I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who has had adverse childhood experiences that have shaped me throughout my life in some way or another. For me, my experiences have included racism from a very young age, fear, anxiety, and the trauma that comes from physical, mental, verbal, and emotional abuse from my peer groups at school and in my neighbourhood growing up (“bullying” is such a tame word for what as an adult would be considered hate crime, physical assault, emotional manipulation and so forth), leaving me feeling crushed, broken, worthless, despised, disgusting, rejected and in so much pain and self-hatred (which was from the lies I was told about myself that I internalised as ‘reality’) that I no longer wanted to live.
Fast forward years of shyness, insecurity, fear of other people, withdrawal, depression, anxiety, an emotional breakdown, getting help, a course of medicine, trauma psychology, God’s loving restoration, new and positive friendships, and a lot of ongoing work on my part, and I am able to see things with greater perspective and not be in a constant state of breakdown, fight, flight, freeze or panic. It has been a long road, friends and it is an ongoing one.
I have ‘mentors’ who have helped me to follow my God-given desire to not allow these experiences to defeat me, but instead to be used as a source for healing for myself, and for good in the world and hopefully to help some other struggling soul find a greater insight into their worth as a human being and find empowerment even as I continue to discover these things for myself. My blog is a big part of this, as humble an effort as it may be, if you could see me back then as a broken and defeated child, then this is a miracle of God’s grace.
So, my friends, my question to you is, ‘what’s been eating you?’ and what are you doing with it? It may be a long road, but we do have the power of choice to allow it to make us better or bitter. Life can be unfair. This pandemic feels so unfair for so many people going through the worst of it. But what about you? What are the things that you are wrestling with today, in your life, in this season?
I have found inspiration and courage in my journey as I mentioned above, from my ‘mentors’. Maybe you’re thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have a mentor, and that I am somehow privileged to have these people in my life. But let me just clarify that I have never met these people, I have read their biographies, I have watched documentaries about them and I have followed them on You Tube, but something deep in their life stories, their strength to find the courage to keep going in extremely dark and tough circumstances is a testimony to me. These two ladies are Katie Piper, and Lizzie Velazquez and they have no idea that I exist! I also look up to Nic Vuijicic and there are so many more people from history and from present day that we can look to and people who I take inspiration from. Ultimately, my Source of sources of The most humble and yet greatest Overcomer, Is My LORD and King, Christ Jesus. Yet, I find something too in the stories of mere mortals to whom I can relate in our broken and fallen state.
So, back to you, my friends.
What is your experience of life at the moment? What is your experience of life in the pandemic? Are you feeling stuck in your struggles? Then lift your eyes to the reality that no matter how bad things have been or can get, life is full of overcomers, and you are one of them too.
It’s maybe not what you want to hear if you are in the place of suffering, and please hear me, I’ve been there. Who could possibly understand your pain, your experiences, who but you? Who but God? Christ Jesus knows, He loves. Yet whatever you believe, the thing is to dig deep. Overcoming only rarely happens in a flash, in an instant. For the most part, it is small, incremental, determined choices that have greatest effect when they stem from some greater vision.
I needed, in my pain, in my broken sobbing, in my frustration and anger and feeling the screwed up unfairness of it all of being victimised, and tormented by other people, to know that somehow there would be a meaning, a purpose, a future from it. Because without that, the ‘out’ we seek is death, and longing for the pain to just go away. Yet, friends, our paths have somehow converged to meet here today, and we meet with hope. There is a future, there is a greater plan, and there is a purpose, and if you feel hopeless, helpless and purposeless, I urge to to look to Jesus Christ, the One Who Redeems all things in time, and even if you aren’t there yet, then look to the examples of others who have overcome.
Ask yourself, what can make this better for you? Ask yourself whether you want to be like Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations, or whether you want to challenge the unfairness of life with refreshed vision and renewed hope.
I wrote down my vision that I wanted good to come out of my suffering and pain. I wanted to be able to be more than a victim, and I wanted to reach out and help lift someone else up ….someday. At the time, in my brokenness, it was all but an impossible dream. How could the helpless become the helper? Small steps forward everyday, by God’s grace, I have this blog, I can use words to help, encourage, inspire and heal, when for most of my growing up, words were used against me to mock, belittle, shame, hurt, curse and destroy me. We can live out our turnarounds. If I can, you can. Look up Katie Piper, Lizzie Velazquez, Nic Vujicic. Look up the more well known names of history who stood up against racism even at such great cost to themselves, look up those who discovered great things even though they were ostracised in their time, look up those who overcame disabilities, read about the lives of Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, find your own ‘mentors’ and discover your vision.
What are you going to do with your difficult experiences of the pandemic?
Are you struggling as a parent? Can you have a future vision to create some support network for others like you – even if that vision is for something in years to come, can you start small by sending an encouraging text to an anxious parent that you know?
Are you battling mental health issues? Can you have a future vision of being an ambassador for mental health issues by taking the first and often most difficult of steps by admitting you need help and reaching out to ask for it?
What is it that is challenging you right now? I believe that you are far better than choosing to be bitter. Take one small step, and seek for the greater Vision. And ask yourself, how can this make me better, and how can I make things better….even if the fruit of that will take years of small, determined and incremental steps of faith to appear? x
Grounding technique: keep a small, safe object handy for when you need to feel grounded. This could be something like a pebble or stone, something that won’t break easily, or perhaps some children’s ‘putty’ / play-dough that you can squeeze, or anything you think will help to ground you. Make sure that you can’t hurt yourself on it, that it doesn’t have sharp edges, won’t break if you hold or squeeze it, and that makes you feel calm when you hold it as a grounding object.
If you feel like you are experiencing anxiety, panic, dissociation, dizziness, confusion, intrusive thoughts or mental and emotional distress, use this object to help you ground yourself. Focus on how it feels to touch, what it looks like, observe it, the way the light touches it, its texture and so forth and focus intently on this safe object while calming your breathing. Keep it in your pocket or take it with you so that you can use this to help you when you need it. The good thing about a small object like this is that other people most likely will not even notice it in case you are worried about that.
Also, you can try the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ method as a grounding technique where you focus on being aware of your five senses. Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Breathing technique: to help with anxiety or panic, practice breathing well to calm your nervous system and stress (fight / flight) response. Breathe in deeply through your nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, and exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth for a count of 5. Allow your belly to rise on the in-breath, and to ‘deflate’ when you exhale. Repeat as often as required. Practice this even when you are not feeling anxious as it will help ‘reset’ your system from some of the stress responses you have been used to.
It’s 00:50 hrs. I can’t sleep. I’m in the midst of the healing process – not always comfortable – and I’m trying to distract myself. I’ve come a long way. A very long way. It’s miraculous that I’m here writing this, and sometimes I forget that. I forget it perhaps because in part I have tried to ‘block out’ the reality of what I had to go through to get here, in order that I can press ahead with my life. But if, like me, you’ve been through or are going through your own recovery process, then you’ll know that sometimes you just have to stop a while, before it all stops you.
Bits and pieces
My great desire is to be a voice of encouragement to someone else going through tough times, like me. Maybe that someone is you, and maybe you have something to share with the world to encourage each other too. I pray over this blog, and I believe that if you’ve stumbled upon it, then it’s not really ‘by chance’. In some way, beyond our understanding, maybe we are meant to connect, to allow our paths, our stories, our healing journeys to coincide.
If you’ve been through trauma, or any kind of suffering, perhaps in your younger, formative years, such that it affected your very sense of self and identity, and if you are a survivor, then you might recognise certain patterns in your psychological survival mechanisms after the circumstances have passed.
I’m not an expert, I’ve read and researched a bit, but I write mainly from painful experience, authentic, real, lived out experience. People wouldn’t know just from looking at me. Maybe you know what I mean?
First the trauma, maybe repeated trauma, maybe over a period of years. You’re in fight / flight / freeze mode, and ‘exist’ in that way even after the events have passed….long after….your body, mind, brain, nervous system – they’ve all been conditioned that way.
You’re not whole, your insides….well, they’re all in bits and pieces, just like your fragmented memories, your overwhelming emotions, your identity, your life.
Fortunately, life comes in waves, in seasons, and nothing stays the same. The darkest of days endure too long, but they also pass. However, even though the events, the seasons, the lived reality passes, it’s still in you, part of you, and you can’t just ‘shake it off’.
So you try to get away. At least, that’s what I did. You can’t always get away physically but perhaps you do. Some of the ways I tried to ‘get away’ from the mess and hurt of it all was to put my head down and ‘over achieve’. I focused on my studies, I aced them, but I couldn’t cope with human interaction. I was so, so very broken, and so terribly afraid. Can you relate? Maybe that’s part of your own story too?
Getting away also in some ways meant telling myself those things are behind me, even though I was crippled and shackled by the piercing pain, I tried to imagine my way out of things – to dream of a future, to overcompensate in trying to think of myself in a new way, whereas all of that was just trying to assuage a wound (as if trying to heal a disease with a band-aid / plaster) that was far too deep to be assuaged, without first coming to the surface in all its awfulness, exposed and therefore painful, leaving me vulnerable, but only then with a chance of real healing.
Breakdown or breakthrough?
Have you lived this too? When you can no longer cope with normal day to day things, when getting through and surviving really is just a facade, and your body, brain and all that you are just won’t let you go any further? The ‘disease’, the trauma in you, is screaming to get out, to be released….and ‘sorry kid, it’s going to hurt a heck of a lot for a long time before it gets any better’.
That’s the short, sweet and sugar coated summary of my experience. It HURT. Goodness, did it all hurt! You know what I’m talking about? Friend, you’re not alone.
What might breakdown look like? Unrelenting panic attacks, inability to function, severe depression, fear, anxiety, flashbacks, C-PTSD symptoms, suicidal ideation, dissociation, nightmares, poor health, weakness, being awake in a ‘nightmare’, avoidance, crying, helplessness, crippling pain, re-experiencing childhood trauma, poor relationships with food and other ‘crutches’ or control mechanisms, relationships falling apart, psychosis, and oh how the list can endlessly go on.
But if you imagine the state of play when someone has a disease, or needs to undergo an intensive operation, then you know logically that things have to get a whole lot worse before they begin to get any better. And perhaps the breakdown is a gateway to a breakthrough. Pus is released, the ‘boil’ is lanced, the intensive operation gets to the ‘root’ of the problem, and only through this messy, painful and unpleasant ‘recovery’ process can things begin to heal.
And truly, we need a Great Physician to do that deep healing work, that purification, bringing the forgiveness, healing, love and restoration that only Christ can bring.
When you want to move forward but your body and mind won’t let you.
I have to encourage myself right now and I hope I can encourage you too. It’s admirable that we’ve got this far, and that we have a vision of leaving it all behind to positively press on into a brighter and purposeful future where we can use the pain and trauma to do good in the world and to help other people.
We’ve got the vision, the goals even plans, but our bodies are in some kind of psychological and emotional toxic shock and we are ‘stuck’. Recovery doesn’t happen over night. We get help, we learn tools and techniques, we cry out for Help and we receive a touch of Grace. But recovery is seldom a linear process and that is a tough and frustrating reality.
Building blocks and stepping stones.
But just for a minute, in case you are getting discouraged, think of how far we have come already. Sure, it would be great to not feel that turmoil of mind, and just press ahead and accomplish what we want to, but we need to be aware of what our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits are saying to us for they might be all telling us to slow down, even to stop….and to heal.
It takes time, practice and patience. It is frustrating, and tough. But these building blocks are stepping stones to the future, and we can’t miss out these ‘baby steps’….of learning to crawl, to breathe, before we can consider walking, running, or even some day taking off in flight, to soar far above the rubble we’ve left behind.
What about right now?
I’m advising myself, that sometimes we’ve just got to sit through it, bear with it, ‘tough it out’, and let the healing process have its place. We need time and space to get better, and sometimes that means admitting what we perceive to be a (temporary) ‘failure’ – of realising what we can’t do, at least not right now, and giving ourselves the time to recover, train and grow strong so that someday we can do it.
Right now, I’m holding on, being Held, muddling through, finding perspective. You know what I mean, right?
This is it, and this is where ‘life happens to be’ right now – no great offerings of advice, just telling it as it is, and hoping that together we can find the strength and courage to take that one next step in the right direction. I’m rooting for you, and I hope you’re rooting for me too. Be blessed. x
Anxiety can leave you feeling pretty small. If you battle against anxiety, you know that this ‘nemesis’ can leave you feeling overwhelmed, underprepared, backed up against a wall, cowering in a corner with your hands over your face, wishing it all would just go away. But guess what? You lived to fight another day. And if you stay in training, one day you will find that you have the courage to step away from that corner, lift your head high, tell anxiety who’s boss, and win the battle as you take the next step to accomplish your goal however big or small that goal might be. Don’t get me wrong, anxiety like most opponents doesn’t give up easily…winning one battle doesn’t mean that you won’t face others in the future, but as you stay in training, build resilience and learn how to use your ‘armoury’ then you will become increasingly stronger and better prepared so that it doesn’t continue to overwhelm your every day life in such a debilitating way as it might be doing just now.
You’ll probably realise, and if you’ve read my previous blog posts on related issues then you’ll know, that I speak from years of painful experience in this regard. However, I have learnt a fair bit in this difficult journey, it certainly has been a battle against a persistent foe, but as small as we might be feeling when experiencing anxiety, panic attacks and related conditions, we can become ‘superheroes’ in our own way as we overcome our own battles, and use our increasing skills and strength to help others.
You are not alone
I know how debilitating living with Generalised Anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, etc can be. My heart goes out to you if you are overwhelmed by these things just now. I’d love to share with you some of the things I’ve learned that help me make progress on this journey. It continues to be a daily challenge, however, it does get better the more you understand. Actually, the reason I started writing this was prompted by almost having a ‘meltdown’ this evening because I couldn’t find an address that I needed, but I was able to ‘talk myself out of that corner’ that I felt backed up against.
Quick tips for your training to become a ‘superhero’ in your fight against anxiety.
Arm yourself with knowledge – know your opponent.
You can’t really win this fight if you don’t know what you’re up against. I know the fear of feeling that your head and heart are about to explode, hyperventilating and feeling that you will be sick (or in my case, actually being sick a couple of times), collapsing physically in a heap, feeling dizzy, stressed, and worrying that you might be going crazy because of the relentless and unceasing bombardment of thoughts firing at you like arrows from all sides.
Knowing that these are ‘normal’ symptoms of a condition that many people share was one of the first steps for me for making sense of things and lessening the fear that something far worse was happening to me. So find some recommended resources – there are plenty out there such as MIND in the UK https://www.mind.org.uk/ but there will be plenty of others that can help explain to you what’s going on in your body, brain and nervous system. You’re not going crazy if you’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks – you are in fact incredibly brave as each small thing that may seem easy or effortless to other people, is a monumental task for us.
2. Get support from a professional.
I am so blessed and thankful that living in the UK I have free access to health care, including support for mental health conditions such as anxiety. I had to face in myself the ‘stigma’ that I felt in reaching out for help but things had got to such a point that after years of stress my body was overloaded with stress hormones and I physically and mentally couldn’t cope any more. I needed support, and actually reaching out to get that, as scary as I felt it was at the time, and as reluctant as I was, is one of the best things I have done in my recovery.
Work at getting rid of and overcoming any stigmas you might have about getting help for mental health. Just as you wouldn’t feel ashamed about getting help for a broken arm, for diabetes or migraines or other physical conditions, you and I have no reason to feel ashamed if the chemicals in our brains, our hormones, nervous systems and consequently our thoughts are ‘not working properly’. Nor would you sit at home trying to repair your own broken arm, or at least I hope you wouldn’t, so learn from my mistakes of trying to get through things on my own for so many years, and losing out on quality of life and suffering more than necessary, by getting help from someone who knows and understands what is going on. If you live in a country where you have to fund your own health care, try to find out if there are charitable groups with a strong background in mental health that can offer you some support, phone a related helpline and ask if someone can help you understand what’s going on, access online resources, including YouTube videos such as those by licensed therapist Katie Morton – she is lovely and explains things very well. But don’t try to go it alone when you don’t need to. Even ‘Batman’ has backup, so why shouldn’t you? 🙂
3. Friends, family and a support network.
Related to this, share with trusted friends and family members and try to build up a support network. You might not like the sound of this at first, but you won’t always be what you might feel is ‘the needy one’. You are strong too and can reciprocate help. Having friends and family involved to supplement the support from professionals, rather than feeling like you are overburdening people who might not have the resources to help, can be a big part of your recovery, and your training on your ‘superhero’ journey 🙂 Just knowing that you have someone who is aware that you might need a bit of encouragement when you both are walking into a crowded room, or going out with friends, or that you might need a bit of extra time as ‘leeway’ when leaving the house to meet them because anxiety can strike when you’re not expecting it, can help build and preserve understanding within these relationships. You might find that they also struggle and that you can be sources of mutual support to each other.
4. Breathe, breathe, breathe!
You and I really need to practice this regularly and stay in training. This is one aspect of becoming resilient that we cannot afford to neglect. Breathing properly is essential for life. It is also essential for quality of life. When we panic, we hyperventilate, we breathe short, shallow breaths, sometimes ‘gulping’ in air, or holding our breath, and we can breathe erratically and too frequently. Everything speeds up! We send our bodies and brains into fight / flight / freeze mode, adrenaline and cortisol go up, we might start pacing up and down, looking for a ‘way out’, sweating, crying or facing a melt down. An inevitable response is that we then have to contend with racing thoughts, mostly negative and self-deprecating, or ‘catastrophising’ about the situation and imagining the worst which means our anxiety goes up rather than coming under control.
This is why breathing properly is so essential. I know, I know, ‘it’s easier said than done’, right? That’s true, but it’s also not as hard as you think. You’ve seen in films how someone panicking might be given a paper bag to breathe into, and gradually the pace and intensity of their breathing calms down. You don’t need a paper bag, but you do need to breathe in a more helpful way. Try this – breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, breathing so that your belly rises on the in breath, hold the breath for 4 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 5. There are different variations on this for the amount of time, but the main thing to remember is breathe in through the nose, hold, and breathe out through your mouth, allowing your tummy to rise and fall with the in and out breaths, and making sure that you exhale for just a bit longer than you inhale. This helps to regulate the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your system, calms the nervous system and get you out of the ‘fight / flight / freeze’ state into being more in control of your body and mind.
We need to keep practicing this though, daily. Start small, for a few seconds at a time if that’s all you feel you can manage, and then just build from there and keep going – it works wonders! At first I felt frustrated when doctors kept on at me about the breathing when I felt I needed something more to help me, but simplicity is really the key sometimes, and just trust me they know what they’re talking about when they prescribe ‘breathing’ properly as the medicine you need! Sometimes, as the saying goes, the best things in life really are free!!! 🙂
This is a very personal journey, so ask for advice, information and guidance from healthcare professionals. Tell them what your concerns and symptoms are and consider whether taking medicine to help with anxiety, might be a helpful option for you, even if just in the short term to take the edge off things.
6. You are what you think?
Be transformed by renewing your mind. Challenge and intercept your negative thoughts, and grow in understanding of the connective cycle between thoughts, feelings, reactions and actions. You might need help with this at first, but it is essential, and as with breathing, it is a daily and lifelong training we need to maintain. Initially it feels impossible to rise up from the onslaught of negative thoughts incessantly bombarding our minds, and they seldom turn up alone. But if you can address and intercept your thoughts then you can gain mastery over your physical, mental and emotional reactions.
Stay in training even on good days, because if out of the blue anxiety strikes you will be better placed and practiced to talk yourself down into a calmer more rational state of body and mind, as I was this evening when facing a potential ‘meltdown’.
For example, if you have to walk into a room full of people, you might be indulging in negative self-talk such as “I’m so awkward, everyone’s looking at me, I can’t do this, I need to get out of here” etc. This leads to feelings of stress, anxiety, self-consciousness, fear, shame, awkwardness, distress, low self esteem, and so forth. You then might react with a racing heart, hypervigilance, wringing your hands, keeping your head down, avoiding eye contact, clenching your fists, while experiencing symptoms of dizziness, nausea, pain, etc. This leads you to take the actions of walking quickly to where you’re going, avoiding eye contact with others, or seeking an exit (don’t worry, I do this often but I’m working on it, and getting better gradually and you can too) or make excuses to leave. Alternatively, you might have a ‘fight’ reaction and snap at someone, become agitated in your movements, or you might ‘freeze’ like a rabbit startled by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, which is often what anxiety can feel like.
See how powerful a thought is! So, instead, focus on your breathing, arm yourself with new, positive and affirming thoughts such as ‘I can do this’, and keep practicing these and see how much better you come to feel over time. Basically, you need to learn to ‘be your own best friend’ in all of your self-talk and thought processes – it takes a lot of hard work, but we all need to keep at it to see the benefits.
7. Five, four, three, two, one.
A simple and helpful ‘grounding’ technique has been so beneficial to me, so please do try it yourself and keep practicing even on good days to train your mind. Observe 5 things you can see, four things you can hear, three that you can touch, two that you can smell and one that you can taste. This really helps get us out of our own heads, grounds ourselves in reality and helps us feel safe.
8. Brain training
You’ll be amazed at how much your brain is capable of when you put in the work to take care of your mental health. Brain training is a good and enjoyable way to start, and this might take the form of puzzles, cross words, card games, mind challenges, riddles, touch typing, learning a new language or skill, etc.
9. Exercise and Nutrition
Just as we need to exercise our brains for health and well being, physical exercise, even starting small at first for 5 minutes a day if you are not used to it can boost our endorphins, our ‘happy hormones’, lift our mood, help our bodies, brains and nervous systems and regulate our emotions, while fuelling ourselves with healthy and nutritious foods and water can boost our mood and also help us feel calmer and more balanced.
10. Sleep – Zzzzzzzz!
Good sleep is something I struggle with and have to keep working on. Often I feel anxious before going to bed and can’t settle, or my sleep might be interrupted. I need to work on this, we all do, but little by little, step by step we can make improvements so that we can reap the healing benefits of sleep and rest. Even if we can’t sleep, we can practice stilling our minds, and disconnecting from the overload of online information and chatter, so that we are in a more restful and rejuvenating state.
So that’s my top 10 for now. No one said it is going to be easy, but you and I deserve a better quality of life than we have with anxiety, and it is possible…we are superheroes afterall! 🙂 x
Presumably, if you are reading this, then either you are struggling with this issue currently, have done in the past, know or help someone who is affected, or are interested in broadening your knowledge.
To provide some context, and as workplace stress and anxiety can be complex issues stemming from numerous factors including bullying, team dynamics, line management, industrial disputes, and so on, I am limiting this to addressing anxiety in the workplace as a result of an existing anxiety disorder such as GAD – generalised anxiety disorder – (or other related conditions), anxiety caused by environmental factors, or a combination of these. The topic is so wide ranging that we need to hone our focus in order to find some benefit. That being said, I’ll focus on the office environment and what you can do to cope better.
Investigate A good starting point if you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious in your work environment is to make a list of what you are finding difficult. Breaking it down like this helps to avoid breaking down yourself! Considering our stressors in small, more ‘manageable chunks’ can help us develop a clearer course of action, and take things forward step by step.
For example, things that can be making you anxious could include, but are not limited to:
– Struggling with your work tasks, or needing training.
– Overhead lighting causing headaches.
– Noise from colleagues.
– A variety of sensory inputs such as movement, especially if you are in an open plan environment with a number of colleagues.
– Interruptions: colleagues turning up at your desk, unannounced, to discuss a piece of work, or to have a chat, can be quite unsettling if you are of an anxious and sensitive disposition.
– Team dynamics.
– Difficulty concentrating on your work tasks because of the environment, and too much going on, resulting in anxiety about getting your work tasks done well and on time.
-Feeling overwhelmed or overpowered by the environment and by more talkative, loud, assertive or aggressive people around you.
– The journey / travel to and from work. – Other: you fill in the blanks……..
Perhaps you could set yourself this task right now, as we go through this together, to write down a list of what is ‘stressing you out’ in the workplace context, with the above as a guide or starting point. Hopefully, making a list of key issues will be helpful in moving in the direction of finding solutions, or ways at least to alleviate the severity of the anxiety and distress you may be experiencing.
2. Know your Rights
Arming yourself with knowledge about workplace policies, and appropriate legislation, can provide you with the confidence to feel you know where you technically stand as an employee in relation to your company / employer, even if you don’t actually plan on acting upon this knowledge or raising your issues formally. Just having a better idea of workplace rights and responsibilities should boost your confidence a bit to be able to negotiate the situations you are in while knowing that you yourself are conducting yourself appropriately.
Within the UK, The Equality Act 2010 is an important piece of legislation that highlights the legal responsibility that employers have towards people from ‘protected characteristics’. This covers disability, which includes mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. You may have to have a clinical diagnosis by a health professional, but it certainly helps to know that your employer has a duty of care towards you to provide what are called ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace so that you are not disadvantaged due to your condition. This is likely to be easier, although not necessarily without issue, to raise within the public, third and voluntary sectors. Having only worked for these, I can’t really speak about the private sector, but my guess is that there may be more or different challenges in this respect within private companies. I have had challenges myself, but this has been more to do with individuals and their lack of understanding or will to help rather than the organisation’s stance. Overall, despite a few initial hurdles, I have been treated very well once being able to present evidence of my diagnosis, in relation to being able to have open dialogue about reasonable adjustments. Having very helpful Union Reps has also been beneficial in having people to advocate for me, especially as formal meetings and such like, as I am sure you are well aware from your own experience, can be particularly difficult if you suffer from anxiety and related conditions.
If you live outside of the UK, different legislation may apply, so do a bit of research and get to know where you stand. Like I said, you may not end up taking things forward formally, but it will help you to have more confidence when you know what your rights and responsibilities within the work place are, and are not.
3. Find an ‘Ally’
Problems are generally less daunting when you are not facing them alone. There may be various sources of support available to you within the workplace such as a trusted colleague and friend, a union representative, HR support, or if you are very fortunate, a good line manager. Even if you can’t identify any of these as being available to you right now, chances are you will have a friend or family member who knows of your challenges with anxiety, whom you could phone for a chat during your lunch break. Keep things in balance though, as sometimes during our more difficult times we can find it hard to cope, lack belief in our own abilities to manage and this can lead to being overly dependent on other people for reassurance, and therefore putting a stress on our relationships. Don’t be afraid to share with your trusted friends and family members, but make sure you establish mutually healthy boundaries, and recognise that they may not be able to be there for you all the time, or may also have challenges of their own to deal with, and try to maintain a healthy balance, working towards getting stronger and more resilient yourself.
If you have the opportunity, you may find it beneficial to participate in a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to address your anxiety issues, some form of psychological support or talk therapy, and / or on the advice of medical professionals, consider the option of taking medication to alleviate the harsher symptoms of anxiety. Don’t feel pressured to make a decision or do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Ask questions, talk things through with your doctor, do your research and come to your own conclusions, but know that there are a variety of supports and helps out there for you, and that in the UK we are especially fortunate to have a free health care system in the NHS. The good thing about professional support with anxiety is that you will be speaking to someone who is knowledgeable, trained and can provide you with a context and explain that what is happening to you during an anxiety or panic attack is perfectly normal, and has biological as well as psychological ‘explanations’ and causes. You also know that your ‘relationship’ with your health professional is for your support, therefore you should have no personal burden to manage boundaries within this context as you will be guided and supported in this, you don’t have to worry about being ‘needy’, or reciprocating as the interaction will be purposeful and focused on helping you overcome your symptoms and understand your condition better. If you feel uncomfortable with the professional you are working with, you are entitled to ask for a change. Part of the difficulty with anxiety is that you might find yourself, as I did, experiencing a lot of things that don’t make sense to you, and not understanding fuels your fears and further heightens your anxiety and distressing thoughts such as wondering whether something is wrong with you, are you going mad, are you having a heart attack, going to die, what on earth is happening? The step by step approach that medical professionals can offer you can be the first step to overcoming your anxiety and taking control rather than allowing your symptoms to control you. This has helped me greatly, to realise and have someone explain that what I experienced was ‘normal’ and that there were biological and medical / scientific reasons for this. Then step by step, with help I was encouraged to work on my breathing to challenge the fight / flight response my body went into which made the anxiety worse, to work on breaking the unhealthy cycle of negative thinking as this directly impacts my body, and to realise that I actually could get control. Understanding is key to this process, so see it as a strength rather than a weakness to ask for help – because who knows, your knowledge may one day help someone else, and maybe even change their life for the better, and surely that is an act of courage and not an act of weakness!
4. Figure out what is within your power to change
If you want to ask your employer for reasonable adjustments then it is very helpful to have an idea yourself what you would like these reasonable adjustments to be, and why they will help. The exercise under point 1 leads nicely into being able to find potential solutions to your workplace stressors. It may be helpful to talk things through with someone before formally making a request from your employer, so that you can put forward a stronger case, and feel less anxious if you have already ‘done your homework’. If you have a supportive boss, union rep or colleague this may be a good place to start to explore your options. Similarly if you are finding that your anxiety is triggered by the behaviour of your colleagues, such as if someone unexpectedly turns up at your desk and starts talking about work and this triggers in you feelings of surprise or alarm, of feeling unprepared or caught off guard, then if you think they are approachable and sympathetic then you could suggest that they give you some advance notice by email, so you can prepare and know what to expect and when, at a time and place that is convenient to you both.
However, we don’t live in an ideal world and having such discussions with managers or peers at work can be challenging at times if not downright problematic.
So taking that as our imaginary ‘worst case scenario’ to be our starting point, let’s imagine that all of our requests for help and reasonable adjustments have fallen on deaf ears, our managers are totally unsympathetic and our colleagues are forgetful and don’t really understand or care what anxiety is anyway, so don’t make much of an effort to help, and in the end there’s nothing we can do to make other people change or be understanding or supportive, other than raising the issue formally, which as a person with anxiety, I’m guessing you are hesitant – even in this imaginary situation – to do.
So, what can you practically do to find relief from workplace anxiety, and have a better time at work?
1. Be a solution seeker (here I will suggest what you can do on your own, as well as provide ideas for reasonable adjustments that you can ask for).
Noise: Let’s say for example, it is far too noisy for you to work comfortably.
One thing I do, and which is acceptable in my workplace (but probably wouldn’t be if you worked on Reception / the front desk, so consider your situation appropriately and professionally) is to listen to my MP3 player, using earphones, and having a playlist that includes calming nature sounds such as ocean waves, birdsong and tropical rainforest sounds, as well as classical or instrumental music, worship music, and other encouraging things that help me ‘get through the day’ when it is noisy or chaotic around me.
You can take a break from your desk or office space, and walk around, or if you have quieter ‘breakout’ spaces, take some time out there, or sit by yourself for 5 or 10 minutes in a meeting room until you feel more able to handle the external stressors. Depending on your workplace ‘culture’ things may be more relaxed as to how often, when and where you take breaks, so you may even have the chance to go outside and get some fresh air. Conversely, you may be in a more difficult situation where you are ‘micro managed’ and feel more stressed if you were to take a break, so you will know best how to adapt to your particular situation, context and workplace culture.
Reasonable adjustments that you could suggest to your employer might include being placed in a smaller, quieter office space (although this can be a tough one if there is a shortage of space, and / or unfortunately if egos are at risk if this were to mean that someone higher up the hierarchy might have to make changes themselves or adapt in some way).
You could ask for access to a laptop, and to take time away from your desk to work in a quieter part of the building or in an available meeting room.
This one unfortunately is a ‘no go’ with my employer for me, but you might find that your employer is open to you having certain work from home days if the office environment is difficult for you.
Team Dynamics: Let’s try another one that is potentially less straight forward than the noise situation.
This time, our imaginary situation is one in which you feel anxious within your work team. There are conflicting personalities, workplace politics, gossip, an unequal distribution of work, and you find it difficult to contribute effectively in team meetings because you are often overpowered and struggle to get your voice heard or to find a way in when people talk over you.
Let’s break this down again, so that we can view the situation in more manageable parts to be addressed one at a time. I’ll address a few of the issues, and you can try to tackle the rest so that you have a chance to build up on your already existing problem solving skills.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about changing other people, other than to lead by example, and I believe to pray for them, for God Is the One Who Is able to bring forth deep and lasting transformation, not us.
What you can do is to take a step back to examine the situation and dynamics, so that you can gain an understanding of what is happening and how it affects you.
Say for example, there is a power struggle between two of your colleagues, that only gets worse over time. You don’t contribute or have a part in this, but it does affect you. At times you find yourself feeling like a pawn in their game as each one tries to ‘score points’, with you being caught in the middle. What can you do?
In a situation like this it may be very difficult to speak to either one or both parties about the effect it is having on you. But you might find that one colleague is sympathetic and willing to reflect upon how their behaviour is having a detrimental effect upon other members of the team, and make appropriate changes. However, tensions may be so high between the two of them, that they are unable or unwilling to address your needs.
Therefore, you will need to take control of your own situation. Are there any ‘red flags’ you’ve noticed that signal things are about to escalate? If you can spot these before things worsen between your colleagues, and if the situation isn’t a meeting, then there may be an opportunity for you to ‘slip away’ before things get heated. There are two things I feel I need to address. The first is that you are not responsible to be the ‘fixer’, mediator or the diplomat. The reason I say this is because it is a role I have felt I needed to take upon myself since childhood, perhaps partly because of my caring nature and being distressed by conflict. However, I need to remind myself and perhaps you need to be reminded too, that you have a duty of care towards yourself, to get, be and stay well, and if situations such as this put you at risk then you need to look after yourself. This also applies in terms of your feeling the need to protect and comfort other colleagues within the team who are similarly affected. Make sure you are strong first or you might find that you all bring each other down rather than helping others up. It’s easier said than done, and I definitely speak from experience. Now the second point, is that I am someone who is on an ongoing journey and my anxiety challenges have not gone away or been ‘fixed’ yet, and although I do manage my symptoms much better than before, it continues to be a learning curve for me. So my suggestion to extract yourself before the situation escalates is based on what I would do myself with my current coping mechanisms, but I am also aware that professionals advise that ‘avoidance techniques’ can keep people stuck within the cycle of anxiety and unhelpful thought processes and reactions. You’ll need to find a balance that works for you as there is no ‘one size fits all answer’, and we are all continuing to adapt and learn as we go through life…so please note that I am simply making, hopefully helpful, suggestions to benefit us both as we walk through this together. 🙂
– Taking yourself away from this conflict situation if you find there is nothing you can do (and I am assuming that you are not actually the manager of the team, which if you were, your roles and responsibilities would be different and you might have to ‘stick around’) could potentially stop your symptoms before they start. You could go to the bathroom, go to another part of the office, discuss work with a colleague from a different team if appropriate, step outside for some fresh air for a few minutes, make a cup of tea, and do some deep breathing exercises. All of these are reasonable behaviours if you don’t take too much time. Perhaps when you return the situation will be ongoing, but hopefully you would have used your time away to prepare yourself internally to be able to handle it without allowing your anxiety to escalate. Small steps…it is a process.
– Another thing you can do is to be aware of how your colleagues might affect you especially if you can’t get away from the situation. They might have predictable patterns of behaviour such as drawing you into their conversation / conflict, asking you to take sides or to back them up, or to confirm a statement they are making. This can be very distressing if you are caught off guard, have no idea what you should or shouldn’t say, or how to remain calm in the midst of this. If you can do some thinking when you are not in the situation, then as with forearming yourself with knowledge, you can also forearm yourself with preparing yourself for how you want to react or what you can say. Just as ahead of a job interview you would take time to prepare and practice your reactions and responses, this can be a helpful technique to use in workplace situations. If one of your colleagues has a pattern of drawing you into their conflicts, then you can prepare in advance a way to express that you feel it is not your place to contribute to the discussion, or you’d feel more comfortable if this was discussed in a team meeting with the rest of your colleagues, or whatever the most appropriate answer might be. Knowing ahead of time what you want to say will also mean that you will have more energy to put into saying it confidently and assertively, setting boundaries with your colleagues, and following through. If you are anxiously thinking of what to say or do, this will deplete your energy and inner resources to make a stand and assert yourself.
Also note that when a quieter, more anxious person is assertive – even if quietly so, this can take people aback who had previously thought you would simply acquiesce and allow them to sway or manipulate you. This in itself can help people realise, actually, they can’t take advantage of you, and is another way of setting healthy boundaries. Reasonable adjustments This can be a tricky one, but perhaps a potential reasonable adjustment in this situation could be to discuss your anxiety / panic disorder with your boss. You don’t need to mention the issues of conflict between them and their team, or between other colleagues, but you can express that you have panic attacks, explain what happens and how it makes you feel and request reasonable adjustments such as being able to excuse yourself if you feel an attack coming on when you are in a team meeting for example, or in discussions. Knowing you have the backing of your boss can be a reassurance in itself that alleviates your anxiety and makes you feel less trapped, and you don’t have to mention any other team dynamics at all if you don’t feel comfortable doing so at that stage.
Unkind colleagues: You may work with people who are unknowingly rude or overly frank in their conversations, who may have narcissistic tendencies or full blown narcissistic personality disorder, and / or who feel they gain power by putting other people down – this is usually because of their own insecurities. Such personalities are not uncommon in the workplace, and this can be particularly painful if the person treating you in this way is your boss, for there is an added power dimension that they feel gives them permission to unfairly pick away at your work, your personality, even your anxiety, or other issues. Bosses may often cross boundaries because of this unequal power dynamic, but that doesn’t make it right, fair or acceptable. Colleagues and peers can try to ‘get at us’ in similar ways too. They might be passive-aggressive, they may withhold information that is required for you to do your job, they may try to accuse or embarrass you in front of others, or they may not invite you to things that the rest of your team or group are part of and make no real attempt to hide the fact from you that you are being excluded. They may gossip about you or others, or they may offer the classic ‘complisult’ – a term I coined to describe someone who appears to be sweet as honey by giving you a compliment, but it actually giving you a backhanded insult. What do I mean? If you haven’t experienced it already then it comes in the form of something like, ‘Oh, you look really nice in that outfit…’ and rather than just leaving it there, continue to add ‘today. You must have lost a ton of weight, it fits you so much better now’. Em….’thanks’…. I think. People who do this often purposefully play on what they know to be your insecurities so because the insult is disguised as a compliment, you find yourself doubting yourself, focusing on the negative, asking ‘was I really fat before? What do they mean I’ve lost a ton of weight?’ and yet you defend them because actually they were being nice….weren’t they? Don’t be fooled. The complisult has injured many a precious, tender soul. If you can recognise it for what it is, you can choose to give it and the person no power over you to harm you or cause you emotional distress. Another one might be ‘well done, you finally got that right’. Is that actually a ‘well done’ for your good work, or a subtle yet sarcastic dig at you for being slow or ‘stupid’? Or, another ‘good’ one I’ve heard is ‘Ohhhh, you look so lovely today……not that I’m saying you usually look ugly of course’. Ouch. Often ‘complisults’ are given in public, to make you feel worse, and accompanied by a joke or a laugh so that if you see or take any offence it will be perceived as you being humourless, ‘overly sensitive’ (why is that even seen as a bad thing in this world?) or not being able to have fun with your colleagues or otherwise ‘deficient’ in some other way. Unkindness is unkindness no matter how well it is disguised. A sincere and kind person will say something nice, encourage and build you up, and leave it at that. There will be no doubting their motives because their character and actions follow through with their kind words, and they won’t intentionally do anything to hurt you or make you feel bad, nor will they be kind to you in order to gain something from you in return. These are the kinds of trusted people you want to have in your life, and the kind of person you’d want to be.
As to reasonable adjustments, I don’t see what you could do here, but if you can see something please let me know. Please note that I use the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ very loosely here because it is not necessarily a factor affecting your condition, but simply inappropriate and rude behaviour from a colleague that should not be accommodated for or accepted. However, unless a person’s behaviour is overtly unacceptable and also witnessed by others, then it can be difficult to address something that could be interpreted as a subjective opinion rather than a blatant code of conduct issue. If it is presented as ‘harmless office banter’ then it might be even more difficult to address. However, don’t let that discourage you.
You may have to do a lot of deep work personally to really get strong. People who pinpoint your weaknesses know that there is a wound or issue they can ‘get at’. Rather than seeing this as something that is defeating you, rise up, have faith and hope, and use it as an opportunity to address the lies you have been believing. You are precious, special, unique, intelligent, beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made and worthy, no matter what people say. Work hard at replacing the lifelong lies with Truth. Believe me, I know how tough a battle this is, but if you start believing in your own worth, the arrows will eventually be unable to pierce you at all. Let’s believe we can conquer that mountain! And you may even get to the gracious place of forgiveness and strength in being able to see the other person with compassion, and as doing these things because of their own feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem.
If you are being bullied, harassed, unfairly treated or victimised in some way, I encourage you to keep a private log of what is happening. Make a note of dates, times, context, what was said or done, the effect it had, and were there witnesses present. Was information withheld, were you intentionally excluded, has this been a pattern of behaviour rather than a one off incident? If you can build up a picture, and evidence then you are in a better position to be believed. Make sure you have an email trail, or written evidence of unacceptable communication from your colleague.
Additionally, don’t suffer in silence. If you can’t raise an issue with the person in the first instance, seek out the help of a sensible, wise and appropriate mediator, such as someone with that role in the organisation, a union representative or maybe an HR person. Once again, arm yourself with knowledge of your company or organisations and policies in relation to bullying and harassment.
Can you think of any solutions you can seek in relation to some of the more ‘straightforward’ items listed under point 1?
What about lighting issues, or the journey too and from work? What about people interrupting you during your lunch break if you eat at your desk? Can you make any more positive changes? Remember you don’t need to stay at your desk all day, indeed it is encouraged that you don’t.
I encourage you to try this exercise with a situation that applies to you, or has done in the past, and one which is purely hypothetical. This will help you to exercise and train your ‘mind muscles’ and mental agility to seeking solutions to problems, and knowing that anxiety can be put in its place when we take the time to do so.
I think that’s probably quite a lot to think over for now, but depending on the response, I may return with a ‘Part 2’ to this topic. Are there any particular workplace stressors in relation to what I’ve written above that you would like me to try to address?….I’ll do my best, even if that means starting afresh and seeking out solutions together if our shared staring point is initially not knowing the ‘answer’. It is another step to getting stronger together and living out the hope that we are stronger than our symptoms of anxiety. 🙂 Believing is the first step to achieving. Xx
Also, just to let you know, working in an office isn’t all bleak, there are a lot of great things about it, and maybe that will also be a future blog post to encourage you with. 🙂 x
It’s 2.15am. I’m in bed, but clearly, I’m not sleeping. It’s just one of those nights when I’ve been ‘triggered’ and my anxiety issues have resurfaced. Things are so much better than they used to be. I used to not be able to sleep or settle down until maybe 3 or 4am, and even then I would be fearful, stressed and sometimes struggling with nightmares. My system was in overdrive, and fight, flight or freeze was all that it knew.
Thankfully I’ve worked so hard and have reaped some benefits from my disciplined changes along the difficult journey of recovery and self care. But I need to remind myself that it is a journey, a process, and one that others often don’t understand because things might seem ok or even good for a time, which is why it is important for me to learn to communicate and honour my own needs for wellbeing and to feel ok to say ‘no’ even when I or other people want me to, or think that I ‘should’ say ‘yes’.
It’s not an easy thing to do. So often we put the needs of others before our own, and I have done this many a time, and in the long run we are neither helping ourselves or them. For if we burnout or break down how can we be strong for anyone else?
I think it’s the ‘little things’ that are beginning to get to me, and to cause those stress reactions to ‘flare up’, the cortisol, the adrenaline and so forth leading to heightened anxiety, sleeplessness, worry, fear, racing thoughts trying to figure things out and ‘keep everyone happy’.
And maybe, just maybe, if you’re reading this, you too can relate, and are maybe even looking for some reassuring advice or guidance. And maybe you’ve come to the right place, where you can hear the thoughts of someone who has lived through and survived the horrible experiences of panic attacks, being sick at work, crying in public and feeling like my brain was exploding in its own kaleidoscopic nightmare.
If you’ve been there and have as a result been exploring ways and means to not only manage your symptoms and conditions better, but to also build ‘self care’ into your life, or if you’re still going through what feels like the worst of it just now, then firstly, know that you are not alone, and you can be an overcomer, don’t ever give up.
But if you have come through the worst of it, and are managing or maintaining things at the moment, then perhaps you are aware of those subtle ‘tell tale’ warning signs and ‘triggers’ that alert you to the fact that things might be getting off kilter a bit, and that you might be allowing external (and / or internal) demands to encroach upon your well being and send you down that slippery slope once again. It is important to have that self awareness, because no one else can really know what we are experiencing. And sometimes because they don’t know, we feel the need to have to please everyone, all of the time, even to the detriment of our own health.
The people at work don’t necessarily know about other parts of my life, just as the people outside of my work aren’t aware of the stresses I might face day to day as part of a normal workplace environment. And so they may not be aware of how cumulative factors can cause their seemingly good, reasonable and perfectly acceptable request or requests to add to the subtle or not so subtle build up of stress.
As you can see, earlier last month I was out and about – I got back into my work routine, did some photography on snowy days, went to various music events, socialised and began my ‘home projects’. Additionally, I kept appointments with my doctor who is helping me work through managing my symptoms etc, and eventually leading up to ‘going it alone’ more with less intervention. All positive things, but not necessarily smooth sailing.
I find blogging a good way to make sense of things and find my calm and balance in some ways. I also have found a new church that I love to go to, after a few years of not having anywhere like that. I’m still new there, but I feel more connected with God and His people, and it is a good environment to be built up spiritually and to show and receive love, and to reach out and help others. However, the process for me of getting there can be stressful. The requests to attend colleagues birthday events, to see friends and family and to keep on top of work commitments while having started my ‘decluttering project’ can begin to trigger those stresses. So I need to give myself permission to say ‘no’ sometimes. To look after myself so that I can be better at being there for others, as well as honouring God with what He has given to me, and realising that my wellbeing and self care is important. Often other people aren’t aware of what you’re experiencing, and if you let them know maybe they’d be pretty understanding and help to ease your sense of obligation when you feel that you’re beginning to struggle. I don’t know if I’ll say no, or yes, or a combination of the two, but I know that I need to consider my responses carefully, and that that’s ok.
I hope you are doing ok, and that you remember to take care of yourself and take ‘time out’ and say ‘no’ if you need to. After all it was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, so maybe one less load to carry will help you to stay well and healthy and stronger in the long run.