The time I first spoke up about my anxiety

the first time I spoke of my anxiety to the people who work with me

Two years ago, I was asked to get involved in Mental Health Awareness week at work. As part of this, I took the step to share my own battles with anxiety - below is what I shared.

What I didn't mention at the time was that my son was in the process of being diagnosed with autism, and we were fighting school exclusion, which added to the stresses and pressures that I was feeling. 

Looking back on what I wrote, I realise that it is as true for me today as it was then. I didn't realise that it was only the start of my battle with anxiety. Thankfully I know the situations which are likely to make me anxious, and the help I need to get me through anxious times. It is never easy, but I am getting there. 

My anxiety may now be a part of who I am, but it does not define me. 

As management consultants, we have not chosen an easy life.

We are paid to solve other people’s problems, frequently working as outsiders in someone else’s office with clients instead of colleagues. The hours can be very long, and you need to actively work on remaining connected with your own company, over an above your day job, when you are away on client site.

Consulting can be very exciting and rewarding, it can also be demanding

For 5 years I enjoyed a variety of projects which allowed me to develop my skills as a project manager, challenged me on a daily basis and even allowed me to travel to some great places including New York, Hong Kong, South Africa. During this time I had bought my first house, had two great kids and got married.

Everything seemed to be going so well – and then I crashed.

I was almost crippled by anxiety

After returning from maternity leave, I felt that I would need to change my working style if I wanted to progress my career to the next level. I had switched to a 4-day working week and working longer hours was no longer an option for me. The problem was that the more I tried, the less successful I seemed to be and it soon started to have a profound impact on me.

I became filled with self-doubt and constantly felt the need to validate my thoughts with the people around me. My mind was permanently in overdrive, and I found it hard to switch off. I was in a perpetual state of worry and had trouble sleeping – often waking up in the middle of the night obsessively thinking about random things such as what I was going to say in a meeting planned for the next day.

Each morning was a herculean effort to wake up and head into work, and at weekends I couldn’t get out of bed as I had used up all my energy trying to hold it together during the week. I would regularly break down in tears, sometimes with no warning at all - I can’t imagine what my fellow commuters made of me as I blubbed while reading my morning Metro.

At its worst, even simple things such as trying to arrange a night out with friends were very stressful. This is not the greatest trait for a project manager, whose job it is to manage multiple streams of activity and ensure any key risks or issues were dealt with as effectively as possible.

 I didn’t want to ask for help as it felt like an admission of failure

People at work were aware of the challenges I was having on my project. I tried to underplay how difficult things really were, and never openly asked for help as I didn’t feel that they would understand. I felt I would be judged negatively if I admitted the truth.

I knew of the support options available to me at work, however, I felt that I had a commitment to meet project deadlines and couldn’t possibly take time out each week to talk through what was going on with me. My life was extremely busy, and I didn’t have a chance to deal with my own personal crises. It would have to wait until I could fit it in.

Also, I believed that asking for help would mean having to admit that I was struggling to cope. I was desperate to prove that I could do what was being asked of me. And to be honest, I didn’t know what help I needed. I kept telling myself that I just needed to hang in there and that everything would sort itself out when we got through to the next phase of the project. 

So I withdrew and tried to avoid interacting with people from work unless I really needed to. I couldn’t face events such as the townhalls and Christmas party as I couldn’t bear having to put on a happy face for everyone. 

My greatest fear came true when then the client asked for me to be removed from the project. I believed that my career was over. After all what use is a Project Manager who is not able to successfully deliver projects? Prioritising work commitments over my personal needs and mental health only made matters worse, and I believe that much of the fallout could have been avoided if I had tried to get help sooner.

Putting your trust in someone and asking for help is a massive leap of faith when you don’t know how they will respond. However, it can make a huge difference. For me, things started to change when I asked for help.

Anxiety affects 16% of people in the UK

According to Rethink Mental Illness, anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems affecting 16% of people in the UK, yet remains under-reported, under-diagnosed and undertreated. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation survey found that more than half of us have noticed that ‘people are more anxious today than they were 5 years ago.'

Anxiety is an emotional state that can work for us as well as against us. It is something we all have in common, but it is how we perceive these feelings of anxiety and how we respond to them that makes the difference.  

The problem is when you are not able to control the anxiety, and it starts to impact everyday life, and potentially even your physical health. Prolonged anxiety and increased stress levels have been linked to immune system weakness and other health issues such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Finding support made a big difference

Since then I moved onto another project where I was able to start rebuilding my self-confidence with the assistance of some key people both within and outside of work.

I did see a counsellor talk through how I was feeling, though I found more benefit from my time with a Life Coach who helped me think about how to be committed without having to be emotionally attached to the work I do. They helped me to think about my future, focus on what is important to me, and enabled me to step back and assess what is happening around me. 

Outside of work, I am taking more time to focus on the things that I need. This balance helps me to step away from the pressures of the week and provides an opportunity to unwind. It has not been a quick fix, but over time it has helped me to deal with much of the self-doubt and anxiety.

For anyone struggling to deal with stress, self-doubt or anxiety – you are not the only one. As someone who has struggled, I would highly recommend reaching out to someone for help, so you don’t have to try and deal with things on your own.

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