Written by Pete Donaldson, Chief Growth Officer
I suffer from anxiety, and it’s pretty bad at times, but I’m one of many with as many as 25% of adults saying that anxiety has occasionally stopped them from doing the things they wanted to do.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and with the theme for this year being Anxiety, I wanted to share some personal thoughts on the topic and 6 things that have helped me to manage it. You never know what’s behind a smile.
I think it’s important as a leader, to not just talk about something but to show true compassion, understanding or vulnerability, especially if you want people in your organisation to feel comfortable to talk. Topics like mental health and wider male and female health issues, are often complex, embarrassing (to the person) and deeply personal, so to be supported you really must feel supported.
All too often people pay lip service to the topic, especially when they have never personally experienced any challenges. I know that to a point I was one of those people, for example, I understood PTSD as I have seen it first hand, ultimately losing friends and colleagues to suicide and to a lesser extent experienced it personally, but until recently I would have been one of those people who thought you could deal with anxiety by just cracking on or not thinking about it, you know, don’t worry about it…until about 12 months ago.
I had never suffered from anxiety, so I could never understand how debilitating it can be. For me, my biggest trigger was travel, which is strange for someone who has spent a lot of their life on the road. It made something as simple as getting on a train feel like a massive hurdle to jump (I did this every week for 10 years). Going on holiday, brilliant, it will be so relaxing, but I must get there (previously I’ve travelled all over the world without a thought). It then started linking to just being out and about and impacting my day-to-day life, though unless you were close to me, you would never have known as I was an expert in hiding it.
For me it started with some unrelated health issues (I’m fine now), which then lead to me starting to worry about things more and more, and what started slowly, picked up pace and became a case of regular hypervigilance and catastrophic thinking. It came from nowhere and really surprised me, especially for someone who was previously pretty laid back.
Once I talked to a few people and realised what it was, one, I realised how common it was and two, I was able to start taking positive steps to recapture that enjoyment I had previously felt. I feel it is worth sharing the things that helped me, I know everyone is different, but maybe one will for you too.
- Calm App. I found the app really helpful; it allows me to focus on something different and what it really does is provide distraction, focuses you on breathing and teaches you some coping mechanisms. I’m a real fan of ‘the Daily Jay’ and when I feel that feeling in my gut, putting my headphones in, no matter where I am can really settle me down in a few minutes.
- Being prepared, not over prepared. Taking time to prepare in advance with simple steps, allows me to reduce the catastrophic thinking that used to plague me (still does a bit). I know I can deal with things if they happen and focus on the mantra ‘you are overestimating the likelihood of something happening and underestimating your ability to deal with it if it does’. I’m not advocating preparing for every scenario, but just having that mental (or physical) comfort blanket goes a long way.
- Phases. In the Military every operation is broken down into phases, so rather than looking at everything you must do, look at what it takes to get you to the next step. This is about breaking down the challenge into bite sized chunks, so you can focus on the things you need to do and prepare to get you to the next point. You then release the endorphins that are associated with success and get yourself closer to the end goal.
- Having Support. Pretty simple really, but if you are open and honest about your thoughts with a few people it can lift 10x the weight off your shoulders, no need to apologise, no need to waste energy on pretending, the power of talking and having someone actively listen is simply amazing.
- Exercise. It’s regularly stated the benefits of even light exercise on your mood and general wellbeing, but I found that in weeks I stuck to my schedule I had much lower levels of anxiety in general. It allowed me to focus on something specific (another distraction technique) and the natural effect made me feel better. Just be careful not to put too much into it as at a point missing a session that I’d planned to do had almost the opposite effect – so be kind to yourself.
- Hypnotherapy. For me this was a game changer, I initially used an app and for 6 weeks where I dedicated 20 mins a day to each session and associated reading. Similarly, to the Calm app in a way it was a good distraction, gave me time to pause and to breathe, but the messaging to the subconscious really helped to reduce the symptoms I was feeling. If you haven’t, I would certainly recommend trying it! I now listen 2 or 3 times a week as needed and that seems to keep me on track.
I appreciate these things may not work for everyone or indeed anyone else, but they helped me and continue to do so every day. I’m in a good place and I’m better able to manage challenges as they arise. This week is important to me as the more we can raise awareness the more people can feel like they are not on their own and there is a pathway through.