Which one of your employees is hiding in the office bathroom cubicles, willing panic attacks to go away?
I quit corporate life 3 years ago… I’d had enough of the relentless pressure and long hours. I felt there was more to life than meetings for the sake of meetings, conference calls on top of conference calls and the constant need to “always be on” — putting out the constant fires that were guaranteed to erupt each day.
And so, I went back to school and studied coaching and I became a mindset coach, and, by pure accident, I also became a keynote speaker. You see, not long after leaving corporate life I read an article in one of the British newspapers that stated that 1 in every 3 employees suffers from burnout/anxiety/depression.
I read the article and felt my heart stop.
You see, truth be told, that is why I left corporate life.
If you had met me during my career you would have likely said I was confident, outgoing, driven, focused, passionate and friendly. And possibly a bit arrogant. And this would have been a fair assessment. I was a self-confessed Type A personality. I was an ambitious perfectionist and a high performer. I thrived off of structure, control, action, results, as well as rewards and recognition.
I was also a highly stressed, burned out, overworked leader that was sleepwalking through life, living in a perpetual state of autopilot mode. I had been working so many hours each that if you had asked me on any given day what I done the day before, I quite literally would not have been able to tell you without checking my diary. You see, like many people in society I worked in a global environment accommodating multiple time zones, which lead me to “always being on” .
A typical day saw we wake up at 7am, whereby I would immediately grab my Blackberry and plough through the emails that had come in overnight. I’d then head to the kitchen to make coffee and then pot of coffee in hand, I’d skip breakfast, and head straight to my laptop in my home office. Most days I would finish work late, having also skipped lunch — my only nourishment being cookies, chocolate or any other sweet snack I could find, followed by more coffee. By the time I finished for the day I would be so exhausted I’d usually just eat peanut butter on toast for dinner and I’d then crawl into bed and collapse into a deep sleep at midnight, only to wake up a couple of hours later, whereby I would stare at the ceiling, make mental to-do lists, before finally falling back asleep just a few hours before the alarm clock was due to go off.
Then one fateful day changed the course of my life forever.
I was at my 5-year old nephews birthday party and I really did not want to be there. I wasn’t feeling myself. I was feeling really overtired and dazed, like I was suffering from jetlag, and I just could not muster the energy or enthusiasm to talk with the parents. It felt like a major effort just to try to think of something to say, and, on top of that, something inside of me just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly didn’t feel right, but something was definitely off and the ‘off’ feeling was making me feel extremely unnerved.
After a few hours of monotonous small talk, excited present opening, and tears and tantrums between the children, my husband and I decided to leave and drive home to Central London. I was so grateful we could finally escape and as I waved my farewells and walked across the parking lot towards our car, I suddenly became acutely aware that the ‘off’feeling had turned into an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
I attempted to dismiss the tight knot that was forming in my stomach as merely fatigue from work, however I secretly suspected this was not the case. I had felt exhausted for the better part of a year however the sense of foreboding was an entirely new sensation and as such I was not entirely convinced that the knot in my stomach was caused by tiredness.
This was something else…something unexplainable.
Roughly 20 minutes into the drive back to London the knot in my stomach transformed into an overpowering, mind blowing sense of fear and a surge of adrenaline raced through my body. My heart started pounding frantically, my hands became wet and clammy and my arms and legs began tingling and going numb. I felt like I was suffocating and drowning in astounding feelings of trepidation and anxiety.
Instinctively I tumbled my head forward between my knees, frantically trying to gasp for breath and I began hyperventilating. And, as I desperately tried to pull more air into my lungs, I became profoundly conscious of the fact that I was not getting enough air which was making me feel really lightheaded and weak. I was absolutely convinced I was going to pass out and die right then and there.
And at the same time that these terrifying sensations were ravaging my body and mind I became cognizant of the fact that time seemed to have slowed down and I felt like I was an outside observer watching the situation play out in slow motion. I gazed out the car window in a state of utter stupefaction, in a state of detachment, staring at all the cars like I was actually seeing them for the very first time.
I felt like I was straddling two worlds — one world was my present reality and the other world was like I was sitting outside of my present reality looking in.
Somehow through all the fog and confusion I knew that I was having a panic attack, but I am not sure how I knew, as I had never had one before.
The panic attack lasted 20 minutes and it absolutely broke me.
I went from being a confident friendly girl that was sleep walking through life to waking up to living in a constant state of fear.
I was living in a constant state of fear because I kept having panic attacks, and, because I never knew when a panic attack was going to strike, I developed a fear of them — my heart felt like it was perpetually pounding in overdrive mode and I felt certain that another panic attack would strike at any moment.
And because of this I developed what I call What-if disease.
What if I have a panic attack at work in the middle of a meeting?
What if it happens in front of my staff, or one of my clients?
What if it happens on the London Underground?
What if it happens in the middle of the fruit and veg isle at the grocery story?
What if happens when I’m crossing the street and I collapse?
What if? What if? What if? my mind would scream at me.
I developed a fear of fear itself and I became afraid of being afraid.
And because I was so fearful, I sunk into a deep depression.
Outwardly I was living a perfect life, yet the reality was was that I would hide in the office bathroom cubicles willing panics attacks to go away, and I would cradle hot water bottles at home in an attempt to self-sooth the overwhelming chronic fear and anxiety that permeated my psyche.
I was lost in my own private world of hell for 18 months and besides my husband and parents, I didn’t tell anyone what was going on.
I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I thought I was weak.
When I read that article that said 1/3 employee suffers from burnout, it shook me to my core because I realise that if the article was in deed true, that meant it wasn’t just me that had suffered — it could have been my leaders, my peers, my colleagues, my clients. And, I realised I had done a disservice by not sharing what had happened to me…
And so, I decided to challenge the reputation I had built for myself and I decided it was my duty to share my story.
Fast forward a few months and the very first gig I was booked to speak at was in front of an audience of 500+ attendees, some of whom were previous clients. (I mean why start small right?).
To say I was scared would be an understatement… I was petrified. I was terrified that people would judge me, or say I was weak or that my budding coaching practice would sink because of my honesty. But I ran the numbers… with 500+ attendees in the audience, that meant that at least 166 in the audience were suffering, and so I knew I had to do it…
As I gave the speech I saw audience members nodding, crying and taking notes, and after the speech I was inundated with people who shared their own stories we me.
That first conference was a launch pad that has led to further conferences in the UK, Canada and the US and the common theme I have learned from each of these conferences is this:
My story is not unique.
1 in 3 have similar stories.
So, when you finish reading this article, and head back to work, look around you…who is the 1 in 3? Is it your boss? Your colleagues? Your peers? You?
We need to ask ourselves, what are we as a society doing to prevent burnout? What are we doing to ensure that Mental Health is not just a tick in the box exercise in the workplace? What are we doing to encourage meaningful changes and dialogue?
As Arianna Huffington so eloquently says “We are living under a collective delusion that somehow burnout is essential to modern success”.
Why are we under that delusion and what are we doing about it?
For my part, I’ll keep sharing my story.
And for the 1 in 3 of you, who may be reading this… if I can leave you with any comfort. Know this…
YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
I’ve been there.