Anxiety and the Workplace
The workplace can be a particularly difficult environment for those dealing with social anxiety disorder and/or generalized anxiety disorder. For the over 15 million people who suffer with the illness, finding ways to adapt can be exhausting, if not impossible, to contend with.
What follows is my own personal experience regarding anxiety in the workplace. I found the workplace difficult because it involved performance standards, looking the part, and hiding my anxiety-all the while trying to appear normal and not lose my source of income.
I share what the anxiety experience in the workplace looked like for me, the consequences of not addressing my mental health needs, and how I found a solution that not only worked, but ultimately created an environment in which I thrived.
Routine and Early Coping Skills
My anxiety about the work day always began the evening prior. It was necessary for me to plan out my attire (shoes and accessories included), and ensure my clothing was ironed and crisp before I would allow myself to go to bed.
In the morning, simple, everyday occurrences triggered my mounting anxiety about facing the office environment. These sounds were earmarks of a ticking clock: the coffee maker click began the morning countdown, and the shower knob turn was the point of no return. The noise of the shower knob made me literally nauseas and sick.
Deep down, I wanted desperately to just go back to bed so I did not have to interact with anyone. It wasn't that I did not want to work: I did not know how to work and not be full of anxiety.
I would force myself to walk into the office by completely tuning out until I got to my desk (my stomach would be rolling and I would often be in a haze but I would somehow make it to my desk). To me, it seemed easy for the rest of the people in the office to stroll in, get their coffee and begin their workday. I envied their ability.
I was extremely obsessive with perfectionism at work. Everything (and I mean everything) had to be just right. I wasted so much time re-doing or re-checking work that was not necessary. Many days I would be so behind I worked unpaid overtime just to keep to deadlines.
In my mind, performing "perfectly" at work (which also meant appearing "normal" at work) kept any questions about me or my job performance at bay. If someone were to find fault in my work, that meant that I was not smart or capable or worthy of employment. I was not comfortable talking with others for fear I would sound stupid. I ate my lunch alone on purpose just to escape.
By the time I returned home from work everyday I was exhausted. I would also be angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to be "carefree" and this led to mounting depression about what a loser I was. I took it on that my anxiety was a character trait of weakness. I worked very hard at forcing myself to swallow my feelings and berate myself for feeling the way I did. I told myself I was being ridiculous and to get over myself already.
I did not stay long with any one job, but kept moving to different cities and states to change jobs and take on jobs that required only a one year commitment (or less).
Consequences of Denial
This manner of living, of course, was no solution. All the stress and pressure I placed upon myself to hide my anxiety and depression manifested itself physically. In addition to the panic attacks (a few minutes of racing heart rate, shaking, nausea and terror where I would hide in the ladies room until it passed) as well as the longer lasting form of anxiety attacks (longer episodes of the same physical manifestations but where I would need to take a walk to calm down to stop crying), I was also diagnosed with a form of paroxysmal tachycardia (rapid heart rate). This diagnosis was the first to side-line me from work for days as my heart rate would rapidly increase and decrease and I could not stand up without fainting.
Nevertheless, I kept pushing myself. Within another year I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was fortunate the cancer was caught early; however, after the initial surgery, I required several more surgeries for the cancer and the discovery of endometriosis. This then led to body-wide fibromyalgia.
The hiding was over and I lost my first "office job." I was unable to work for several years due to the additional surgeries, medications, chronic pain, and my emotional breakdown regarding my undiagnosed PTSD. (I am not saying this is what will happen if a person continues to force their bodies to move forward without looking at the underlying emotional and mental health issues; this is just what it looked like for me.) I do honestly believe the stress I put on myself to "suck it up" and put on a false front took years from my life never mind the havoc it had on my body.
Health and Solutions
Once I got into treatment and understood the mental health issues of anxiety, depression and PTSD, I set to work on wellness (medication, therapy, self-care, etc.). I was really coming along and I finally felt ready to re-enter the job market. I took out my resume, looked at the classifieds, and by the time I was writing my first cover letter my anxiety had shot up like a rocket. I was very disappointed in myself.
After a rapid slide backward, I began to slowly move forward once again and accept my present circumstances. I needed to acknowledge that I was still in the beginning stages of recovery. I may have gained enough ground to get back up on the horse (so to speak); I just was not ready to ride the horse around the racetrack. With much support, rather than quash my initial victories under "overall failure" I was able to take a practical look at the possibilities in front of me.
There were two main concerns to address: social anxiety and schedule flexibility in the workplace. I would need to slowly incorporate the social/interaction aspect as well as the amount of time I would need for appointments. There were no job options available based on my health requirements; I would need to create my own. Although initially daunting, the idea of not being tied to someone else's desk or time clock was enough to motivate me to go for it.
I looked to my past work history to figure out what types of contract and freelance work I could generate. My biggest caveat was that I now had a several year gap in my work history. I did contract work for very low pay (or free or in trade) in order to construct a current resume and references for work referrals. This new type of "work environment" via contract work enabled me to work my own hours, schedule in my own appointments, work in the privacy of my own home, and keep the social/interaction aspect to a minimum.
I learned that if I work alone in my home, I get A LOT more done: I focus on my work, not on what I look like while I work. There is great freedom in doing work with nobody else in the room! There is no daily "office attire" either.
Separating the social environment from my work environment removed the social anxiety dynamic. The only time this came into play was in meeting up with new clients. Although this was tough in the beginning, I have since had a lot of "practice." I now experience little (if any) social anxiety when meeting with a new client or participating in a group meeting of strangers. By easing my way into the social facet of the work environment, I was not continually feeling overwhelmed. Taking on the social anxiety in small doses has enabled me to overcome this issue.
I schedule my personal health appointments around client meetings or conference calls. Knowing that I am not jeopardizing my work (or holding someone else up) by taking an hour to see a doctor is of great relief as well.
These changes in work environment have made a tremendous difference for me. My confidence in my abilities continues to grow, and my anxiety levels are pretty much what I make them. As long as I keep to a time budget to maintain deadlines, neither the work nor the work environment is a stressor. Through building up my own business, I have been able to support my own well-being while achieving a work environment that works best for me. This also translates to less social and generalized anxiety overall.