How I Put My Mental Health First (and How You Can Too)
As we grow older it is only natural that we self-identify with the people, experiences, interests, and activities that consume us.
Depending on how you spend your time you may consider yourself the outdoorsy type, a bookworm, a music junkie, a foodie, or perhaps a movie buff. I self-identify as a runner, dog lover, "sneakerhead" and golf enthusiast.
I am also someone who lives with a mental illness.
For most of my adult life that was not an easy statement to say (even harder to write), because of the stigma that often gets applied to having a mental illness. But part of removing that stigma is being honest, sharing, stepping forward and supporting others. There is no need to hide, and with May being mental health awareness month, no better time than now.
Like millions of others, I am someone who lives with an anxiety disorder, which is categorized as a mental disorder. A little over three years ago I was clinically diagnosed with having a generalized anxiety disorder, triggered by lifelong battle with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s kind of like a one-two punch where one disorder fuels the other.
For as long as I can remember I have lived with OCD. My symptoms were paying meticulous attention to detail and routine in everything I did. If I didn’t do this, I would be hit with an anxiety attack - characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worrying that something was going to go wrong.
As a kid that can be a terrifying experience, but as I got older, I used my OCD to my advantage, especially at work. I steered my routines and energy towards achieving as much as I could as fast as I could with unwavering attention to detail and organization. I suppressed, ignored and hid my panic attacks and kept my head down to deliver as much as I could as fast as I could.
Then one day I started to see issues develop and the anxiety attacks I had as a kid started to reemerge (in addition to the onset of panic attacks). All the while I kept working and performing at a very high level. However, the attacks eventually got so bad that I needed to go public with my ailment and seek treatment. I told my boss (who was tremendously supportive), I told my team (who was tremendously caring) and I stepped away for approximately six weeks to focus 100 percent of my time on getting better.
It was the toughest decision of my life. It was also the best decision I ever made. I came back better, stronger, smarter and healthier than ever, and I have never looked back.
Since that time I have come to realize that a number of people have experienced (or are experiencing) symptoms of anxiety or are working to cope with some kind of mental disorder that make waking up and going to work every day challenging. Many people struggle to address their mental health needs, so they suffer in silence, often holding back, because they don’t want to feel ashamed, embarrassed or labeled with a stigma.
I am sharing my experience, perspective and tips in this very personal post to help those who may be dealing with a similar situation. I am not a doctor, but I am someone who has personally overcome what may seem insurmountable. I know that for many the first step is the hardest one to take, and my hope with this post is that it encourages people to take that step.
If you are dealing with something like this, here are some tips to help support you on your journey.
Know you are not alone.
First, know that millions of other people have gone through (or are going through) the same thing. One of the hardest things to manage with anxiety is that it can be hard to explain to others. I once read somewhere “Explaining an anxiety attack to someone who has never experienced one, is like explaining the color red to someone who is colorblind”. It can be very hard to articulate the physical and mental symptoms you are experiencing. When you literally feel like you are going to die, that is a hard thing to capture and articulate. It is a terrifying experience.
You may also feel alone because this is not a comfortable topic for a lot of people to talk about. In a world where everyone appears to be living the perfect life because of the stories and photos they share on Facebook and Instagram, it is impossible to tell the difference between perception and reality. I am here to tell you the reality: You are 100 percent not alone in your struggle. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are. Nobody lives the perfect life. Don’t be fooled by what people want you to believe.
Yes, it is okay to put yourself first.
Many people feel that it is impossible to step off the treadmill that is our job, especially in a world where we are connected 24/7. It’s hard to turn off your brain. Once you complete one task the next deadline is right behind it. As someone who suffered from OCD this was the hardest thing for me to reconcile. I lived my life through my checklists -- my days were a constantly running list of checked boxes. I wanted to achieve big, ambitious goals every day of my life. You can constantly and consistently make excuses for why right now is not the right time to step away and get help. The reality is, the longer the wait the worse you will get. Sometimes the right time is right now.
It’s okay to ask for help.
This is one of the hardest steps to take; telling someone you are not feeling well and you need help. It is terrifying because you don’t want people to think of you differently. You don’t want to appear weak. You don’t want people to think you lack “mental toughness.” You don’t want people to say, “Oh well, the pressure must have gotten to them.” You don’t want to be branded with a stigma that limits your career mobility and potential.
The reality is if you are living with an anxiety disorder you are living with a disorder you can make better with the proper treatment. It is not a matter of willing yourself through the day because you want to create a perception that you can grind through anything. It’s about sharing with people what you are going through so you can be healthy, happy, and productive.
For managers and leaders, take the time to get educated and informed. Be supportive and empathetic -- don’t dismiss it because you can’t physically see it. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, approximately 1.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older (about 3.3 million American adults) suffers from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can affect anyone; it doesn't discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you are a movie star, entrepreneur, world-class athlete, an adored musician, CEO or a world leader. Chances are you know someone right now who is doing their best to manage through something like OCD, ADD, depression or any one of a number of mental disorders. If they come to you for support, give it to them (don’t use it against them). I am blessed to have worked for amazing people at Microsoft, Porch.com, and now at SAP. What made them so great was the time they took to understand what I was going through and give me the flexibility to know my triggers so I can thrive.
Give it time.
Getting better at managing and living with your anxiety takes time; don’t rush it. For me I found success using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and really understanding my triggers. Meditation is important to me. Running is important to me. Sleep and diet go hand in hand. I don’t like being around large crowds. Working with my doctor I found the right way to balance and treat my disorder. It took time and there were days when I felt like I would never improve. By dedicating myself to what it took to get better, the results came and I persevered.
It takes courage.
At the end of the day this is hard, and I will not overlook the courage that comes with having to admit that something is wrong. I was able to improve through the treatment I received and the dedication I placed on my health. In particular sleep, diet, exercise, and meditation. All of us are different and the way we handle situations like this will be different. But there is one thing I know for certain, if you can find the courage, things can and will get better.
Lastly, I know how hard it can be to “go public”. This article is about as public as one can get. I am putting my story out there as I know it can help others. This will live on the Internet forever. That is okay – because I am not ashamed and I know that when people put themselves out there so they can truly be their best, that is what they find in the end.