Call from fear and anxiety, “New Year, who dis?”

A few choice words from one who spent a lot of 2018 in the grip of fear and anxiety

Image of author shitting his pants reading an original poem in front of a room full of poetic prodigies, shot by Vashti Whitfield, life and world Goddess guru

This post is for those unique and sensitive souls who, like me, have or are challenged by that Bird Box-like phantom monster anxiety (note I say “challenged” and not suffer. PMA people, Positive Mental Attitude in 2019). Specifically that particularly tricky little variety, social and/or performance anxiety. It sounds like a candy right. Oh, but what a sour little treat this is.

You see I’ve spent most of my young adult life plagued by a broad spectrum of anxiety. And I know “anxiety” feels like its thrown around a lot in recent years. To be honest I’m quite surprised it didn’t make the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year 2018 (“what did?” I hear you telepathically say? Well that word would be “toxic”. Weird right…). But there is a spectrum and there are legitimately serious versions that can really put a figurative hammer to a humans life. A chink here, a scar there. I am one of those humans. And no, before I feel your eyes roll to the sky this is not a self-pity piece, far from it, this post is actually infused with raw honesty, positive advice and empowerment. Stay with me.

I’ve been in and out of cognitive behaviour therapy since the age of 29. I’m the poster child for nurture and nature-based anxiety, and a late bloomer when it comes to the physical manifestation of the mental harbouring and burying of anxiety. I won’t go into too much detail here, you will read a little more below, but effectively I have been served the kind of anxiety by-product that would suddenly and without warning choke me to the point where words would cluster in my throat, my mind would haze to the point of mental blindness and my heart would press self-destruct by implosion. This could occur in a social conversation with a close group of friends or my favourite little visit, whilst presenting or in a meeting with clients. So. When it hit me again in the middle of 2018 (and it had clearly been getting swole in the gym since the last time I saw it) I took a different tactic; I started to scared the shit out of myself on purpose before “it” could. I attended a poetry night where I bared my soul and read a (self-penned) poem in front of 30+ people. I spoke to more people/strangers in public. And I joined an intense public speaking course where the last assignment required us to prepare a 5-minute speech, delivered with minimal support from a written prompt.

Below is that speech (edited slightly to appropriate it for reading verses its original physical reading tempo). I'm sharing it in the hope it resonates with anyone on the same journey:

The speech

Good evening everyone. My name is Bryn Robert Berry and in today's icebreaker session I am going to talk about why I am here. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, I hope my talk gives you some insight into who I am on a professional level, but in today's talk, I will be getting quite personal. I am about to bare something so personal that even some of my closest friends don’t know about me.

I am here because I face the challenge of social and performance anxiety.

Not just the routine nerves and butterflies before a presentation, but full-blown, sometimes crippling, loss of self-type anxiety that has plagued my work life for the better part of 2 years.

But before we get too heavy, let's start a little lighter. Let's start with a bit about me, and what it is that I do for a living.

In my day job, the one that keeps the money coming in, I work in brand consultancy. For those of you that are unfamiliar, brand consultancy is on the spectrum between advertising, marketing and business consultation, though in my field we get a little precious when we are grouped together with the ad people (no offence if there are any ad people in the audience tonight).

Where advertising and marketing tend to focus on the marketing strategy and the communications of selling a product and/or service, branding generally focusses on the look, the feel, the story and the ethos of the brand and the business.

I work in the brand consulting arm within one of Australia’s leading communication corporations. We have some big clients across a range of sectors including the arts and culture, banking and financial services, not-for-profit, government and telecommunications. And as the lead agency for one of Australia’s biggest telecommunication companies, we consult with a village of various agency partners across a variety of disciplines including advertising, marketing, digital comms and production.

The types of projects I lead vary from big communication briefs to more recently service design projects and employee attraction and retention consultation.

I studied advertising and marketing management at university in England (where I am from), so I am both academically and professionally trained to work in this field, a field I have worked in for around 8 years.

I find my line of work can be very interesting. I work with some extremely talented and intelligent people, my place of work is extremely diverse and inclusive, and my work environment is exactly how you would imagine (ping-pong tables, lots of perks and lots of free booze and food). For the most part, I am happy, I perform very well and I often receive glowing feedback from both clients and peers.

However, around 2 years ago, my mental state cracked and I developed performance-related anxiety. Welcome to the personal part of my talk.

Now, I am not saying that anxiety just popped up out of nowhere, I have battled with some form of anxiety for as long as I can remember. I was a very introverted and anxious child, and worrying is in my DNA. Plus I didn’t have the most stable upbringing. However, the type of anxiety that manifested within my professional life was a whole new ball game.

At first, it started out small and uncharacteristic; nerves before a big presentation, being a little reserved in client meetings, not wanting to draw attention to myself, just wanting to focus on getting the job done and leave the heavy selling to the designers.

But then those pre-meeting butterflies started to turn into pre-meeting bats, and I started to dread meetings with a large number of people. During this time I had just been headhunted for a much more established corporate firm, where the expectations and stakes were much. The expectation was to be more. Be more of a leader, be more knowledgeable, have more opinions, draw harder on experience, manage bigger budgets, be accountable for much bigger business strategies. My co-workers were smarter and my superiors were tougher. That's when a new character entered the story. I'm sure many of you have heard of this character… Our good old friend Imposter syndrome.

All of a sudden, I could barely scramble words together during meetings, the thought of running a presentation began to terrorize my every waking moment. My heart would begin to beat so hard I thought it was about to burst, my palms would sweat, any lubrication in my mouth would evaporate and my throat would close up, caging my words.

Compounding this was a rather unsavoury work character who, to be very honest, had never really taken a liking to me. Ever the opportunist, he locked in on my struggles and would take pleasure in throwing me to the client wolves at any given moment. Some could say it was tough-love-like-training, I would say it worst thing anyway could have done to me during that time.

Teaming this with some unhappy personal events, my confidence, and self-esteem hit at an all-time low. After a series of panic attacks and my mental state deteriorating, my health began to fail. I went to the doctor who informed me I was in the early stages of a mental breakdown. Anxiety medication was advised and offered (which I turned down) as was psychological therapy (which I accepted).

Fast forward to the current day, and I have moved to a new company (after nearly leaving the industry altogether), and despite my promotion and an increased set of expectations, I seem to be doing OK.

Don’t get me wrong, I still battle with anxiety. I still see a therapist, I research and read the field, I have attended many “speak with confidence” like training talks and classes, I practice daily at work, I prioritise a healthy lifestyle, I do not drink much and I am about to start a program with a life coach. And that brings me to why I am here with you today.

I am here, talking to you, taking another step towards exercising my demons. Doing this class, speaking to you in this way, less than 2 years ago would have caused me a panic attack so intense I would have probably bailed after the first class.

I’m here because I have goals and dreams and ambitions: I want to write a book and market it publicly. I want to turn that book into a movie which I will help screenwrite and produce (for now Taron Egerton will play me). I want to release a podcast which will eventually become a successful YouTube series. I want to talk at Ted. I want to deliver a hilarious yet nostalgic, tear-jerking speech at my best friends wedding. I want to run a series of workshops helping others to conquer their fears.

I have had to bury these dreams because I did not think I am good enough, or talented enough, or simply that I just did not have the voice or the confidence to try.

But today, by taking another step in the right direction, I am one step closer to those dreams, because I am here, with you.

I want to leave you today with a quote from my favourite stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius from the book Meditations, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

I hope this quote serves you as well as it does me, and may this class give you the power you need to thrive.

*As always, If you are feeling this post give me a good old clap. Even better, leave a little comment or talk to me about your version of experiences.