame in having a mind that feels wired a little differently. It can definitely feel like a challenge – or even a curse – but it doesn’t have to be the defining factor about you.
In fact, I’ll leave you with this other brilliant notion from Matt Haig: “Mental health problems don’t define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain and you feel the rain but, importantly, YOU ARE NOT THE RAIN.”
Huge thanks to Viki for sharing her thoughts – if you’d like to hear more, please follow her on Instagram: @vikihasanxiety.