Even though my diagnosis of anxiety and panic disorder didn’t come until my 20s, I firmly believe I’ve been dealing with an anxiety disorder most of my life. However, until I graduated from college and began working jobs, I never understood how big of a hurdle my anxiety would be in the workplace.
Work is a stressful place for many. According to an article in The Atlantic, workplace stress among employees in America can often lead to health problems like cardiovascular disease and other fatal conditions. A report from the American Psychological Association found that in 2014, 60 percent of surveyed, employed Americans cited “work” as their top stressor.
And that’s not focusing on a group of people with already existing mental illnesses like anxiety or depression — that’s just your average American.
I love my job. I really do — I have an awesome team, an inspiring mentor and I work somewhere that has a mission I believe in whole-heartedly. I enjoy the office, the culture and the community we work in. But work is either #1 or #2 (depending on the day) on my list of “things that induce panic attacks.”
This isn’t solely the fault of my job’s demands — I’m a perfectionist at heart and a very driven-to-prove-myself kind of person. Working long days with tight deadlines and critical work would stress anyone out — but for someone with anxiety, there’s a level of stress that goes beyond that.
One time at the office, about five months or so into my employment, there was a situation in which I had a full-blown panic attack at work, ending with me crying in the bathroom where a very important person in the company totally saw me. The reason I was upset was no one in particular’s fault, just a typical not-so-great day at the office with a bit extra drama than usual. But I could not handle it. And I just completely broke down.
I was so embarrassed and so ashamed. I thought for sure I was done. Who keeps around a cry baby who can’t handle a rough day?
The day ended with an apology from my supervisor, reassurance of my talent and skills and me heading home early to lay in bed until the next morning. Though to most people, the day ended just fine, I could not let go of the fact that I “failed.” I’d lost my cool in the place where my cool matters most. It was, quite literally, my worst nightmare (like, pretty sure I’ve had that dream before).
From that day on, I constantly wondered if my boss thoughts I was “crazy.” I was terrified of looking anything less than put together at work — I thought my status and job security depended on it. However, these “standards” were only set by one person: me.
I hit a pretty low point a few months ago and my stress was at an all-time high. I wasn’t doing a very good job at hiding it (though I was getting better at not crying at the drop of a hat). My boss pulled me aside at one point and point blank asked me if I was OK. I wasn’t. And I told her.
I don’t recommend this to everyone — it really depends on the type of relationship you have with your supervisor, and the kind of work you do — but I sort of word-vomited all over myself and basically spilled my guts to my boss about my anxiety, my therapy, my coping mechanisms and how I wasn’t coping so well at that particular time. I didn’t go into details about my issues in my personal life, just that I generally was having a hard time, and an even harder time keeping it together at the office. And you know what? I wasn’t fired! Hallelujah!
Instead, my boss was incredibly understanding, and even shared some of her own vulnerabilities with me. It was a very touching conversation. And, going forward, I didn’t feel like I needed to hide my struggles and emotions as much in the workplace (though I still aim to keep it pretty professional as much as I can). It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, and it’s all because I was honest, not only with my boss, but also with myself. I wasn’t crazy.
Just the other day, a few months since our initial talk, my boss pulled me into her office to talk (cue internal panic). All she wanted to tell me was that she had noticed I seemed more alert in meetings and was speaking up more in discussions. She wanted to tell me that 1) she noticed and 2) she was proud of me, and hoped this meant I was feeling better.
At that moment, I swear I felt my heart swell — just like the Grinch, it grew a few sizes that day.
It was one of the most empowering, empathetic, beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced, and I think about it often. I’m not sure if she understands the profound impact it had on me, but I hope she does, because I think about it all the time.
If you struggle with a mental illness in the workplace, you are not crazy, and you should never be made to feel like you are. Being honest with yourself, and maybe your peers around you, could be enough to put your fears to rest and help ease your mind about your anxiety. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Go cry it out in the bathroom, chug some ice cold water or take the day to lay in bed, but never doubt that you are worthy of your position, and damn good at your job.
Follow this journey on Naturally Sheyna.
The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.