My Journey with Anxiety, Stress and Burnout
My journey with anxiety, stress and burnout – A personnal account documented to raise awareness, offer help and insight. I am not an expert in mental health, but I have lived with some symptoms and their impacts. Everyones journey is different, this is my journey with anxiety, stress and burnout.
‘I did get out of bed today… I promise’, were the words echoed to my husband on day 4 of my collapse / exit from the world / emotional breakdown / duvet dive. An accurate description of the period is still a little hard to nail down, but I suppose that’s not important. Day 4 was the day that my long held delusions around my mental health were shattered. No longer could I make excuses or ignore what was really going on. Like most people in the same situation, that moment of realisation ‘that i’m not OK’ is confronting and incredibly scary.
Like all mental wellness journeys, mine did not start when I could not cope. In reality, the downward spiral of my mental health had started about 18 months to 2 years prior.
In mid-2019 I was part of a management team, working in the IT sector in NZ. It’s an industry I had spent the majority of my career working and thriving in. As a super organised human with huge tenacity fed emotionally by delivering outcomes, the world of IT Project Management has always suited me. Over the years, the usual career progression happened. I delivered larger projects and took on more responsibility until 2019, when I found myself working within a management team, leading a team of massively talented PMs and SDMs in both Wellington and Auckland. In mid 2019, the NZ-owned business I worked for was sold to an American organisation. Of course, this saw the usual changes around how the company operated, our direction, and who performed what roles. Roles were impacted, and towards the end of 2019, I found myself in the fortunate position of being offered a global role. This role saw me look after not only my current NZ team but the team project management team in the US as well.
At the time, I had mixed emotions; I was unbelievably flattered but equally concerned that maybe it might not be the right move for me. For the first time in my career, I questioned my usual ‘Yes’ answer to something new and scary. I did all the right things. I met with a fantastic mentor and outlined my concerns, some of which were addressed directly with the organisation during role negotiations. However, a significant number of personal concerns still existed. What if I can’t cope? What if I can cope, but my relationship with my husband and kids suffers? Can I learn to emotionally disconnect from work? All these questions remained posed but unanswered as I jumped full noise into the role – following my usual ‘Yes’ approach to life.
In short order Covid 19 hit, and within a matter of weeks of my role being formally announced, and like the rest of the world, I found myself working remotely from the comfort of my hastily converted spare bedroom. Now emotionally disconnected from my team and the newly formed senior leadership team.
The Project Manager in me kicked into gear, looking after my people, the business, and importantly supporting our clients to look after their business as the globe tried to deal with this unprecedented new stressor. One year later, when the world and NZ were still battling with a new way of living, I’m still sat isolated (at times) in my spare bedroom, the downward progression of my mental health was easy to push aside. However, as the weeks and months progressed, it was overwhelmingly hard to ignore. The long weeks with early starts and late finishes started to take their toll. I noticed an increase in my anxiety and stress responses to emails and messages; every night was a sleepless one with a 3am wake up; my tolerance for change was diminishing; my ability to switch off from work was reducing; my ability to connect and be present with my family was reducing; the list goes on and on. After months of feeling anxious, stressed, disconnected, emotionally shut down, exhausted and sleep deprived, I had a stark awakening one surprising Sunday lunchtime. The day was set to be special; three of my friends and I were heading out for a gin-matched afternoon tea. What a great way to whittle away a few hours. The reality was far from the truth. I sat feeling isolated, disconnected, and frightened that the conversation would turn to ’so how’s work with you? ‘. I found it hard to find the correct expressions or reactions to the conversation. Compared to how it should have been, it was one of the most difficult few hours I have experienced. On the ride home, I could no longer ignore the fact that something was not right. I was scared that I was depressed, I was scared I was burnt out, but most of all, I was scared that I did not know what was wrong with me.
So, like all good project managers, my problem-solving skills kicked in, and like most things in my life, I decided to tackle it in a few ways. 1st – A diagnosis 2nd Fix It!! Simple Right!!!
Immediately after I left that appointment, I broke. The realisation hit; I had nowhere to hide anymore
My Journey To A Diagnosis
First was the purchase of ‘Beyond Burnout’, a book by Kiwi Author Suzi McAlpin. This book explores the concept of burnout with question sections that help you determine if burnout is something you are battling with.
Second was a conversation with the head of ‘People and Culture’ at work for an open, honest, and tearful conversation about my mental health. She hooked me up with an EAP counsellor, which allowed me to access 5 free counselling sessions.
Third was to book an appointment with my GP because that’s what you do when you’re not well, you speak to a Dr, and if I wanted a diagnosis, then surely my doctor (GP) is a good starting point!!
Fourth was to sort out the pain in my body. The stress on my body had been significant, and my neck and back were screaming loudly that I needed to get help.
Research – ‘Beyond Burnout’ was chosen because it was written by a Kiwi author who herself had experience with burnout. I have read enough self-help books from American authors to know that their messaging style often doesn’t resonate with me. This book felt more personal, specific to the NZ ‘type of human’. It seemed to have the right mix of explanations about burnout together with support around diagnosing burnout and helpful first steps to fix burnout. The book’s irrelevant (to me) sections could be missed, allowing you to drill straight to the most valid and impactful parts. I read, digested, and answered all the questions posed and, at the end of the process, felt that, in fact, burnout seemed credible. But really, does one self-help book give me a clear diagnosis on which I can pin my ‘mental health’ cap?
Therapy – I have been to therapy once previously in my life, just a couple of sessions, but enough to give me some knowledge of what to expect. I ended up only having two sessions with the lady booked under EAP services. This was enough for me to start sharing my concerns, thoughts, and feelings and to answer the standard ‘depression’ PHQ-9 test that helps with a diagnosis. The results from this short and straightforward test were clear – depression was unlikely, but yes, I certainly was dealing with some mental health challenges (stress, anxiety, sleeplessness) that could, over time, lead to depression. The answer was there, but the message and how it was communicated was not concrete enough for me.
Doctor – Although I had the results from the PHQ-9, I still felt a visit to my GP was necessary. My first visit to the GP was a complete letdown. He looked uncomfortable with the conversations and had no words of wisdom except that maybe a holiday might be a good idea. The idea of a holiday was slightly ridiculous, considering our nation was in the middle of a covid 19 lockdown! Lucky, I had gone into this appointment organised and with an agenda. To save any further embarrassment, I offered that conducting a series of blood tests to ensure my hormone levels were within the normal range might be helpful. Fortunately, he jumped on this, allowing an easy end to a difficult appointment. I decided that when I returned to get my blood results, I would make an appointment with a different GP. Hoping that I would have an easier and more receptive conversation.
Visit two was more successful; the GP was more relaxed around the subject and not only confirmed my blood work was good, but she also asked me to complete the same PHQ-9 questions. The results were the same, but this time I got a more concrete and slightly less fluffy validation. No, you’re not depressed, but yes, you are suffering from anxiety and stress related mental health challenges that need to be addressed. The GP was the first person that very softly mentioned that part of the solution might be a job change. Although I had secretly acknowledged this to myself, it was not something I had verbalised. Discussing it (although tentatively) was a relief.
The Body – Pain Relief – I have been lucky to find a great clinic that I have used over the years to keep my body moving. They provide numerous therapies or modalities that support getting you out of pain. Be that a sprained ankle, damaged knees or, in my case, stress-related neck and back issues. It had been about a year since my last visit to the Featherston Street Pain Clinic. I walked in, feeling overwhelmed and emotionally detached, not expecting the signs of stress to be obvious. I assumed the position, face down on the treatment bed, awaiting a verdict of what magic treatment could be offered to help my neck move again.
To my surprise, after 30 seconds of feeling my neck and back, I was asked to sit up. ‘ How stressed are you? ‘ was one of the questions asked of me……’ very ‘, I said simply, whilst trying desperately not to cry. ‘ What’s going on? ‘ was the follow-up question…’ work ‘ was my short but emotional response. That was all that was said; that was all that was needed. I got the treatment I needed, but I knew from that conversation and how my body reacted to the treatment that my body was in way worse shape than I was admitting. My nervous system was ‘poked’ (not a technical term), 2 years + of significant stress and anxiety, and it could no longer cope. Twice weekly appointments were booked where hopefully, over time, my body would release some of the built-up stress. But ultimately, I knew this was only a band-aid, as the stressor in my life was still there.
Immediately after I left that appointment, I broke. The realisation hit; I had nowhere to hide anymore. I walked back into work, picked up my laptop, and left without explanation. The following day I sent an email to my manager in the US, saying I was done. Over the course of that day, conversations were had where it was agreed I would take the week off and give myself time to decompress. The briefest message was sent to my 2IC’s saying I’m off all week and not contactable … at all. The week of Duvet Diving commenced.
I still felt the pressure to be ‘normal’.
I have two teenage kids and an amazing husband that I felt the need to shield from the truth.
Recovery – Part One
Burnout is simple…right? You’re just working too hard!! I genuinely believed that a week would help, that with some time out, I would gain the perspective and wisdom needed to understand where I was mentally and fix it.
I disabled all messaging from all devices and put my laptop away. I genuinely did not think about work, but more than that, I did not care about work. Although I was off work, I still felt the pressure to be ‘normal’. I have two teenage kids and an amazing husband that I felt the need to shield from the truth. So, although I might have slept in each morning, I made sure that I got out of bed, exercised every day, and had dinner prepared for the family each evening. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time, I did nothing. Each day I went back to bed, slept and watched Netflix, but these two things gave me a sense of achievement; they made me feel that life would be ok and that I still had ‘some’ of my shit together.
At the end of the week, a few conversations with work were had. It was agreed that I would head back to work, but I would look to take some mental health days every couple of weeks to try to maintain a little balance. They would support me, and we would continue an open dialogue about how I was doing. This sounds great in practice, but those in busy roles or leadership positions know that taking a day off is almost impossible. It usually involves more hours to ‘clear the decks’ before the time off and ‘catchup’ once you return.
This ‘part 1 recovery’ phase went on for 3 months. The delusion around coping continued; I maintained the visits to the Pain Clinic, but my anxiety increased, and my sleep remained interrupted; then the panic attacks started to occur.
It took a good friend to ask me one day if I wanted her opinion on what I should do. Of course, I said, Yes. She said I should leave work, that she had watched me struggle for too long. That the work environment and stress were just not worth the emotional investment for me or my family. She, of course, was right.
The delusion around me ‘being ok’ was well and truly shattered. I chatted to my amazingly supportive husband. He agreed that continuing as I was, was not sustainable. We were fortunate that I could leave my job without a role to go to. We were even more fortunate that conversations around me taking 3 to 6 months off were also had. This alleviated the pressure, allowing me to focus on getting well. It also meant I did not have to try and think about another job or try and fluff my way through a job interview with a patched-up smile on my face. That aside, I had no idea what I wanted to do as my next career step. To understand that I needed time to find myself again and re-evaluate what role ‘work’ was to play in my life. The following day I resigned.
Recovery – Part Two
It’s a weird situation, suddenly having the dimensions of your life shift. Switching almost overnight from ‘time poor’ to ‘time rich’. Like all good project managers, I wanted to ensure my ‘recovery time’ was productive. Yes, I know the craziness of this statement now, but at the time, I needed to make sure that I was doing something constructive to get well. So, what did recovery–round two look like?
Work – I did not think about work; I put zero pressure on any timeline to decide what I wanted to do or where to do it. I knew more about what I didn’t want to do moving forward than what I wanted to do. I knew what work stressors looked like and didn’t want to repeat them to risk the same result, regardless of the environment.
One revelation came quite early on when I realised that you should not always do a job because you’re good at it. I listened to a podcast that put a different perspective on how to view your ‘Strengths’ and ‘Weakness’. A weakness by the very nature of its description is something that weakens you. Likewise, a strength should be viewed as something that makes you feel stronger. This has forever changed how I might answer this ‘typical’ interview question and made me re-assess what I should value about any future role or organisation.
I was great at many of the roles I was filling; this was validated by my fellow managers and team. Throughout my career, I have relished positive validation of my ‘amazingness’, concluding that amazing = good = continue to do what you are good at. I drew zero correlation between being good at something vs it not being good for me. In reality, a large percentage of my job was not good for me. It was emotionally draining and anxiety-inducing. It was filled more with tasks that drained me rather than filled me up. And so, my list of ‘don’t repeat this’ in your new role was formed.
PodCasts – Reading a physical book during the last two years has been difficult; getting the brain to switch off and concentrate has been nearly impossible. So, audiobooks and podcasts have been a lifeline. I stumbled across The Diary of a CEO podcasts and immediately found a large amount of content that resonated with me. Many great, knowledgeable, and insightful guests talking about a range of subjects focused on business and health. Here is a handful that resonated for me, those I gleaned insight from and those I have continued to re-listen, to share and reference.
The Body – Pain Relief – I continued to get my body treated for stress-related pain. Each week saw improvement, but it probably took around 6 months for my body to fully let go of some of the built-up stress and tension. It shows the impact prolonged stress has on your nervous system and why it’s so difficult to treat stress-related pain while you’re still in a stressful situation. I eventually plucked up the courage to ask how during my first visit, how it was so noticeable that I was stressed. ‘Easy’ came the response; our blood cortisol rises when we are under stress, causing our muscles to get tighter over time. Hence, it feels like the body has created a ‘hard shell’ across the top of your muscles. It’s easy to feel. Relieving that ‘hard shell’ takes time, requiring not only treatment but also for the stress levels in the body to subside to make any notable difference in how the body feels. Treatment band-aids and support of various kinds can, of course, be applied and will help. Still, long-term systemic change requires a change in our nervous system and a reduction in stress-generating situations.
Counselling – I researched and found a great local counsellor that, as it turned out, was a perfect fit for me. Finding someone available who is the right fit can be tricky, so I feel grateful that this process was so seamless. I have continued to see the same counsellor weekly for the past year, covering all elements of my life, not just work. The discussions and insights underpin all the other aspects of my recovery. The process has been confronting, supportive and incredibly insightful. I have learned more about myself than I thought possible, giving me insights into ‘why’ I think, feel, and act the way I do. It’s a journey I will continue to stay on for as long as it supports and offers insight. For those who have not experienced counselling, I can see how the whole process can be scary. The ‘I’ of 20 years ago would certainly not have entertained it, but I can safely say it has been, hands down, the best thing I have done during my recovery.
Mindfullness – Notice my use of the word mindfulness and not meditation. This is deliberate; the prospect of meditating or being good at meditating is a little off-putting. It can stop us in our ‘meditation’ tracks before we start. For those of us with busy minds, the prospect of emptying it for even a minute is daunting. I knew the benefits of just sitting and being quiet, avoiding stimulation from my phone or the distraction of Netflix. So, shifting my perspective to being more mindful felt a little more achievable, despite them being one in the same thing. Mindfulness for me took two forms; I needed to be outside and the support of an app to help get me mindful. I used Calm as this gave me a host of guided meditation sessions, including help for beginners and night-time stories to help me drift off. I took the time most days to get out for a walk, not a walk with purpose, but a walk to just be. I made sure I disconnected from music or podcasts and spent time in the environment. A favourite spot was by the sea, where I could stop and just be. It was usually at these times that I would do a guided meditation session using the Calm app.
My mindfulness training wheels are still very much on. I certainly don’t do it every day. Still, I do understand the importance of it and notice the shift in my mood and resilience when I have a run of doing it more frequently. I continue to use Calm and find myself more regularly taking time to listen to a session or two.
Exercise – I have worked with a personal trainer for a couple of years, my motivation for gyms and classes is shocking, so a PT works well for me. He keeps me motivated and, more importantly, keeps me showing up. I have been very open with him about how I am going; if needed, he adjusts the workouts accordingly. Additionally, I continued indulging in my love of Squash, heading to the courts for a hit when possible. Getting the endorphins flying whilst losing myself in the game has helped clear the mind and energise the body.
My Journey Continues
Mental Health, like physical health, is something all of us should be investing in, regardless of whether we’re suffering from significant anxiety or burnout. Like going to the gym and eating well, we do these things to support a healthier us – mental health is the same. There are tips, tools, and treatments we can introduce into our daily lives that support better mental health and that stop or reduce the impact anxiety has on us mentally and physically. We just need to find the right combination of things that work for us.
I continue to look for and seek out healthy habits. This has manifested in a new career, working for the Pain Clinic. Additionally, I have started my own business working alongside the owner of the Pain Clinic. We have launched a new business called DeepWave, which leverages Brainwave Entraintment. DeepWave helps our brains to be healthier and more able to deal with the stresses that this modern life throws at it. DeepWave and The Pain Clinic allow me to work in an environment that is nurturing both physically and mentally. It exploits my strengths, allowing a great springboard for my mental wellness journey to continue.