I had my first panic attack in math class when I was 15. It was an otherwise ordinary day.
Panic is a difficult thing to articulate to someone who has never experienced it. I can’t explain why I began hyperventilating in class that afternoon, or why just yesterday, I broke into a sweat during a regular company meeting. I knew that these situations didn’t pose any danger to me, yet my fight or flight instinct kicked in and took over.
After I experienced my first brush with severe anxiety, I shut myself away from all the pressures in my life. I dropped my rigorous course load at school, and I remained on the sidelines during soccer games. But eventually, I had to learn to cope. A brilliant and compassionate therapist taught me how to talk myself off a ledge. I also took up distance running to keep my nerves in check–a pastime that continues to be a lifeline for me today.
I wasn’t able to keep my anxiety entirely at bay, but for a long time, I felt in control. That all changed when I entered the workforce. After all, the modern workplace demands composure and reliability from employees. It’s also filled with twists and turns–whether it be layoffs, company restructuring, or a change in strategy. It’s a recipe for anxiety for anyone susceptible to it.
I haven’t found a simple fix to anxiety, but I have found a few techniques that have mitigated it. Here are the four practices that have helped me cope with anxiety in the workplace.
1. I speak up
In every place I’ve worked, I’ve found a confidante. I let this person know about my anxiety, and update them if anything is happening in my personal life that may cause increased stress. Over time, I’ve also gotten more comfortable delivering feedback to my managers about conditions or interactions around the office that make me uncomfortable. Just having someone around who knows what I’m going through is helpful, but an honest dialogue also gives me a feeling of control.
This is extremely powerful. Anxiety is grounded in the feeling of loss of control, so it’s been valuable to have an antidote to that.
2. I go for a walk
When my body tells me to escape, I comply. Fortunately, I live in New York City, so it’s easy to take a little walk and mask it as a coffee break. If I didn’t live in a walkable area, I imagine a short drive would have the same effect. These few minutes away from the office gives me some time to collect my thoughts and identify what may be at the root of my anxiety. I am then able to acknowledge and move past whatever triggered my anxiety.
3. I work from home when I need to
If I wake up with a sense of dread and I don’t need to be in the office, I stay home. I can do a lot at home that I can’t at work (like pet my cats or sing along to my favorite Taylor Swift songs, the two best medicines for me). In previous roles, when working from home wasn’t an option, I occasionally took a sick day to recuperate, just as I would with any other illness. In both scenarios, having a confidante makes me more comfortable staying at home. I know there is someone I trust at work who knows that I’m not merely slacking off.
4. I protect my personal time
Long hours pose a threat to the things that keep me mentally healthy, like therapy, sleep, and exercise. It isn’t easy, but I set boundaries wherever I can to ensure work doesn’t become my whole life. That doesn’t mean I leave the office by 6 p.m. every evening–I don’t. What it does mean, however, is being aware of work creeping into my personal time. When that starts to happen, I resist the urge to say yes to everything, and I am upfront about asking for help.
I’m not saying that any of these practices are easy. In our work-first culture, it can be a constant battle with the voice in your head that says, What if you lose your job? What if your boss views you as a complainer? What if you make your colleagues uncomfortable?
The thing is, there will always be a million what-ifs. But we’re not going to end the mental health stigma with staying silent. We need to be vocal, and employers have to be willing to listen.
A healthy, encouraging work culture is essential to anyone who faces anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness. So many businesses are waking up to the business case for mental wellness and inviting their employees and recruits to be open and honest about their needs. If your employer isn’t one of them or doesn’t follow through on promises of an inclusive culture, take your talents elsewhere. It’s not worth your mental health.
Kayleigh Taylor is a senior content strategist at Hot Paper Lantern.