Cross Post: How To Manage Anxiety At Work

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How To Manage Anxiety At Work

Aug 17, 2017   By Allison Toy

Anxiety is often an unpredictable beast. The quick, nervous breathing and the pounding of your heart against your ribcage don’t quite cooperate with daily routines and plans. Handling anxiety at home is one thing, but dealing with it at work is a completely different challenge. At work, we often lack privacy and the flexibility to hide in our closets for ten minutes waiting for our breathing to regulate (am I the only one who’s done that?). But not all hope is lost!

Here are several simple tools for managing anxiety at work.

1) Take short breaks throughout the day.

Every few hours, make sure to get up and move around. A change of environment is not only healthy for your body, but it also allows your mind to rest. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks at work can even improve productivity. Use your breaks to take a few deep breaths, soak up some sunshine, and slow your mental pace in between periods of high productivity.

2) Bring a tangible reminder of peace with you to work.

This can be a photo of a peaceful waterfall scene or a post-it note with your favorite mantra on it permanently stuck on the side of your computer. Whatever brings you peace and calms your heart and mind—find a way to integrate it into your workplace. This tangible reminder of peace can be obvious or subtle, but the key is that every time you notice it in your workplace, you will be comforted and reassured. If you are on your feet all day, without an office or cubicle, write a letter to yourself and stick it in your pocket, or create a note on your phone with calming quotes or prayers.

3) Set 1-2 reachable goals for the day.

This is especially helpful if you become anxious about being productive and getting it all done. Oftentimes, the more anxious we are about “being productive,” the less productive we become. Each morning, choose 1-2 top-priority tasks, and make those your core measurement for productivity for the day. Once those priorities are completed, you can continue with other work without the pressure and anxiety of not finishing your work. Many people find, to their surprise, that they actually complete more work when they are relieved of the pressure to perform, are more creative, and of course are less anxious while at work.

4) Acknowledge your anxiety and process through it when you can.

There is possibly nothing worse than feeling anxiety rising up in your stomach and feeling trapped in a place where you cannot express your emotions. One simple way of defusing anxiety building up inside of you is to write out what you are feeling. Scribble it on a notepad for later or write a quick text or email to a friend. This way, you are not squelching anxiety (which tends to only make it grow bigger and get out of control) but are also not allowing it to dictate your day.

Using these tips and creating a customized plan for self-care at work can be key to finding freedom from overwhelming anxiety at work and developing a healthy routine to make your work week run smoothly.

My Weight

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports, but up until my first year of university, I was a pretty fit guy. Unfortunately, the “freshman fifteen” curse was more like a “freshman thirty” for me, and I struggled to get rid of the extra weight.

As time went on, my weight would slowly creep upwards and then plateau for a while, which would give me time to buy new clothes and get used to things. Then it would start to creep upwards again, and the cycle would continue.

For about five years as an adult, I started fencing three nights a week and lost quite a bit of weight by being particular about what I ate and exercising. My right knee has always been tricky, though, and the more I fenced, the worse it got. Eventually I had to give it up, and my weight inexorably went back to where it was before I’d started exercising.

My first psychiatric drugs were prescribed by my then-GP. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite do the trick and I ended up in the hospital. When I left the hospital three months later, I was taking four different psych medications and had put on fifteen pounds. Those fifteen pounds sure weren’t caused by the hospital food – while the meals were good, they were not not what you’d call “large”.

A little over a year later and I’m now on six psych medications and have put on a total of about 45 pounds. Buying new clothes is an inconvenience, none of my good clothes fit, and I’m concerned about what long-term effects there will be on my health. Diabetes, for example, runs in my family.

But let me tell you this: I will not give up those medications myself. I can exercise and eat healthy foods so I can try to be a “fit fat person”, but I can’t exercise or do anything to help myself or anyone else if I can’t get out of bed. My looks are not as important to me as being a functioning person is.

I’m not saying that I want to keep taking all this medication forever. If Dr W and I decide I don’t need as much of something or that I can go off a medication entirely, I’m all for it. If the only way to keep me stable is to keep taking them, then that is what I will do.

I’ve been told that there are several reasons as to why psych medications make some people put on weight. One is that they can make people crave carbohydrates. Another is that they do something to the gut bacteria so digestion works a little differently. I don’t know how true these are but I am pretty sure I can personally verify the carb craving aspect. I want candy. All the time. And that is bad.

The good thing is that it’s easy to make sure there’s no candy in the house. What I do need are my medications; without them I would be in serious trouble.

Stay safe.

Can’t Stop Thinking About Work

I don’t know why, but work has been on my mind a lot lately. I keep going over the same stuff in my head again and again, and the nightmares have made a bit of a comeback.

J asked me why I was thinking about it. That’s a good question. I know I’m not ready to go back to work, so why do I keep thinking about it?

Part of it is that I used to enjoy my job. I was good at it and it was a good fit for me. I worked with and for good people who I liked and respected, and pretty much everyone got along. Even now, I’m still sad that work pushed me into a place where, after four years of excessive stress, I finally broke down and lost so much.

Part of it is that being on disability is nothing like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – in fact, it’s a lot of work. I have to force myself to get out of bed, force myself to eat breakfast, force myself to take my pills, force myself to shower, force myself to do my exercises, force myself to keep in touch with people, force myself to stay busy so my thoughts don’t take dark turns… It’s not “free time” at all.

Part of it is that I miss my friends. We had a pretty decent group of people working and we all got along pretty well. Most of them don’t even know what happened to me – the last thing I said at work was, “My stomach hurts. I’m going home.” I’ve managed to keep in touch with a couple of them but I don’t see them very often and I worry that we’ll drift apart.

Part of it is that I like being productive. Successfully finishing tasks and helping people out made me happy. So did working as part of a team to track down and fix problems. There were always new problems to tackle and I enjoyed being involved.

Part of it is that I’m scared that somehow my disability insurance will be cancelled. Dr W has assured me that won’t happen, but it’s still something that the irrational part of my brain just won’t let go.

Part of it is that I’m scared that I’ll have to go right back into my old job, with the same problems and stresses that led to my hospitalization in the first place. This is something that both J and Dr W have said I don’t need to worry about but again, I just can’t stop thinking about it.

Part of it is that I feel like I’ve disappointed everyone. J, my family, my friends, people from work… everyone.

Part of it is that I know I can’t do the same job that I did before, but I don’t know what else I CAN do. Assuming I can concentrate and remember enough to be retrained, what on Earth can I be retrained to do?

Part of it is that I’m worried that Dr W or Dr C/Dr P will think I’m faking my condition and “fire” me as a patient. I don’t know what I’d do without their support and skills.

Part of it is that I have no idea how to tell when I’m ready to go back to work. When the nightmares stop, I don’t have a panic attack, and I easily get out of bed for X number of days? When Dr W says so? When the thought of going somewhere outside doesn’t make my stomach cramp up?

Part of it is that there is such a difference between my good and bad days that I worry that when I go back I’ll hit a down, be unable to work, and cause hardships for my co-workers – not to mention the embarrassment.

Part of it is that I’m worried I’ll never be more than a shell of what I used to be. I was GOOD at my job, dammit.

Part of it is that I’m scared that word will get out about what happened to me and anyone I work with will think I’m “Crazy Mark” and everyone will be nervous to eat lunch around me or work directly with me.

Part of it is that I really wish I could turn back the clock or go back in time and tell myself six years ago what was going to happen. Dwelling on things doesn’t make anything better, but I can’t help it.

Part of it is that I’m scared I won’t be able to work in a meaningful way again.

Part of it is this dark, amorphous cloud of dread, anxiety, and sadness that hovers in my periphery, telling me there’s no point in trying because I won’t be able to do anything.

That’s what I can think of right now… I’ll try to listen more closely to my thoughts and if there’s more, I’ll update this list.

Stay safe!

My Forgetfulness

I used to be able to juggle several tasks at once and remember tiny details about things. Since I got sick, however, I have been having a lot of trouble remembering things. I lose my phone all over the house, I have to stare at the calendar to make sure that I make it to my appointments, and I have to set a rigid schedule to take my pills or I will forget. If I’m out at an appointment, I only remember the appointment and none of the things I had also planned to do, like pick something up on the way home. Sometimes I’ll set an alarm on my phone but if I don’t label it, I can forget what the alarm was for.

Thoughts that strike me as important disappear quickly, leaving nothing but a sense of urgency behind. That’s bad enough, but my anxiety and OCD really don’t play well with the thought that I’ve forgotten something. I end up stuck in a panic attack if that feeling of urgency is too strong and I can’t remember what it was or put it out of my head.

I’m not sure why this is happening. The medication I’m taking may be part of it but I was having memory and concentration problems before I met Dr C or Dr W. It shouldn’t be a sleep thing – nightmares aside, I’m sleeping better now than I have in years. It could be related to my depression.

My concentration has improved to the point where I can often read an entire article or make a good dent in a book but my memory doesn’t seem to be getting better at anywhere near the same rate. I worry that I am repeating myself when talking to people or that I’ve been told something important but can’t remember.

I think in a few months I’ll write another post about this stuff, just to see if things have changed. Hopefully I won’t be forgetting much by then!

Stay safe!

My Nightmares

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

I’ve been having the same nightmares for the past sixteen months. I can trace their beginning back to an incident at work that I initially didn’t think much of but that quickly started to gnaw on my nerves. The nightmares came on strong and I found myself waking up in a sweat, heart racing, and sometimes not knowing where I was right away. It quickly got to the point where I was experiencing them multiple times every night.

There are three of them. They all start out the same. Someone is calling the police in a panic, saying that some people are missing in the middle of nowhere and nobody can get ahold of them. The police contact the Search And Rescue (SAR) group and relay the message. The SAR crew tries to get some information but their computers aren’t working. Meanwhile, I’m in a room, surrounded by more computers and panicking because the system is down and I don’t have the parts to get it working again.

The SAR plane takes off and starts searching. This is where the nightmares diverge.

Nightmare 1

The SAR plane searches for hours and then finally finds a large orange tent in the snow. The plane comes in for a landing and the wind from the propellers ripples the tent fabric before blowing it away, revealing five people who have frozen to death. I can see their faces, the stubble on their chins, and their clothes rustling in the breeze. The SAR people are upset. For some reason, I know deep down that if they had made it there just minutes earlier, they would have been able to save the people. Minutes they wouldn’t have lost if their computers were working. It all ends up being my fault.

Nightmare 2

The SAR plane searches for hours and then finds small orange dots in the water. The plane descends and finds five people in lifejackets, all drowned or dead from exposure. Again, if they’d made it there just minutes earlier they would’ve been able to save the people in the water. Again, it’s my fault.

Nightmare 3

The SAR plane searches for hours and then finds an upturned boat. The SAR crew can find no signs of life on the boat – all of the crew has drowned. Again, five minutes would’ve made the difference, and again it’s my fault.

There are significant continuity and factual problems with these nightmares, but it doesn’t matter – that’s how they play out in my head. I’ve left out a lot of detail (mainly because it bothers me to think about it) but that’s pretty much how they go. People dead and it’s my fault. In all three of them I can hear and see everything. I can feel the panic and sweat running down my back as I look around the room with all the computers, knowing that no matter what’s wrong, I don’t have the parts to fix it.

Back when the nightmares were really bad, Dr C took me through an exercise where I recorded myself talking about a nightmare in as much detail as I could. Then I would play it back again and again and build up a tolerance to it. It worked very well. At the same time, Dr W prescribed me prazosin which greatly reduced the number of nightmares I was having.

For a while I was almost nightmare free but recently they’ve been making a bit of a comeback.

So that’s what happens to me at night a lot. Ever since I got home from the hospital the first time, we’ve been leaving some lights on upstairs so when I wake up in a panic, there’s enough light for me to be able to tell where I am. Usually I’ll get out of bed and walk around the house a bit, just to make sure everything’s okay. It makes me feel a little better and I’m usually able to get back to sleep within 15 minutes. If I go from nightmare directly to panic attack, it takes considerably longer.

Stay safe!

When The Wheels Fell Off, Part IV

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

My most recent stay at the psych ward was brought on by worsening depression and the inability to do anything other than stay in bed. For a while there I was in bed almost twenty hours a day and I felt terrible. I was hearing voices and having nightmares and wasn’t sleeping very well.

When I hear voices, there have always been two so far. One of them has always demanded to know where my Disaster Recovery Plan is (that was one of my jobs at work), and up until this time, the other has berated me and told me I was no good, a loser, a waste of time. This time was a little different. The voice that usually berated me started telling me that everyone I knew would be better off without me. Everyone – J, my family, DA, FA, WG, Dr C, Dr W… everyone. It was frightening and I was having difficulty stopping them. Suicide was on my mind and I was unable to clear my head.

One evening it got so bad that J called the Crisis Line (I was having trouble communicating) and had a good chat with the person on the other end. We got a couple of helpful ideas and planned to call Dr W on Monday to see if he could help.

When Monday came, J made the call, and – bless him – Dr W found a bed for me. Since I was actively having suicidal thoughts they assigned a Nursing Aide to follow me around and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. The first night I was glad to have someone checking in on me as I didn’t trust myself.

After bumping some of my medications back up and talking to the staff, things quickly started to get better and by the end of the second day I didn’t need anyone to follow me around. That was the first time in all of my stays at the hospital that I’ve been followed around like that. I guess it’s because they’re serious about patient safety.

Once I got used to things, I started to attend the groups and had some good conversations with my nurses. It didn’t take very long before I was feeling a lot better. Dr W says that sometimes people just need to be given a bit of a nudge and they’ll get back on track. I’m very lucky that so many people want to keep me on track!

Every time I get out of the hospital I feel stronger and like some aspect or issue has been “fixed”, and I’m very grateful for that.

If you feel like the world’s a grey and unpleasant place or you’re considering harming yourself or others, please call your local crisis centre, talk to your doctor, or go to the nearest emergency room.

Stay safe!

Don’t Be Afraid To Take Some Time For Yourself

Part of the recovery for any illness or injury is rest. You don’t immediately jump up and down after the doctor puts a cast on your broken leg, and you don’t go jogging when you’ve got pneumonia. Mental illness is no different – recovery takes a lot of work, but also time and rest.

Here are seven of the things that I do when taking some time for myself:

  • Spend some time where I do my best to worry about the things that are bothering me so they don’t bother me as much later,
  • Meditate or do breathing or muscle relaxation exercises,
  • Do my best to get enough sleep,
  • Get some exercise,
  • Eat properly,
  • Spend some time on one or more of my hobbies, and
  • Listen to the kind of uptempo music I like.

I do my best to make time to do these seven things every day. Some days it can be difficult, particularly when I’m feeling pretty down or have a busy schedule. I think it’s okay to miss a day or two here or there, but it’s really important to me to keep doing those seven things. Sleep, in particular, is very important for me. If I don’t get about nine hours of sleep, my mood darkens and all I want to do is hide in the basement.

To set time aside, I’ve had to make some sacrifices. I don’t have as many hobbies as I used to (although J will probably say I still have too many), and I’ve cut way back on the time I spend using my computer or tablet. Part of that is because I don’t enjoy computers the way I used to (in fact, there are many aspects of them that I am really uncomfortable with now), and the other part is that I could see how many hours I wasted just sitting in front of a screen, accomplishing nothing.

I used to have three blogs but I felt that I had to keep posting content and that was stressing me out. I shuttered them all and started this one and made myself a deal: if I didn’t have anything to say on a particular day or not enough time, I wouldn’t post. That has made this site a lot easier and more enjoyable for me.

I think I’m getting a little off-topic here but it doesn’t hurt to look at the things you do and decide whether letting some of them go would make your life easier. Make some time somewhere during the day when you can sit down and take a couple of minutes to recharge. It can make a world of difference.

Stay safe!

My Apologizing

I’ve always been worried about offending people. Even when I was a kid, I was sensitive to the thought of hurting someone’s feelings or making them mad. High school was the same thing, and so was work. In the evenings, I’d worry over conversations I’d had earlier in the day, re-running them through my head to see if there was something that I’d said that could’ve been taken the wrong way or something that I should have said or not said. As I got older, I found that I was not only re-running through conversations that day, but I was still going over conversations I’d had days, months, or years ago, too.

It is very difficult for me to just accept that someone from twenty years ago isn’t still mad about something I’d said or done. Even now, I worry about stuff that happened decades ago. Is Chris mad at me for accidentally hitting him in the eye with a snowball back in Grade 4? Is Greg upset because when I was twelve I launched his little foam plane it hit the ground and broke? Is my dad still upset that I didn’t follow his instructions and got the pellet gun jammed up back when I was 13? Is my mom upset because one Christmas I told her that I already knew what Grandma had sent? Is my sister angry that we didn’t play her Sweet Valley High board game more? Is J upset that we didn’t go and play badminton out at the park nearby ten years ago? Is FA mad that I broke her little hand mirror 23 years ago? Is DA mad that I accidentally bumped his ATV trailer into a tree?

I could go on and on.

I feel silly apologizing for things that happened years or decades ago but they eat away at me, and the people who I have apologized to have all said they don’t even remember the incident, or they do remember and they weren’t upset at the time. It doesn’t matter though – like I said, it eats away at me. That’s why when I think I’ve done something wrong now, I apologize profusely. Sometimes too profusely. There are times when people get irritated at my apologies, and what can I possibly say to them about that?

The worst part is that apologizing right when I think I may have said or done something wrong doesn’t keep me from running through that conversation or event over and over again in my head. It’s like I’m stuck in some kind of anxiety loop where I’m worried I’ve offended someone but also worried that they said not to worry about it just to shut me up or make me feel better while inside, they’re seething.

Dr C, Dr W, and the staff at the hospital have all told me (several times) that I am not responsible for other peoples’ thoughts or emotions. Of course, if I’m wandering around and trying to upset someone, that’s a different story, but if I’m just going about my day and having a normal conversation, it’s not up to me what other people think. This is very difficult for me to accept. I want people to be happy and definitely don’t want people to be angry, upset, or disappointed with me. I wish I could say I have a solution to the problem, but I don’t. Not yet, at least.

Stay safe!

I Am Not Weak

My mother-in-law sent me an email a while ago when I was feeling pretty down. She told me she wished I’d stop beating up on myself and remember that I’m sick, not weak.

She was right.

On my down days it’s difficult to get out of bed, difficult to shower, difficult to feed myself and difficult to take my medication. It can feel like I’m taking steps backward in my recovery. It took me a long time to realize that that feeling of slipping backwards is part of my recovery – every day can’t be rainbows, unicorns, and sprinkle-covered donuts.

Mental illness is just that – an illness. The brain is a very complex machine and we don’t understand a lot of what makes it do different things. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists are getting better at it all the time, though.

We are living in good times. People are no longer locked away in asylums for the rest of their lives, militaries are starting to recognize that PTSD is not “cowardice”, lobotomies are no longer suggested as the only way to “cure” patients, and Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) is a precise and safe tool – far removed from the old brute force electroshock days.

There are many antidepressant, antipsychotic, and panic-relieving drugs available. Combine that with new psychological treatments like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and it becomes apparent that we are very lucky to be living in this age of psychiatric and psychological treatment.

There’s still a long way to go, however. Too many people still view mental illness as a weakness or a failure on the part of the sufferer. Too many employers either don’t recognize mental illness as a problem or don’t follow their own mental illness program. Other employers have a mental illness program but have byzantine requirements in place to access it. Insurance companies hate paying out money so they’ll put applicants who are having difficulty functioning through the wringer to try and avoid it.

It’s very important to remember that mental illness IS an illness. I certainly didn’t ask for it, and I’d really like to return to a somewhat normal state as soon as possible. It may take years, but I’m going to do my best. I’m sick, not weak.

You’re not weak, either.

Stay safe!

When The Wheels Fell Off, Part III

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

A few months ago, DA invited me out to his cabin for the weekend to help him get some stuff ready for the summer. I only thought briefly about it before saying yes. I’ve always enjoyed myself at his cabin and enjoy working, riding bikes, or just hanging out. This time, the main focus was to clear deadfall from the dirtbike trails he maintains on his property. Lots of hard work, and hard work helps me feel better. It seemed like a great test for how I was doing.

He picked me up at 10AM and we headed to his cabin. As soon as we arrived, we got to work. We finished putting his dirtbike back together, changed the oil in his quad, and started in on the deadfall. Everything was going well. We worked until dark, then had supper.

After supper, we listened to music and talked about all kinds of things. At around 1130PM, he headed off to his room and I unbundled my sleeping bag and started to get ready for bed. A flash caught my eye – lightning in the distance. Not a big deal, I thought – I’ve enjoyed thunderstorms since I was a little kid watching them through the window with my mom.

The lightning and thunder came closer. I thought about how I wouldn’t be home until the next day; the thought made me uncomfortable. Discomfort changed to anxiety as the storm started to boom around the cabin, shaking the walls. Anxiety started to turn to panic, which caught me completely off guard. I should have been enjoying myself with the storm raging outside – after all, I was dry and safe. I turned on my little tripod flashlight and shone it at the ceiling to light up the area a bit (I can start to panic if I forget where I am) but it didn’t help. For the next four and a half hours, I was either terrified or outright panicking. My nighttime medications weren’t even putting a dent into it, either. I was wide awake and scared. Storm after storm rumbled through and all I wanted was to be at home, hiding in the basement with J. Being afraid of the storm was so foreign to me that it fed into my panic, too – what had I done that had broken that part of me?

Eventually, the storms died out into the distance and I fell into a nightmare-filled sleep. I woke up a few hours later feeling drained and anxious. Talking with DA and getting back to clearing trails helped a lot, but I just couldn’t shake both the anxiety and the shame I felt.

After we finished the deadfall, DA and I cleaned up and headed home. He dropped me off at home and instead of the instant relief I expected to feel, I still felt anxious and scared. Talking to J helped a lot but I just couldn’t shake it.

Over the next few nights, nightmares kept me from getting much sleep and I fell deeper into my anxiety and panic. I finally realized that I needed some extra help. J got in touch with Dr W and he had a bed ready for me 24 hours later. Ten days after that, I was out and feeling much better.

I think the problem was that I took on too much stuff at once. I hadn’t been away from home prior to that, and staying overnight was probably too much. The added stress from staying overnight probably didn’t help me deal with the storm, and the lack of sleep over the next while magnified all of the negative things going on and leaving me in really bad shape.

We haven’t had a good storm at home yet this summer, so I’m not sure if I’m going to enjoy it or want to hide out under the furniture in the basement. I’m interested to see what’s going to happen.

Dr C and Dr W wanted me to make sure that I realized that – even though it was really rough – I went out to DA’s cabin and stayed overnight. It was quite an accomplishment for someone who’s uncomfortable leaving the house. They’re right, but I sure could’ve done without all the drama.

DA has some more projects that he was asking if I could give him a hand with, and J has offered to drive out and pick me up in the evening so I didn’t have to stay overnight. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but I hope that I’ll be able to help him out.

Stay safe!