I have a vivid memory of sitting in the classroom when I was seven and being told to paint a picture. I can’t remember the details, but I do recall the paralysing fear that my painting would be awful and that I would be told off. The result was that I sat there doing nothing, with a ball of fear in my stomach and - you’ve guessed it – got told off for not doing my work.
Fast forward seventeen years to one of my first major jobs. Every day I would wake up with a knot and sickness in my stomach, cry all the way in to work and most days barely make it through the door. My husband recounts the feeling that he wouldn’t know “version of me he would get – the happy or depressed wife” every time the phone rang, poor guy. Some days I made up an excuse like a migraine and headed home. Eventually I left the job because I couldn’t cope.
The ironic thing is that I was really good at my job. No one ever told me I was doing badly – in fact they praised my work - and I got amazing results. However in my mind, it would only be a matter of time before I was discovered as a fraud.
Feeling of impending doom
Anxiety and fear of failure has characterised nearly all of my working life. After I left that job, I went on to work in a variety of PR roles, during which I worked hard and excelled in my career, whilst simultaneously travelling a winding path of mediums and lows when it came to my mental health.
Often, I scraped through low periods by the skin of my teeth and emerged feeling emotionally bruised. My anxiety manifested in procrastination and a feeling of helplessness. A few times I crumbled; like the weight of the world had come down on me in an instant and I was too weak to push it away. At those times I had to take time off work to regroup.
Granted working in PR consultancy is perhaps not completely aligned with someone suffering from generalised anxiety! By its nature the job is very public facing, uncertain, target-driven and high pressured. Combined with having two young children it’s not exactly a recipe for positive mental health.
This also impacted on my personal life. Looking back over the last few years on what should have been some of the most fun times of my life with friends and family – including beautiful holidays – my dominant memory is the feeling of impending doom that followed me around because I was thinking about work. Rather than the sun, swimming, beach-trips, going to the park with my kids or evening meals with a glass of wine, I mainly recall the physical aching, sickness, dizziness and tiredness which comes with anxiety.
Three years ago I decided to set up my own PR business (of course imagining that I’d probably fail!) and around eighteen months ago I had my last major anxiety attack which set me back for a few weeks. It was triggered by a project which had been relentless. I was sure it would be a catastrophe; I would lose my job, my dignity, I would never work again….! Actually, it was a massive success, but it left me in a heap on the floor. One day, I cried in the car on the way to school drop off. I cried in the playground. Then I cried all the way to the doctor.
Enough is enough
It was at that moment I decided that enough was enough. When you are low and anxious it is hard to take positive action, however I knew I had to push myself harder than ever to change my life, otherwise this heaviness would hold me back forever. I would look back one day and regret that I’d thrown away every part of my life worrying about things that would probably never happen (and so what if they did…?). Gradually I started pushing myself to make changes.
Since that time I have been on a steady upward path. I haven’t woken up feeling terrible dread for a long time. I actually feel motivated, and when I look back over the past few months, I can honestly say I have not felt helpless, or sick with fear, other than a couple of fleeting moments which quickly passed. 2018 was the first year in my life that I truly enjoyed my work and I remember spending a lot of fun and good quality time with my family.
I definitely don’t hold all the answers – my anxiety will always be present in some shape or form - however here are some of the things that have helped me. I hope they might help other people too:
I’ve seen a therapist
CBT therapy has helped me a lot. Talking things through with my therapist has enabled me think clearly about what is real and what isn’t. It has helped me work out what it my responsibility and what isn’t. It has also just given me an outlet to work through my fears with someone completely impartial.
One useful exercise has been examining evidence for my anxious feelings. For example: “this project will be a disaster, my clients shout at me and I’ll lose my job.” Let’s look at this statement with some realism goggles on! Have any projects I’ve worked on been a disaster? No. Has my client ever shouted at me or are they likely to? No (because I’m not a child). Have I ever lost my job because I’ve been rubbish? No. Is that scenario realistic? Absolutely not.
I’ve started doing exercise
Exercise is one of those things that is really hard to motivate yourself to do, but you are never sorry that you did it afterwards. My therapist told me in my first session that exercise produces natural antidepressants (of course never instead of prescribed ones!) and she was completely right.
Even though it was a sight to behold the first few times, at the start of 2018 I began working out several times a week and not only have I felt fitter, trimmer and slept better, but those moments of crippling anxiety have happened less and less.
At times when I have slacked and sat on the sofa in a onesie, stuffing my face with chocolate, rather than exercising, I have clearly felt the negative impact on my mental health.
It doesn’t have to be every day – it could be a walk a few times a month or a swim – but I thoroughly recommend exercise.
I’ve realised that everyone experiences fear
In the bestselling book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers reveals some great truths about fear that had never really sunk in before – one of the main ones being that everyone feels fear when they are in an unfamiliar situation. In fact fear will ‘never go away as long as I continue to grow.’
I had always imagined that every else had their lives sorted, never worried about anything, knew what they were doing at work and that soon my insufficiencies would be discovered. However the truth is that everyone experiences fear! They just process and vocalise it in different ways. So no matter how anxious or fearful you feel, know that the person next to you may well feel the same and fear is an important part of growth.
I’ve been honest
A lot of my work revolves around communications in the workplace, so I’m aware that countless people never tell their boss or colleagues how they feel for fear that they might look weak. There wouldn’t be a need for workplace mental health initiatives if they did.
I have always been extremely honest about my anxiety and do you know what – no one has minded! They haven’t ridiculed me or demoted me. They haven’t fired me. In fact they have been extremely encouraging.
I’ve had many terribly low times in my career, and in all of those times I have been upfront with my bosses, colleagues and friends about my struggles and fears, which has been key to getting through them.
I’ve explored my anxiety
As Carl Jung put it, “there is no cure and no improving of the world that does not begin with the individual himself.”
I’ve always imagined myself to be an extrovert as I’ve always wanted to push myself, be the best, be involved and be noticed - but at the same time have felt acutely uncomfortable outside of my comfort zone. Realistically, I’ve always just wanted to stay wrapped in a blanket watching daytime TV. Uncertainty has always been my enemy.
In recent months, through therapy and wider reading, I’ve realised that is because I have introverted tendencies. In fact my introverted side is probably dominant. That revelation has given me a great sense of peace as I feel that I now understand where my anxiety comes from and I’m more comfortable with it.
I’ve tried to be kinder to myself
As a society we are always switched on, our brains are constantly processing information, we email/WhatsApp at all hours and barely stop for breath! It is not wonder that there has been a 50% rise in workers seeking counselling in the past few months. We are also unnecessarily unkind to ourselves.
Awareness of why I often feel uncomfortable amidst uncertainty, has not only enabled me to push through at times to help me overcome fear, but also take a step back and be kind to myself when I feel fragile.
For instance, if I start to feel anxiety rising after a busy morning, I might say (often out loud) “come on, be kind to yourself.” I take a break, go for a walk, do some exercise, have a sleep for an hour, watch an episode of Friends. After a while I feel ready to tackle the next task positively.
Life is busy enough without being hard on yourself all the time, so give yourself a break! Certainly in a year’s time you won’t look back and think – “I wish I hadn’t taken that break for an hour.” You will certainly look back and think “I wish I’d taken a break and hadn’t burned myself out.”
Always part of me
That is my story. I don’t pretend to be a guru, or to be completely sorted – anxiety will always be a major part of my working life. In fact it is an important part of who I am.
However by being honest, seeking help, taking positive action – even when I feel that I would rather do anything else - recognising that everyone feels fear and by being kinder to myself, I feel like I have kicked anxiety to the curb and started to emerge from the other side.
Rebecca Griffiths is Director of Griffiths PR, which specialises in communications in HR, leadership and business education. She takes an interest in the future of leadership and the work, including workplace mental health and wellbeing. Rebecca lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two young sons. You can connect with Rebecca via Twitter