My Mum always says I’m the worrier of the family. I used to deny it but I’ve come to terms with the fact that she’s right. I worry a lot and always have done – about things that have happened, are happening or I think might happen.
These days, I have a medical term for my predisposition to worry: anxiety.
My anxiety is often about work. If I feel out of control of a situation or outcome, am overwhelmed with the amount of work I have on, or even at times when I think I have too little to do, I worry about what will happen. I spend hours in my own head running scared about the future playing out in my mind.
Most people I work with don’t realise I have it, unless I tell them. My clients didn’t either when I was self-employed (I was a freelance writer and social media trainer for five years). I consider myself a fairly high functioning anxious person, outwardly competent and successful but at times, internally crippled by self-doubt and fear.
I had an intense period of anxiety before I stepped back into employment. I’d been running my business for over four years and even my accountant kept reassuring me I was doing well I couldn’t stop worrying about money and whether I would be able to pay my mortgage.
Those thoughts were taking up so much headspace I stopped doing things I liked doing and started obsessing about the minutiae of work. It was when I started having mild chest pains and my mood took a downward turn, I decided to get help.
I was fortunate to receive free mental health support from my local NHS trust which included Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in both group and one-on-one settings. The techniques and tools I’ve learnt from CBT have made a big difference. I still worry about work sometimes but I know I can draw upon the techniques I learned to help me through without sinking into the pit of worry I used to find myself in.
I want to share the techniques and actions which had the most impact with those of you who can’t stop worrying about work either, in the hope that they give you a little respite from your thoughts:
STOP: Giving it all of your attention
Easier said than done but if you keep ruminating about this problem (or perceived problem) but getting nowhere, the thoughts you are having are unproductive. So, give your brain a rest and chance to refocus more productively.
INSTEAD: Find five blue things
This is a CBT technique I learnt that distracts you from the anxious, unproductive thoughts.
It’s incredibly simple:
- Look for something blue in your physical surroundings
- Name it
- Describe the shade of blue
- Describe the texture
- Repeat four more times with different objects
For example, if I do this now from my sofa where I’m typing I can see a blue plant pot.
It’s a mottled navy colour that’s smooth and shiny.
There’s a cushion to my left.
It’s cobalt blue.
It is rough and squished from where the cat just sat on it.
The lid of my water bottle is blue.
It’s pale baby blue and almost see-through.
It has ridges around the edges.
There’s a photo of where I got married in Greece and the sea in it is blue.
It goes from a deep inky blue to a bright turquoise and is all shimmery with the light reflecting off it.
Finally, there’s a copy of a mountain bike magazine my husband has left on the coffee table that has a blue headline on the cover. It’s an algae, scummy-coloured blue.
It’s satin smooth and the lines of the font are hard and crisp.
I forgot whatever else I was thinking about before I did it, and that’s the point. That doesn’t always happen (when I’m particularly anxious, my brain can snap right back to wherever it was before doing the exercise) but it does give you a chance to calm the thoughts and physical symptoms, even if just for a moment. Because just a moment can be a big relief when you’re feeling overwhelmed with anxiety.
STOP: Working so hard
Easier said than done right? You’re under a lot of pressure from your boss or your clients, and have to deliver X, Y, Z yesterday. You’ve not got the luxury of working less, right? Well, no actually, you’re wrong. If you continue like this, sooner or later you’ll burn out (trust me) and then you’re no good to anyone. It’s time to ease off the gas, even just a little.
INSTEAD: Schedule in fun time
Chances are you’ve prioritised work over the other things you enjoy most in life. Let’s readdress that balance. Here’s how:
- Make a list of things you find fun. Things that aren’t work related and that are not about pleasing other people. Things that are just for you.
- Schedule time in at least once this coming week to do one of those things. It can be any of them, it doesn’t matter.
- Do it. Get someone to hold you accountable if you have to. But treat it like an important piece of work and make sure you don’t make excuses.
- Repeat every week (and increase the frequency and variety slowly)
You might not enjoy ‘the thing’ the first time you go back to doing it. You might be out of practice. You might be thinking you should just be getting on with some work instead of this frivolous thing. You might not enjoy it like you used to (anxiety can be a bit of a pleasure-killer sometimes, I’ve found).
But please stick with it. Getting back into dancing was one of the things that tugged me out of the depths of my anxiety and now I wouldn’t miss a practice session if I can help it.
STOP: Keeping it to yourself
You don’t need to tell your customers or colleagues about how you’re feeling but if you are struggling with your worries over a long period of time or have lots of different worries, keeping your feelings to yourself isn’t healthy.
Holding on to the fear that people will treat you differently, or that they think you can’t cope with your work, will feed your anxiety. Hear me out on this one, because it’s the toughest but most transformative thing you can do when you can’t stop worrying about your business or about your work.
INSTEAD: Seek the right support
Who do you trust most in the world? Who is the person who really understands you and accepts you for who you are? Most people have someone like that in their lives*.
They’re the person you need to share your anxiety with.
For me, it was telling my husband that I wasn’t coping very well and thoughts about work were overwhelming me. Even though I knew he wouldn’t judge, I was still scared to tell him. Because telling him was also admitting to myself that I had a problem.
But as soon as I did tell him, a weight lifted. That old saying has some truth to it: a problem shared is a problem halved. I didn’t feel so alone and he helped me look for other ways to get support.
As I’ve already mentioned, I received a great deal of support from the NHS through their mental health support team. That’s one option available to you and usually you can self-refer without having to go to your GP. I spoke to one of their therapists over the phone, answered some questions and she confirmed that I was probably suffering with anxiety. They offered various types of support from there. What support is available in your area?
If you’re employed, maybe your work has mental health first aiders or occupational help can support you. If not, or if you’re self-employed, there are organisations who can offer support in addition to the NHs. Have a look at what Mind, Anxiety UK and Rethink have to offer.
Whatever you do, and no matter the severity of your worries, I hope you know that you’re not alone, even if it feels like no one has ever felt like this before. If you’re really finding it hard to cope, remember you don’t have to do it alone. And, even if it’s just a short period of intense work-related pressure for you at the moment, you can give yourself some brief relief from worrying constantly with the ‘find five blue things’ exercise or other mindfulness techniques.
* If you don’t have someone like that in your life, it’s ok, you can still get help. Either speak to someone at the above organisations or consider talking to The Samaritans. They’re not just there for people who are suicidal. They’re trained listeners who are there to talk, about anything. From personal experience, I know they are an amazing place to turn when you feel like you have no one else to turn to.