I have lived with an anxiety problem for 18 years. It began in early adulthood at a time when I kept the ‘real me’ locked inside, and when the strain of peer pressure bore down on me, despite my distain for it.
My situational anxiety
At its root was a single moment – an unexpected panic attack after I’d offered to read something out in my French class. I left that classroom in shock. I told my friends, my parents, GP and the college. I tried to make sense of what had happened, but the fact was, I dreaded it happening again, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only logical explanation seemed to be that anxiety was now a part of me, and my reality was changed for ever.
I left college. For over a year, I stayed at home, somewhat broken. I was terrified that I might never be ‘normal’ again and sought a complicated kind of support from loved ones.
There was an incongruity about it. It was at once so small, yet so fundamental, and hinged so tenuously on my ability to recall it; if someone could just erase that episode from my memory, I might be free. But no, every morning, after the fleeting ignorance of sleep, my memory re-assembled me once more, synapse by synapse.
Very slowly, with lots of small steps, I built myself up. And strangely, something very positive grew: I started to come out of myself. I enjoyed the freedom of not having to fit in; I tried new hobbies or wore new clothes. I shared the real me.
But the anxiety never did go away. I looked like I was fine, holding down a normal job, but I felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips. The possibility of panic was my horrible secret, creating a background of worry and sadness. I lived in fear of being asked to speak in a meeting or, worse still, do a presentation. I later developed another problem with talking on the phone. Panic can spread like that, like ink on wet fabric.
When I did have to do the things I found hard, the question of whether I succeeded or not was irrelevant because the whole experience was unbearable. I worried that if I wasn’t able to do the job they were paying me to do, they might put pressure on me to leave. And then I might end up in less interesting work and the anxiety might have even more of a grip.
I have reached various ‘I can’t do this any more’ moments: I’ve tried to focus on other parts of my life; I’ve changed jobs; puzzled over whether there is some kind of solitary freelance job I could do; and I have sought NHS help a couple of times.
At the start of this year, 2019, I reached another such point. But this time, with the support of an excellent private psychologist, I took some steps which have, to some degree, liberated me. However, there was one crucial ingredient which is not always easy to find – a good manager.
Undermining the anxiety logic
I have identified three main things which have been sustaining my anxiety disorder. They are the like pillars, propping it up all these years. Here’s how I began to destabilise them:
1. The need to keep it secret
I kept my anxiety a secret from managers because I feared that it was problematic and had no place in work, or might even be used against me. Admitting to having difficulty with one of your work duties involves some risk; you first need to be sure that your manager is a reasonable person.
Opening up to my (nice new) manager has been hugely therapeutic. I told her about the origins of the problem and explained in detail what I feel like day-to-day, and how it hangs over me. I told her that I realise that trying to avoid public speaking is no solution; that just gives more ‘power’ to the anxiety.
It was only by sharing my secret that I realised how heavily it had weighed on me.
In response, my manager reassured me. She said things which made me feel so relieved, and things which I can return to when I’m struggling.
She was sympathetic and wanted to know how she could help. She said that they value my work, reminding me that the things I find hard represent about 5% of my job. She said that no one should have to suffer like that – they wouldn’t want to lose me so there would always be a way.
What I took from that was the message that, whatever happens, it will be okay. They will not sack me for having panic attacks. In fact, they want me to succeed. Probably all I need to do is be strong and just try. To use the psychologist’s words, tell her ‘this is something that I find hard (and be specific), but I’m working on it’.
3. Doing it for myself
The main reason I have to just try is not to keep my manager happy. It’s something I must do for myself.
As mental health professionals have told me over the years, anxiety is on a scale. Wherever we are on that scale, there will be things above us that alarm us, and things beneath us which don’t present such a problem. If we avoid things that scare us, we find ourselves looking downwards, and, before we know it, more and more things which used to be fine suddenly become a problem. Conversely, by thinking of myself as someone willing to give it a try, I am looking upwards. I am putting myself in a position to begin to feel more at ease with some of the smaller things. This is an opportunity too big to turn down. I have to recognise that, on some level, I need to do this for myself; I want to do this.
I need to be ready to do the things which I find panic-inducing. – Not with the goal of overcoming the panic, necessarily. But because my participation alone helps to make my demon shrink. And stops its shadow from darkening my every day.
See ‘How to run towards danger: taking charge of your situational anxiety’ for practical tips to help work through anxiety associated with a performance or presentation.