I may be the most stressed I’ve ever been right now; I shouldn’t have been shocked when I suddenly felt my chest tighten to the point of pain while sitting in a one-on-one meeting with my boss.
My boss was calm, supportive and encouraging. Then, the next day, it happened again. And the following Monday, again.
After years of “getting by” with daily twinges of anxiety – a little tightness in the chest here, a little shortness of breath there, some periodic lightheadedness – I’d now had three panic attacks in less than a week.
While I’m proud of my ability to recover, I’m frustrated. Even ashamed. I’m better than this. I’m more in control than this. And if I can’t get it under wraps, I’ll be a burden to everyone around me.
(None of that is true, and the rational part of my brain knows that.)
You see, living with anxiety straight up sucks sometimes, but something to remember is that anxiety, like any other mental illness (including my own bipolar disorder and history of disordered eating) often comes with beautiful, unheralded silver linings. For example, there may even be a link between mental illness and creativity.
Do my mental illnesses it make things harder? Yes. But anxiety is like any other challenge: with the right support network and planning, individuals can thrive in the face of what may feel like a major roadblock.
So, here are some tips on thriving in the workplace when anxiety is a concern:
- Have an ally. Since my boss has witnessed all of these panic attacks, he’s been receptive to learning about how to better help me. While I try to be cognizant of other demands on his time and attention, simply knowing he would be there if I needed him lightens the burden of anxiety significantly. I don’t think I can ever fully convey what his support and encouragement has meant to me.
- Have a safe space. Have somewhere to go if you need to recover. If you prefer small and enclosed, an empty meeting room, closet or office may be ideal. If you need open spaces and fresh air, a specific bench in a nearby courtyard or a room with natural light might be better.
- Prioritize self-care. My newest office obsession is my oil diffuser humidifier. A few drops of lavender oil makes me feel fancy AND helps with stress and anxiety. I’m also training for another half marathon to work out stress and anxiety.
- Research your benefits. I happen to work for an employer with amazing benefits, including free counseling services and an on-site medical clinic. This makes dealing with heavy things like anxiety, home stressors and physical ailments so much easier. Some mental illnesses are actually protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which offers additional protection in the workplace.
- Understand your value. While your struggles are a burden to you, they do not make YOU a burden to others. You are still valuable, cared for, appreciated and respected. It’s easy to diminish your own self worth following a panic attack. The reality is that you’re still an amazing person. If anything, you’re MORE impressive because you’re still a contributing member of society even as your brain and body try to sabotage you.
- Care for yourself. While being cared FOR is good, it isn’t anyone’s job to take care OF you. Support, encouragement and empathy are good, but ultimately the only person who can take accountability for your wellbeing is you.
If you’re on the other side of this, and you have a colleague, friend or family member you’re seeking to support, I highly recommend this piece on Medium about helping someone through a panic attack. It’s what I sent to my boss.
If you’re in the midst of an anxiety-riddled chapter (or, like me, you live with anxiety on a daily basis) and you’re worried about how to professionally thrive, I’m here to tell you that you can do it. You can survive the temporary torture of a panic attack and lead a very fulfilling and successful professional life. You can build systems to improve your ability to kick ass and take names, even when you don’t quite feel like 100% (or you feel like less than 0%).
Either way, I believe in you. Hell, I believe in us. We got this… panic attacks be damned.
Tags: anxiety, anxiety in the office, anxiety in the workplace, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, eating disorder recovery, eating disorders, Kelly Rivard, mental health, office, panic attacks, professional life, recovery, work, workplace