I have suffered on and off with anxiety for most of my adult life. For a long time, I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that there were periods when I felt out of perspective, frightened, unable to relax and overwhelmed by negativity – particularly in relation to work.
A lot of the time these feelings were ‘background noise’, but they came to a head for the first time in 2009 when I worked in a job that I hated, where pressure was high and my line manager was unsupportive. The combination of these things – an existential angst about not seeing the value in my role, combined with the stress of a high pressure workload, overwhelmed me. I couldn’t sleep, I was upset and panicked about ‘failing’ at my job, and I didn’t know where to turn.
Ultimately, I resigned from my job, went to my doctor who prescribed antidepressants and referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy, and I had lots of support from my wife and friends. I quickly got a new job doing something I cared about, and started seeing a therapist regularly to understand the underlying causes of my anxiety. Over the course of a few years I learned much more about my anxiety, where it came from (my thoughts and feelings about past experiences), how to manage it, and how to prevent it from becoming overwhelming.
Skip forward to 2015, and I had been working in a new organisation for around three months when a gradual increase in my anxiety levels suddenly turned in to full-blown panic attacks and debilitating depression. I frightened the life out of my wife when I woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe, incoherent, nauseous. The next day, I couldn’t face work. I couldn’t even get out of bed. My brain was a mess. I felt unable to make the most basic decisions, overwhelmed with fear and upset. My body seemed to be pumped with adrenalin, ready for fight or flight all the time.
It was a horrible, dark time and even though I had constant, incredible love and support from my wife, I couldn’t see my way out of it. I initially told my line manager only that I was sick, but after a couple of days I knew I couldn’t pretend and didn’t want to lie. Terrified though I was, I told her I was suffering from anxiety and depression. At the time, my brain didn’t immediately register that her response had been understanding, caring and without criticism. But gradually that sank in, and began to erode one of my strongest, most deeply held negative beliefs – that I would be considered a “failure” by those I worked with.
In retrospect, my manager’s reaction marked a significant turning point. I had a doctor’s appointment and was blessed to see a fantastic, experienced GP who knew what to do and how to talk through the experience and treatment options (I am well aware that many people don’t have such good experiences with GPs about mental health issues). She prescribed a substantial period of time off work, daily doses of an anti-depressant medication and I was referred for a refresher course of CBT. I talked at length with my wife and one or two close friends about what to do next, and particularly whether I should resign from my job – whether my work was the cause of the problem, or had been one of several ‘triggers’ alongside more fundamental personal trauma I had experienced that year. In the end, I realised that resigning, this time, was not the right approach. My work and my colleagues had not caused this to happen, and I knew that I had to try to address this head-on if I was to go forward in my life – to live without fear.
In hindsight, my obstinate stubbornness (family trait!) led me to throw literally everything at the problem in a somewhat comical way. I took medication, I went to CBT classes, I saw a therapist, I talked to friends, I talked to my manager, I went running every day, I downloaded a mindfulness app, I had massages. One of my closest friends came to stay for a few days at a critical point, relieving the constant pressure on my wife. Together, my friend and I painted the living room and did DIY – mindful and mindless tasks to give my brain a break from over-thinking.
Returning to work after two months off was very hard. I was really worried about what colleagues would think of me, and what they would say, and whether I would relapse. I didn’t. I found lots of people who cared how I was, tried to help, and several who confessed their own mental health stories.