Recently I led a virtual team building activity intended to promote a “get-to-know-each-other” dialogue. It was over Zoom and before you roll your eyes, hear me out. My team, like many, has been remote for the last year and on top of the typical challenges of working through a global pandemic, we’ve also recently endured some organizational change. The team is a talented bunch and I’m proud to lead and work with them, but I also recognize our culture and camaraderie is slower to build given the circumstances of the last year.
So when our team building discussion evolved into a conversation about mental health, it was fitting, timely and if I do say so myself…really wonderful.
The prompt was: Share a moment in your past that has shaped how you think or work now.
With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to set the tone with a personal example, so I shared my first experience having a panic attack. This was a time in my life when on paper I had everything together. I was 25, still in the honeymoon phase of my big-girl job, engaged and planning a wedding, and recently purchased my first home. So why, one evening was I driving home from work feeling completely out of control? My face began to tingle, eventually going completely numb, my heart was beating out of my chest and I remember gripping the steering wheel with my elbows locked, terrified of what was coming next. The absence of control (whoisdrivingthiscarandhowcanImakeitstop?!) was all consuming and I still don’t really remember the rest of the drive home.
I wrapped the story by emphasizing how much of a wakeup call that moment was for me to take care of myself. My journey facing my mental health challenges began after the panic attack, though the signs were there much earlier. I spent a lot of time convincing myself this was just life as an adult. But my personal encounter with anxiety is why I am so passionate about candid conversation and work-life balance being a reality for my team.
I expected to see some dropped jaws and wide eyes, but instead I noticed a lot of nodding heads and metaphorical light bulbs going off. Even if the members of my team had never personally experienced what I was describing, it gave them insight into who I am. It’s why I am constantly checking in on them personally and not only their projects. It’s why I recant stories of my disaster mornings with my rambunctious children— to let them know they aren’t alone. And it’s why I feel like being a (mostly) open book is so important to building trust (which generally opens the door for high performance, but that’s a conversation for another time).
In the 11 years since my panic attack, I’ve learned a lot. While I did seek help almost immediately, I kept much of the experience to myself. Aside from those closest to me I did not talk openly about my anxiety. It was a step in the right direction to acknowledge my challenges, but mostly I’d attempt to hide a trying time by getting in a (probably not-so-discreet) cry in the bathroom stall at work.
Eventually I moved to “owning it.” But what that really meant is while I would directly address my anxiety, I’d use self-deprecating humor and preface everything with, “I know I’m crazy or high strung (or insert any other negative, semi-offensive term), but…”
I believe living through the emergence of COVID-19 brought a huge awareness to those struggling with their mental health. I don’t know if more people began to experience symptoms or if we all just realized we can’t keep holding our emotions inside. Whatever the reason it’s been FREEING to me. I will preach self-care to anyone who will listen and openly tell them that my challenge is anxiety. It’s what I deal with and it’s part of who I am. Now I try to be intentional about using language that lets others know how I’m doing. It’s not that I need anything from them, but simply being able to articulate how I’m feeling creates more authenticity from me.
When I’m dealing with a bout of anxiety I now use a two-pronged approach:
- Talk about it (“Hi, husband. This week has been rough. Here’s how I feel…”)
- Do something positive about it. (“Hi, husband. Because this week has been rough I really need to go for a walk alone.”)
This strategy has been huge for me. And by working it into my everyday life it allows me to remember that mental health is not a trend. We are all living a real-life with real-life challenges and real-life reactions every single day.
As one of my favorite authors, speakers and mental health advocates, Glennon Doyle says, “We can do hard things.” It’s such a simple phrase, but reciting it has been a powerful reminder. It’s not that we’re making a big deal out of nothing. Whatever the “nothing” is, is a big deal to us. It’s about remembering we will get through it. The feeling, the decision, the moment…whatever the it is.
So, the evening after our team building activity, I went to yoga. After a sweaty hour of hard work, I prepared to lean in to savasana (this part of class may affectionately be referred to as ”nap time” for non-yogis). It’s the last few minutes of class designated for gratitude, rest and a clear head. But instead of being in the moment, I found myself replaying conversations I had during the work day, unable to shut off the internal chatter. At that moment I realized I had used my two-pronged approach and was still having an “off” day.
I felt like a hypocrite. Here I was broadcasting my anxiety and my strategies of how I have it all figured out. How well I cope! Yet, in actuality I clearly wasn’t coping all that well. I relayed this frustration to a friend after class who reminded me it’s all a journey (not a trend, remember?).
And she was right.
I’m striving to be an example for my daughters, friends, family and colleagues. To be someone who is honest, authentic and who acknowledges when she isn’t at her best. Some days I may appear to have everything under control. Some days may be heavy, hard and obviously so.
I am an imperfect example. And that I realized, is perfectly okay.