“I thrive on stress. Please hassle me!”
Looking back on my life, I recognise that I have always struggled with anxiety. In relationships, friendships or at work.
However, I misunderstood those feelings for a long time, thinking that my hypervigilance was a positive thing which made me more productive and in-tune with others. I remember a badge I bought for myself in my early 20’s which I had on my desk at work. It said “I thrive on stress. Please hassle me.”
I was always on the go, feeling like I had an edge that motivated me. The truth was that I felt anxious almost all the time.
I worked in the same organisation for over 20 years. I loved managing my small team of staff and felt that I thrived on the stress of work. I was in a job which I perceived to be rewarding and stressful in equal measure. I was the problem solver, the one to volunteer for any task. I worked extra hours and felt a great sense of responsibility in my role.
However, in early 2012, I began to struggle to manage the stress of my job. Thoughts and worries about work seeped into every part of my life. I would wake up at night with palpitations, worrying about a task I had not completed, or trying to remember if I had sent an urgent email. I found that my mind wandered to work whilst I was spending time with my family. I withdrew from friends as I didn’t have the headspace to switch off and relax.
Things came to a head in 2012, when I went to see the doctor because I had a bloodshot eye. What I thought would be a quick check-up, led to the doctor asking me how things were going. The floodgates opened, and all the stress and anxiety I had been burying and ignoring came pouring out.
In a 20-minute uncontrollable sobbing, shaking mess.
Even then, when he told me he was signing me off work for 2 weeks, my first thought was work. “I can’t take time off work; I have a meeting at 10 and I have too much to do” I shot back at him…
He signed me off from work for 2 weeks initially, and I did not return to work for 4 months.
The turning point
That day was a turning point in my life, where I finally had ‘me time’.
Time to think, time to sleep, time to relax and time to learn how to manage my anxiety. Every day I either went down to the river and paddled my toes in the cool water or drove down to the beach. I would walk and walk until I was tired, lay on the warm sand with the sun on my face and listen to the waves breaking on the shore.
When I felt ready, I got up and walked back along the promenade.
Through counselling and talking to family and friends, I came to understand that my job was only one part of my life. What a revelation that was!
It was at this time that I heard of the oxygen mask analogy. When you are on a plane, the flight attendant does the safety announcement before the flight. They say that if the cabin pressure falls, oxygen masks will drop down from above. Adults are advised to put on their own mask before helping others. Reason being, that if you don’t look after yourself first, you won’t be in a fit state to help others.
This is what I had been doing, putting work and the needs of those around me before my own needs.
My resilience pot was on empty because I was never replenishing it.
On a walk with a friend along the seaweed strewn beach at Swanage, I told her that I was still struggling to switch my mind off and just ‘be’. She suggested that I found one thing to photograph every day. By doing this, I was able to look at the world around me on my walks, rather than having my head down and being lost in my thoughts. That day I was given the gift of mindfulness. Over the next month, I built a special collection of photos, which when I revisit them, journal my relationship with stress, anxiety, self-care and mindfulness.
In the months following my phased returned to work, I worked on learning to ask for help, delegating tasks, taking a lunch break and to leave work behind me when I left the office. My work-life balance is healthier now. I have re-trained as a counsellor and have four part time jobs, including working at Dorset Mind. I finally have time to myself, time with family and friends (and Freddy-dog) and time when I work. I love all these parts of my life and they have shaped who I am today.
Our Guest Blogger
Huge thanks to our guest blogger CYP Councilor and Wellbeing Check-in leader, Barbara Montagna for her incredibly personal account. She writes about how work based anxiety can spread to other areas of life and how it can affect both a person’s mental and physical wellbeing.
If you are struggling to cope with your mental health in general, please talk to your GP.
Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. The group offers peer support and helps to reduce stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here.