TL;DR: It involves a lot of self affirmation. And lists. And food.
It was January 2018. The new semester had begun. I was in the final year of my MA. Our department was conducting a week-long workshop with a renowned academic from the USA. It was open to academics, teachers, and students outside of my course as well, and I was surrounded by some of the smartest, most accomplished people in the country. This would really help with my thesis, I thought.
The joy of being around them soon turned into a nightmare.
I started getting overwhelmed with all the unique, interesting questions they had. Their credentials, lists of published papers and projects soon started making me feel like I hadn’t done anything remotely worthy. I would hide in a corner during lunch breaks because I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to mingle with them.
By the final day of the workshop, my feelings of inadequacy ran so deep that I ended up rushing to the bathroom and nursing one of the biggest panic attacks I’d ever had.
Tired and overwhelmed, I went home and slept off. When I woke up, I decided it was time to get help.
A day in the life of a person with chronic anxiety
Anxiety can manifest in many ways. Some of the most common signs of anxiety are feelings of nervousness, restlessness, or impending doom, rapid breathing, trembling, sweating, being tired, irritable, and unable to focus.
Anxiety can impede a person’s ability to function normally.
But in many cases, anxiety can have the opposite effect. Some go into overdrive and overwork themselves only to experience burnout later. They tend to do more, fearing that they aren’t doing enough. People with high-functioning anxiety may look like they’re seizing the day, which masks the anxiety that is causing this compulsive behaviour.
Because we tend to equate anxiety with worrying, we tend to ignore the seriousness of it.
That’s what I did too, till the day I found myself in the doctor’s office.
I couldn’t help but re-look at how I’d been living my life up till that day. My mother would often complain about how ‘forgetful’ I’d become. When my friend, whom I’d gotten late to meet one time, was calling so frequently, I met with an accident while on my way. His incessant calling and annoyed tone scared me and forced me to speed on a rocky path.
My anxiety was at its worst when I was at work. I’d struggle to focus on a task for more than 15 minutes. Every new assignment overwhelmed me, and instead of feeling excited, I’d feel terrified that I was going to mess it up. It would never occur to me to volunteer for something I enjoyed doing because my brain had programmed itself to assume I wasn’t a good fit for it.
One of the worst encounters I’d had with my anxiety was when I was working under a toxic boss. She once screamed at me for not doing my job in front of the entire set (I was on a shoot as an intern).
I thought nothing of it, but from that moment on, I would stutter every time she spoke to me. I’d never known a stutter in my life.
I had essentially stopped performing at work. It would take me hours to write down ideas because I didn’t want her to reject them – or worse – scream at me for thinking of bad ones. My slowness made her think I wasn’t ‘living up to my potential’.
Not every person has chronic, long-lasting anxiety. But some of us do, and it’s best addressed with a little bit of help. If you have related in any way to my experiences, you might want to reevaluate your own state of mind. It’s never too late to seek help for the sake of better mental health.
How I deal with anxiety in the workplace
I’ve sought help for my anxiety a couple of times. I decided to go for psychotherapy after that awful panic attack at university. When it still didn’t help as much as I expected it to, I decided to support my therapy with functional medicine – a branch of medicine that goes into the root cause of an illness as opposed to simply treating the symptoms.
It goes without saying that I have had the socio-economic privilege of being able to seek help. Today, however, there are several online resources one can use to seek psychological help at nominal rates.
Before I get started on how I learned to deal with my anxiety in life and in the workplace, I must clarify that I speak from my own experience, and that everyone’s experience is different. What worked for me may not work for you. That said, let’s begin.
During my first therapy session, I spoke about the workshop incident that caused my panic attack.
After asking me a few detailed questions, my therapist concluded that my anxiety stemmed from my compulsive need to perform well.
My competitive nature, while not problematic on a good day, would take over my life on days when I felt particularly inadequate. My low-functioning anxiety would prohibit me from performing at all.
One solution she gave me was that, every time I felt like I was spiralling, I should tell myself this: I’m working to the best of my abilities.
I would say this to myself every hour, and every time I felt overwhelmed or gave into procrastination (which, I was told, was a product of the unsureness of my own abilities). Saying it out loud helped me regain my confidence and work towards my goal for the day.
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Anxiety attacks occur when a loop of thoughts goes out of control. You’re thinking of one thing which turns to another thing, which then turns into a series of thoughts that go from good to bad or from bad to worse. When it goes too far, it causes an anxiety or panic attack. A solution to this is cutting through those thoughts and focusing on reality. The technique of doing so is called grounding.
Grounding is the process of using the senses to deviate from negative thoughts and come back to a tangible reality.
Here are some grounding techniques that have helped me:
- Using touch. I start with my pen stand and move across my table, touching and mouthing the name of each object. Doing so helps take the focus away from one’s thoughts, and towards the object at hand.
- Using sight. I look around the room and describe what’s in front of me. If I can see a pen stand, I mouth, “Pen stand. Brown in colour. Pen stand has 7 pens. One pen is blue, the second one is green…” Doing so gets me out of my head and engages my senses in perceiving external objects. I continue doing that with the objects in my vicinity till I feel calm.
- Breathing. Deep breathing has helped me calm myself in more situations than one. The only trick: counting. I perform a technique called box breathing, wherein you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, and breathe out for four counts. Doing this diverts your mind from anxious thoughts to focus on counting.
- Using your hands. Head to your kitchen, pour different coloured dals on a plate, sit down, and separate each coloured dal. The brain’s focus moves to separating the colours and deviating from anxious thoughts. You could do this even with beads or different types of grains.
My brief stint with my therapist didn’t work out as well as I’d expected. I continued having anxiety attacks and prolonged phases of procrastination, but I was well aware that they needed to be addressed. I got in touch with a dear friend who gave me another solution – a functional medicine specialist.
I resisted the idea of visiting a doctor because of my series of bad experiences with them, but she insisted that I did. It was an eye-opening experience that I’m extremely grateful for.
My doctor, an MD, told me that a lot of our mental health depends on what we’re feeding our body. Our eating and sleeping habits have a profound impact on our overall well-being.
I perceived it all as jargon at first – after all, who hasn’t heard of sleeping 8 hours a day, exercising and eating right before? But her approach was medical – a few simple blood tests revealed that my hormones were out of whack. I also had antibodies in my system – my body was trying to fight an infection I was unaware of, and the ‘enemy’ was the inflammation all the junk food had caused! All of that was causing my bouts of depression and numerous anxiety attacks.
I was advised to give up certain foods – gluten and sugar especially.
While it was incredibly difficult to do so, my depression and anxiety almost vanished within the first two weeks.
There are several ways one can eat better. Today, there are a ton of gluten-free, sugar-free options available in most metropolitan areas. Craving a piece of chocolate? Head online to find a keto-compliant one. Craving sugar in your chai? Try a sweetener instead. Craving noodles? Grab a pack of gluten-free noodles. The only difficulty lies in being consistent with that life.
We’re so used to rewarding ourselves with a bar of chocolate, a slice of pizza, or a scoop of ice cream when we’re upset, that it’s hard to believe those are the very things that can cause us to crash. It wasn’t easy for me to give up that stuff, but once I realised how much I was struggling because of it, nothing seemed easier. I haven’t looked back since.
Setting a routine
One thing that worked well for me was setting a routine that I ensured I stuck to. I woke up every morning and went to the gym to exercise. I ensured that I finished work at a given time and didn’t work a minute beyond it. I set up a time to take a break in the middle of work and moved away from my system for those 15 minutes.
When work from home began, I made sure to change my setting completely as soon as I clocked out – my workspace and place of rest are nowhere near each other.
Training my mind to keep a balance worked well in keeping my anxiety at bay.
Breaking down big tasks into smaller, doable tasks
One thing I feel anxious about is how huge and difficult some tasks look. The trick that helped me feel less overwhelmed about them was breaking them down into smaller tasks.
It helps to maintain a list – write down your big task for the day, and under it, write down the little things you need to do to put it together.
For example, if I have to work on an article that requires me to interview someone called XYZ, here’s how my task list would look:
Tasks for today:
- Draw article outline
- Message XYZ and set up time for meeting (preferably Wednesday, ask her)
- Go through XYZ’s Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn for info on her
- Prepare 10 interview questions
It helps to declare every small task it takes to complete the big one. As you complete each small task, tick the box so you feel confident to take on the next one.
On days when I feel like everything is a little too much, I turn to my best friend – my journal. It’s a personal diary into which I pour my thoughts and feelings without the fear of being judged. I try to write every day, but I fail often – now, I keep it for days when I feel like I’m going into a dark space.
Writing about your thoughts – as unfiltered as possible – can help immensely. Many people maintain diaries because writing helps them feel lighter.
Remember to write down exactly what you are feeling to calm those anxious thoughts.
Anxiety can be a draining mental health condition. After years of suffering from it, these techniques have helped me keep myself calm for the most part.
However, I do believe that seeking therapy is a great idea if your anxiety is as debilitating as mine.
A good therapist should ideally be able to map the root cause of your problem and devise a plan to help you manage it better. If speaking to a therapist is not your cup of tea, there are many other forms of therapy – such as art therapy – that you could consider. It’s best to speak to a professional to know which option suits you best.
Remember that your mental health condition does not define you. It’s just a part of who you are. There’s always a solution to handle the bad days; these were some of mine.
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