I’m currently on holiday enjoying the beautiful European summer, and it wouldn’t be a proper holiday unless I was using the time to reflect on life and the past 6-7 months of this year. Whilst we were chatting, a friend of mine pointed out to me that I’ve been stressed at work now for pretty much the better part of the year which I realized was true. Following that, I also realized that although I’ve been stressed it’s not affecting me the same as it used to and suddenly it dawned on me: my relationship to stress and my mental health has changed completely.
My absence from That’s Mental
It’s no secret that I’ve been pretty quiet on the blog for a while now, and I explained some of those reasons in this blog post. Those reasons were all (and still are) absolutely valid and correct, but perhaps the real reason behind my silence that I’ve been afraid to face, is the fact that I feel a lot “better” now than I did when I started this blog. I use the term loosely as to be honest I don’t believe one is every fully “cured” from mental health issues, but the truth is that ever since I quit my job in a toxic work environment and moved to the Netherlands, things have been a lot better. With that in mind I had to ask myself: is it still relevant for me to be blogging about mental health, when I’m not experiencing as many issues?
Of course there were ups and downs: when I first moved I faced a lot of uncertainty and insecurity. I went through a phase where I felt low in confidence and doubted myself. Then I became self employed and had major panic attacks about every 3 months about my future and what I was doing with my life (that’s a story for another day). Later during lockdown, I hit a period where I almost slipped back into depression – as I think was the case for many people.
Not anxious any more
But all of those minor setbacks can be considered pretty regular and are something we all face on and off. They’re a part of life, so it’s normal that they weren’t major disruptors for me, although I have to say my ability to cope with what life throws at me has massively increased.
The biggest difference in my life is that I am no longer as extremely anxious as I used to be. My anxiety was the main contributor to my burnouts, stress and other issues I experienced in the workplace. Of course that was compounded by toxic behaviours and being extremely overworked but they fed off each other creating a spiral of never ending stress that was difficult to control.
If you’ve followed my journey (a lot of it on YouTube) you will know that through coaching and self-reflection, I gained awareness of my anxiety, how it affected me, and worked my way through a lot of the issues I had with work. Some of the toxic behaviours I experienced were inflicted upon me, but some were ones I learned and inflicted upon myself. Once I left the agency I was free to reinvent myself, figure out who I was at work and how I wanted to behave.
I definitely went through some growing pains but in my current job I can say I feel right at home which means I feel much more able to control my emotions, impulses and most importantly – my stress. This in turn means my levels of anxiety are much lower than they used to be – I won’t say non-existent because of course it’s my tendency to be anxious but in general I’m still able to sleep and (mostly) let go after work.
Before I jump into how I’m currently coping, I want to be clear that I didn’t overcome my anxiety overnight. It took many years of coaching, breakthrough moments, but also breakdowns and challenges until I reached the place I am today, and it’s by no means perfect.
How I manage my stress
Today I can confidently say that I am managing my stress in a healthy way and I don’t feel (as strongly) at risk of burning out. Harking back to the conversation I was having with my friend – I know I’ve been stressed but I also know I can manage it and that I’m taking the right steps to protect myself. Interestingly, if this had been the “old me” I would probably already be close to (if not already) burnout. So what’s changed?
1. Being able to let go
Old me was completely incapable of this and I honestly believe it caused a lot of my anguish and burnouts. I still care about a job well done and I’m committed to my work, but previously I was so deeply attached to the success of my projects and work that I would beat myself up over it. The perfectionist in me was relentlessly pushing me beyond my limits, and the toxic workplace only put fuel on the fire.
Now I know (learned the hard way) that pushing myself further won’t necessary result in increased success, but it will most definitely push me over the edge. This makes it easier for me to walk away from work at the end of the day even though I could easily keep going for all kinds of reasons (volume of work, perfectionism etc.). It helps me to put the tools down or to decide I’ve spent enough time on something rather than getting it “perfect”, without feeling any guilt or shame about it. Incidentally, it’s really helped me to be around people who aren’t perfectionists as they’ve taught me how to release things into the wild and not overthink.
2. Making time for “down time”
In the past I had very little down time, something I slowly learned to prioritize for example by increasing my commitment to dance or no longer working weekends. Those moments that are sometimes hard to take (if I just worked 5 more minutes that turns into 2 hours) are the most crucial ones for recovery and making a clean cut between work and life. Allowing your brain to reset and the stress to leave your body, for the fight or flight mode to be switched off. Don’t get me wrong I still struggle – right before this holiday there were two occasions where I definitely wanted to work more but listened to my voice of reason. On one of those occasions I was really stressed but my colleagues took me out for a drink and I wanted to be present in the moment with them.
After a few hours of relaxing I already felt a lot better, and a lot less stressed about what was going on. I was able to take a step back and realize it wasn’t as dramatic as it seemed – most importantly I was able to deal with it much more calmly and all of this helped me to let go. 🙂
These small moments of down time are actually critical as they are the ones that allow me to let go of stress and not let it build up day by day. The pent-up stress is one of the major factors of burnout – that’s why the fact I can release it makes me better able to cope.
3. Setting better boundaries
This one is so important and is another hard learned lesson. In the very early days I had no boundaries – working evenings, weekends – even cancelling a trip for work. Slowly but surely after each burnout I started to establish new boundaries and the more practice I had the easier it became. In my current job where the work environment is healthy it hasn’t been difficult to set boundaries such as not answering emails after hours, but that’s not to say it’s been without challenges. Some of those challenges have been with myself – not just with colleagues.
Perfectionist overworking me knows that it would be so easy to “just” open the laptop on a Sunday, or “just” work on my day off (I work 4 days a week) because it would help ease the workload. In the same way it would be so easy to “just” work a few extra hours in the evening or very late the last day before my holidays. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not worth it, that if I start it’s a very slippery slope that surely leads to burnout. And really, is it worth it? My experience has taught me that it isn’t.
Similarly with colleagues, setting healthy boundaries is as much letting them know where I stand as it is about me knowing my own limits and how to protect myself. If I cannot communicate boundaries, how can I expect people to look out for me? Newsflash (again learned the hard way) – they don’t! That’s why it’s my responsibility to set those boundaries so I can prevent burnout.
4. Listening to my intuition
Connected to the second point, I am so much better at listening to myself and knowing when I’m starting to become overworked or overstressed. In the past, part of my burnout was also due to the fact that I was constantly overdoing it in all parts of life. I had a packed social agenda: every evening after work running off to dance class, meeting friends, networking and more. Weekends were spent attending workshops, travelling or socializing… I had very little down time and most things were planned way in advance. That made me feel trapped and contributed to my anxiety although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Now I am way more in touch with what I need, and I’m learning to listen to my mind and body when they ask for down time. I still have a tendency to overdo it but I am much better at not overbooking myself, building in recovery time, and doing nothing. This is so essential for me to be able to let go of stress, and come back to work feeling rested and emotionally resilient. Without this down time I know the stress would be building up and I’d be constantly worried about the next thing I had to do.
One of the worst feelings I experienced during my early years of burnout was that never ending, constantly growing to do list. The anxiety I felt at the thought of it never been done was awful. Looking back, I’m sure the packed social life contributed to this anxiety of the never ending to do list: work, personal life, and all the responsibilities of adulthood… No wonder I was burned out!
5. Psychological safety in the workplace
The difference between working in a toxic environment and a “normal” one is night and day, and it would be wrong to claim that I’ve achieved all of this by myself. Things are not perfect but it does make a difference having colleagues who actually listen to you when you voice your concerns and understand that you are genuinely under pressure, rather than being met with more work and lack of concern.
In the toxic workplace it was very common for people to work insane amounts of over time, regularly sacrifice their lives for work and bend to the clients’ will (talk about no boundaries). This meant the example given was one of workaholism and busy as a badge of honour which made it much harder to walk away from work. On the other hand in my current job it’s generally accepted that people have a personal life, family and friends they want to spend time with and take care of. People work hard but they also value what they have outside of work, in addition the company regularly educates us on topics of mental wellbeing and is doing its best to encourage us to take care of ourselves. With this type of mentality I feel much more comfortable stopping work when I need to and speaking up about issues.
I don’t feel judged for not being able to do enough, and I feel that my colleagues know and trust I work hard so they aren’t questioning my work ethics, whereas before I felt a constant need to prove myself. This has made a huge difference in my ability to confidently take steps 1-4.
Fluctuating mental health
Back to what I was saying at the beginning of the article: is it still relevant for me to blog about mental health even though I am “better”? I still think it is. The truth is, I still care about mental health awareness, particularly in the workplace. I also want to continue working to end the stigma and break down barriers we still may face. But I think the way I do that has changed, and maybe I won’t show up quite as consistently as I used to.
On the one hand, I have spent some time sharing my journey and vulnerabilities in dance which was something I could work on once I had recovered from my burnouts and other traumas. This is something I’ve been focusing on the past few years and I can say I’ve improved a lot not just in terms of self confidence but in terms of shutting down the self criticism and judgement going on in my head.
On the other hand I’ve spent more time on my YouTube channel and I am currently in the process of making videos on the topic of trauma – one that is close to me so please watch this space for more information.
At the end of the day I believe our mental health is constantly changing, there are phases when it’s rather bad and there are phases when it’s better. I would be naïve to think I will never suffer from any mental health issues again but I’m really glad that for the time being I am in a good phase, and to see how much I’ve learned which has given me the ability to cope a lot better.