On Tuesday morning I got a lift into work with C, feeling slightly sick at the prospect of the day ahead. It’s been a while since I felt this bad about going into the office. I felt disappointed in myself, irrationally so, and then got cross with myself about that, too.
So why was I worried when I woke up? Well, we had a team meeting scheduled for that morning. Nothing unusual about that, but this particular meeting was to discuss our upcoming office relocation announced last week.
The prospect of imminent change to my “work home”, so to speak, has triggered my anxiety. After five years’ sitting at the same desk I’m literally moving up in the world. Currently divided over two floors of our building, my colleagues and I are destined to go higher and join the rest of our team. A move has been on the cards for some time – so long, in fact, that I’ve settled into my space over the years. As such, I presumed talk of reuniting my team was simply another public sector promise; a “nice to have one day” but not likely happening anytime soon.
Anxiety is a funny thing. Admittedly, it’s not so funny when you’re in it. However by “funny” I mean that it’s strange how anxiety appears and disappears so quickly. Sometimes coming on suddenly, and at other times, it seems to sneak up and catch me unawares. Like fire, anxiety rises seemingly out of nowhere. Also like fire, if left unchecked it can cause some real damage. I’ve already spoken about this on a previous post where I talk about my worst Summer ever.
Though this nascent nervousness around moving desks is relatively mild on the anxiety scale, I’m conscious about needing to take care of myself. In writing about my most acute anxiety attacks a few Summers back, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have turned out had I been better prepared to take positive action earlier on.
As you’ve probably picked up on by now, in creating Project HeatherED I’m looking for ways to become better, which I define as becoming happier, healthier, and emotionally wealthier. Drawing upon my experiences with stress management strategies over the past ten years (well, thirty four, technically, but you catch my drift) I made it through what could have been a really rough day relatively unscathed.
Reflecting back on what I did to achieve this, I’ve devised the following plan of action for anyone looking to become better at managing their anxiety. This is exactly what I did in the space of twelve hours to work through my own anxious feelings around my upcoming office move. I hope this helps whomever else might be reading this and feeling similarly stressed out.
My Seven Strategies to Stick-It to Stress
#1 Tell someone I trust how I’m feeling.
This was the very first thing I did. Only slightly from a place of of panic, I carefully crafted an email to my managers to tell them I felt worried about the pending move. I think I managed to come across professional (I read, re-read, and edited before pressing send). After that terrible, anxiety-filled Summer, I made a resolution to be honest abut my feelings, with myself and others. Basically, I learnt that I must stand up and risk sharing what I feel – and what I want to feel – if I wish to be helped in the precise way I need.
As expected, my managers have been nothing but supportive and kind. I received a thoughtful reply from the big boss later that day, which straight away helped me feel loads better. Rationally I understand that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ is correct in saying “change is the only constant in life“, however this knowledge doesn’t seem to get through to my nervous system. As anyone with anxiety knows, reassurance only does so much to stem the nerves. It’s a temporary fix and it doesn’t take long for the unease to resurface.
#2 Be mindful and stay as present as possible.
My personal experience of mental illness is that it takes me away from the present moment. Depression dwells on past mistakes, whereas anxiety makes negative assumptions about what the future may hold. As yogis and modern-day “mindfulness gurus” like to remind us (frequently condescendingly IMO), the present is the only moment that counts. Reminding myself of this as often as necessary helps me from wandering in the maze of my mind. If I do disappear, then as soon as I’m aware of this, I can choose to returning my attention to the here-and-now. This whole “bringing yourself back to the moment” is the essence of mindfulness. No candles, incense, or mantra required.
#3 Play up the positivity.
Admittedly, it sounds cheesy (because it is cheesy), but I have repeatedly make a conscious choice to adopt an “attitude of gratitude”. Contrary to appearances, I’m not a naturally “glass-half-full” kinda gal. Of course, if you’ve known me for some time, you’ll be guffawing as you read this blog, or watch my vlogs over on Facebook, and wonder what’s happened to me. I get it – it still surprises me at times – but I’m learning that underneath the veil of mental illness, I’m much sunnier than I ever really knew. I’m discovering new elements to my personality; things like my inherent hopefulness, positivity, and gratitude for the small things in life.
Getting back to the whole office move scenario that prompted this post in the first place, one of my best strategies for neutralising my nervousness is to intentionally focusing on what’s good about the move. I came up with the following within a few moments of seeking out the positives:
- sitting near my best work buddy again,
- a fresh start at keeping my workstation clean,
- a reason to clear out my clutter (which inevitably helps me get into a better headspace),
- I’ll get to know the girls upstairs better by proximity,
- an opportunity to redecorate – to go for a more grown-up look and update my cork board with pictures of the people I love, and symbols of my hopes and dreams,
- and, being higher up, we’ll have better views of the park.
There’s always more than one perspective we can take on any situation and we can choose to take the most positive. Consciously focusing on the positive assures me that there’s plenty of good to be gained from my move, too.
#4 Take my medication. That’s what it’s for, after all.
Prior to our Tuesday team meeting, I took an anti-anxiety pill which I carry in my purse for such occasions. Again later in the day I took another. It sounds overly dramatic – to medicate for meetings. I feel silly even talking about it, envisioning eye-rolls from those who might reasonably wonder why I’m medicating to manage general life situations. My partner, C, would have been with them, too, before he took one of my meds (without asking me or his doctor – not to be recommended, folks) seeing the effects for himself.
Medication helps me. Accepting this has helped me learn to ignore the voice of the inner critic so I can do what works for me. I still clearly worry about what others might think of me, but it doesn’t prevent me from acting in my own best interests. These days it’s a rare occasion when I need to take one, but knowing there’s medicine I can take which will “lowers the volume” on my physical symptoms is a real life-saver in emotional emergencies.
#5 Write my heart out.
When I feel anxious one of the things I regularly rely on to help is to write things down. Writing is an excellent tool that works well for most people as a way of untangling thoughts and feelings, likely because there are so many ways of making it work. For me, I journal by hand, type thoughts online at 750 Words, or list gratitudes. It’s another tool which helps me stay mindful, taking copious notes in work meetings (that I’ll never need) to focus my mind on the here-and-now. Bonkers maybe, but it works.
#6 Get moving. Literally.
Quite frankly, I’ve been pants at sticking to my regular workout routine of late. Not so unusual – pretty normal, in fact – for most people whose commitment to their monthly membership peaks and troughs with the seasons (i.e. upping their game before Christmas party season and Summer swimwear). However for me, I’m usually at the gym to where it borders on obsession and so I’m feeling a bit out of sorts.
Having habitually attended class on a Tuesday after work for four years, I try to turn off my brain and follow my feet. This way, I’m getting into the gym at least once and it’s helping me to remember why I go in the first place: for fun, friendship, and freedom from my racing mind. Logically I know that once I’m there I feel fine. Chatting with classmates beforehand puts me at ease and helps me get into a happy headspace.
Unlike so many other experiences in life, I’ve never regretted a workout and this week was no different. Coming back to what I know works, exercise genuinely calms both my mind and body. It’s a healthy way of channeling nervous energy into something productive, releasing muscle tension along with any frustrations. Back home I’m tired – but no longer wired – and I feel grateful for having trusted in what I know at heart is in my best interests.
#7: Let go of perfection. I’m perfectly imperfect.
Giving myself permission not to be perfect is one of the most important acts of self-care and compassion I can imagine. It seems so simple – and it is – but it’s certainly not easy and, for me at least and recovering perfectionists like me, is a perpetual practice. It’s an on-going challenge to scale down my expectations and be happy with “good enough”. This makes ever-more sense in reading “The Four Tendencies” by Gretchen Rubin. I’ve learnt that I’m an Upholder personality type, meaning I live up to the expectations of myself and others pretty easily. It’s great for when I have to get stuff done, but not so much for engendering a sense of personal happiness and fulfilment. I’ve always got that nagging feeling that I could do or be more. Choosing to consciously release myself of this perpetual pressure – particularly when already anxious – is another way I can practise being kind to myself.
Still shaken by the prospect of changing desks, I decided I’d allow myself to eat whatever I wanted for my post-gym dinner. Rather than eating a pre-planned, balanced meal of an evening when I’m anxious, I instead find it soothing to turn to childhood comfort foods. Namely, eggs, soup, buttery toast, rice pudding, kids’ cereal, chocolate, and – of course – cake. Admittedly this doesn’t sound particularly grown-up and healthy-minded of me, and it’s probably not.
There’s a part of me which still feels guilty for not making a “proper” evening meal. I’m hesitant to admit to having these 1950s mental mantras of “I’m a poor excuse for a housewife”, “I’m neglecting to care for my man”, and “what kind of woman are you?!” amongst others playing on repeat.. Despite C being a way more capable cook than I, on days when I’d rather eat cereal these kinds of thoughts inevitably race round my mind.
Still, I went with my gut – literally – and had eggs on toast for Tuesday tea. Fighting the feeling that I’m somehow letting C down, I knew it felt like the right thing to do for me in that moment. Over time I’ve learnt that sometimes when I have a mini-mental health wobble – which will happen, no matter how hard I try to prevent it – being a little bit selfish is okay. Indulging in a self-centred whim once in a while releases feel-good hormones, providing a much-needed quick-fix to feeling happy.
So there you have it: My seven strategies to stick-it to stress. When used together this helped me better handle my anxiety around our upcoming office move. I’m sure I’ll need to refer back to several steps of this self-care strategy to staying sane. Hence having it here – in writing – will undoubtedly act as a reminder for me, as much as I intend it to share what works with you.
Perhaps sensing that something was up (I’m terrible at keeping my feelings to myself), C offered to pick me up from the gym; an offer which I gratefully accepted. Throwing my bags into the boot, I sat beside him and began to tell him about my day.
When we pulled up the drive, I could see D running from the far end of the back garden to greet us. Shouting in his loudest kitty voice (don’t ever underestimate the power of a 4.2 kilo ball of fur with teeth), he shared his kitty news, pleased to see us home. As much as he’s a pain in the furry butt, that cat brings me so much joy I couldn’t help but feel better.
I came home feeling pretty pleased with how I’d handled my nerves around the whole change of scene at work. Yet still, something felt off; I didn’t quite feel myself. Hair sticking to my neck, my overheated, lycra-clad limbs just desperate to get out of my gym gear and jump in the shower, I understandably felt icky. So much for self-care strategies, eh?
As I walked in the door, bags sliding off my sweaty shoulder, there C stood, his arms wide open and welcoming. “Come here,” he said in a tone I recognised as being genuinely sympathetic, pulling me in for a bear hug.
It was perfect; turns out a hug from the person I love most was exactly what I needed.
Suddenly everything feels alright again.