How Work Helped Me Understand My Anxiety

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I love my job. I feel very privileged to feel fulfilled by what I do.  However, at times, I feel I’m in completely the wrong place. I have anxiety and my job is all about performance.

Almost everyday I am standing in front of strangers, telling stories, trying to engage the public in the history of the city where I lived for the past 5 years. I love the city, I love the past and it might surprise you to hear that I quite like people too. I like being part of a stranger’s holiday, showing them the best bits of where they are visiting and revealing stories they might otherwise have missed. But I feel sick almost every time.

Anxiety at Work
Sickness and nausea have always been prominent manifestations of my anxiety (and this post is going to talk about sick a lot!). My heart beats so fast that it feels it is propelling itself up my throat and into my mouth. I feel choked and hot and desperate to get away. But I don’t.

I am not sure whether fighting my natural flight instinct is actually positive. In the past I have known people be very disappointed to learn that I am a nervous, sensitive, really quite vulnerable human being. They have been shocked, sad, even very insulting. It has, occasionally, prevented me from getting the help that I needed (please, never let anyone, anything or any opinion, stop you from asking for help or seeking medical assistance, I did and it nearly killed me). Yet, if I didn’t fight my flight instinct, then I wouldn’t be where I am, or have done half of the things that I have done in my life; including starting this blog, taking part in poetry slams, or travelling alone to archaeological excavations abroad.

Anxiety in Childhood
I didn’t consciously try to overcome my flight instinct. It was a natural result of not knowing that there was a reason (termed anxiety) that I constantly felt sick. All I knew was that when I started school, I couldn’t continually tell my teachers, my friends or my parents that I felt unwell. Even at a young age, I realised that not everyone was physically sick every day of their lives. So I became very aware of how I felt. For instance, I knew that if I felt choked up by feeling my heart beating away in my throat, I wasn’t going to be physically ill, just very uncomfortable. If I felt sick in my stomach, that was a good time to mention something.

As I grew up, this learnt behaviour had become my normal. It helped me know that when hormones kicked in, my dad became ill and teenage romances inevitably ended, that how I was feeling in that moment, was not permanent. That tomorrow was a new day, it would have its own troubles, but it also had the potential of being a whole lot better.

I am grateful for this learnt behaviour. When I became an adult, it gave me the assurance that I would go to sleep and wake up feeling differently to how I felt when I went to sleep. I view sleep as resetting. Having a way to reset is really important if you have an illness that means that you do not always feel in control of your own mind. It is always harder to escape the bullying of your own brain, but even if I am already in bed, I find rolling over is another way to reset. I imagine it works because I am taking action. I am physically disengaging with that thought process. I can’t always mentally tell my mind to shut up, but I can physically send signals to my brain which distract it so I can break the thought spiral.

Exit Strategies
I started my first job when I was 15, washing dishes in the local pub kitchen. It was at this time that I started learning about exit strategies. Now I have one for everywhere I go. As I mentioned, my anxiety makes itself known by making me feel incredibly sick. Even with my learnt behaviour of knowing that I will not actually be sick, having an exit strategy is always reassuring, especially if I am in a cinema, theatre or performing in front of people. In such instances, feeling sick makes me worry that I will actually be sick, and therefore feel sicker. A good example of one of those thought spirals I was on about.

As a result, when I began to feel anxious and unwell, I would start running through all the options I had if I finally felt like I really might be sick. The toilets weren’t really an option as they were on the other side of the restaurant and I would cause a huge scene dashing across. The idea of causing disturbance or drawing attention was not conducive to reducing anxiety.

The alternative exit was out into the pub garden though the back door of the kitchen. No one would see me and it would have fresh air but given that I was frequently too anxious to tell what exactly might happen when, it could result in many unnecessary trips to the garden which would look very strange and not impress my employer when I was meant to be in the kitchen washing up.

The sink were I washed up was beneath a window which would often help me take a pause and calm down by momentarily removing me from the situation. It was also located two paces from the bin so that any food scraps could be disposed of quickly without interrupting the washing/drying chain. This was the strategy I had in place to try and keep my anxiety low-level. It was the simple reminder that if I was taken by surprise, a suitable receptacle was right there, drawing the least about of attention and causing limited disruption. Having an option in mind meant that I could once more feel in control, calmer and therefore the anxiety and nausea would disappear.

I still carry on this idea. Just remember that although having a receptacle in mind in case I am suddenly about to be sick may sound repulsive and gross, I am very rarely physically ill, it’s just a little trick I use to calm my mind and keep my anxiety in check. I try to sit in the aisle on planes and trains so that I can have easy access to the toilet, or, if I am travelling with my husband then I will sit next to the window with him between me and the next person so I can be discreet if necessary. On buses, I always have a bag or a jumper on my lap so I can bring it up to my face, and at my current work I always have a huge stash of tissues in my pocket.

At Work
It was during my time with the company I currently work for that I developed depression. This was in no way related to the work that I did, in fact for a long time my place of work doubled as being the space I would use for grounding when my anxiety reached unprecedented levels.

Some days I was in work for hours after my shift, I was just there, avoiding the world beyond that was making me feel stressed and overwhelmed. I would often take on additional shifts to give me an excuse to be there. It was very noticeable at university, the rest of the student staff would be swapping shifts or taking leave to complete assignments and revise for exams and it was usually me picking up their unwanted work.

With this in mind, it is probably not surprising that my anxiety went through the roof during my final year of university, and that was without everything else that was going on. My dissertation became the trigger. In the end, I never finished it. It was handed in but the discussion was underdeveloped and there was no conclusion. I was lucky that what I eventually submitted was considered good enough for me to pass.

The doctor who diagnosed me made the relationship between my history of anxiety and my comparatively sudden development of depression make sense. As I mentioned before, anxious had become my normal, I could appear completely calm despite being almost permanently tied up in knots on the inside. However, my dissertation had resulted in so much adrenaline that my body stopped being able to produce it. By this point my body was used to being fuelled by adrenaline and when it suddenly dipped because I burnt myself out, my mental wellbeing imploded.

Applying Psychology to Experience
My A-level Psychology class taught that there are two main ways that stress is processed: escape avoidance and positive reappraisal. The terms are very descriptive but in short, escape avoidance is actively avoiding the trigger, whether that is a task, a place or an environment, whereas positive reappraisal is strategizing and working through or around the stressor.

During the first three years of university I lived with a friend who copes with stress in the complete opposite way to me and this led to an very enlightening conversation. I am very much an avoider of things that stress me out, so I fill my time with other things and get on with the trigger task when I absolutely have to, at the very last minute. My friend on the other hand, develops strategies and works on the task almost continually until it is completed. This made our lifestyles look polar opposite, and sometimes we did wonder what on earth we could possibly have in common (we are still friends so it wasn’t just flat-sharing which meant we got along). What I learnt from the conversations we had was that our responses to stress were normal and natural for us.

Whilst habits can be learnt, broken and changed, we should not beat ourselves up because we are naturally predisposed to act in a way that is opposite to the habit we are trying to develop. For example: I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. I really enjoyed the book, it’s easy to read and full of great advice. Most of the techniques are what my positive reappraisal friend naturally does. For me, as an avoider, I have put some the strategies in place and had instant results, and others that, although they have been simple to implement, have just fallen by the wayside. Do I think that I can learn these strategies in time, sure, why not? But along the way I have realised that some behaviours take longer to learn (or unlearn, depending on your perspective) than others.

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