Eighteen months ago, I stood up in a room of about 20 people. The plan was to share my team’s results from the previous year and talk through the priorities for the year ahead.
I knew straight away something wasn’t right. I’d done my usual “no breakfast, massive Starbucks coffee” start to the day, and now my heart was pounding and I felt tight. I’ve never particularly liked presentations, but early in my career I forced myself into situations where I had to do them and had got to a place of reasonable competence.
But that day I felt twitchy and strangely emotional. I was so proud of what my team had achieved, but the thought of sharing the results was bringing a lump to my throat.
Mid-way through slide two, my heart was going nuts. I was sweating profusely and felt tight in the chest to the point where I was breathless. I had to stop and leave the room.
How it all started
Looking back, I have had anxiety since I was little. My mum is wonderful, but suffers chronically from it. On top of that, my parents had an unhappy marriage when I was young, and I lived in the room next door to them. I felt responsible for keeping them together and ended up being constantly on ‘high alert’, waking up with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every day.
Fast-forward, and after I left university, I was lucky enough to start my career on a graduate programme at one of the big fmcg companies. I could not believe I made the cut!
From day one, I was on a mission. I lived and breathed work and didn’t sleep nearly enough. I questioned nothing that was asked of me and tackled everything head-on, fuelled by a belief that I wasn’t good enough, that my chances of success were slim to none, and that to succeed I would have to be perfect.
I made it through the programme and was promoted again within a year. Anxiety was my drug, and I abused it wholeheartedly, using it to fuel a relentless work ethic and quest for perfection.
Confronting ‘the ghost’
In my fourth year at the company I sat down for a coaching session with HR. I approached my development plan like I approached work, at 100mph! Every bit of feedback was analysed and turned in to Excel spreadsheets, with plans to improve.
Our HR partner was not impressed. Instead of marvelling at my commitment and diligence, she questioned me. Why do you think you are so driven? Where do you think it comes from?
She saw straight through me, realising my approach was unsustainable. After an hour-and-a-half of questions, she stepped out of coach mode and gave me one piece of advice: “Don’t let the ghost drive you.”
I had never heard this saying before, but she had figured out within 90 minutes that I was driven by negative thoughts, feelings and attitudes. She was telling me to stop, become comfortable with my abilities and believe my strengths were my assets. Much to my regret, I completely ignored her advice.
So, back to my presentation 18 months ago.
After I had to leave the room, I quickly made my excuses: ‘Must be a virus’, ‘not feeling well’. To the more experienced operators in the room, however, it was clear what had happened: I’d had my first anxiety attack.
A few weeks later, and with other symptoms growing, my wife brought up the idea of getting some help. Given my mood and general state of wellness, I was in no position to argue with her suggestion.
After seeing a therapist a few times, I underwent a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. It didn’t feel game-changing at the time, but it has genuinely made a huge difference.
First and foremost it has started to provide perspective on the day-to-day effect anxiety has on both my professional and personal life, as well as helping me talk more openly and honestly about my struggle with it.
Having never had therapy or help for mental health previously, I would be the first to admit that I was both slightly hesitant and sceptical. But I now see it as a positive, proactive and necessary step to ensure my mental wellbeing. I am learning how to manage my mental health and accept help – something I could not have admitted to a couple of years ago.
How the industry can help support people with anxiety
Over the past 10 years, jobs and lives have changed immeasurably. There is pressure to be available around the clock, as well as an expectation of enhanced transparency in terms of the results we deliver, and the changing climate in which we must deliver them.
Our attitudes towards mental wellbeing need to shift too. Seeking and having therapy is still seen as a weakness by many, as opposed to a logical response to an illness. I am writing this column anonymously partly because of this – I am not ashamed of my anxiety and am now comfortable (when asked) to talk about it very openly with friends, and I feel proud of the action I have taken to get better. I have less confidence, however, in sharing this in the workplaces we operate, for fear of being judged or treated differently as a result.
Still, I am hopeful that things are starting to change. The more we talk the more normalised it will become, and the more offices will adapt.
In another 10 years I think ‘office therapist’ will be a regular job title, and it won’t be a case of people sneaking in the door when no one is looking.