Just after Christmas, I got an email from a friend.
“Can we talk?” she said. “You know how you’re always open about your mental health experiences? Well, I was wondering if you had any tips about dealing with anxiety at work?”
Over the past few years, since I made the conscious decision to not only be open about my mental health, but to be bloody loud about it, I’ve noticed a shift in the conversation. And it got me wondering: with more of us talking openly about our everyday experiences with anxiety, depression and the like, can it truly be said that mental ill-health remains stigmatised?
I’d argue: yes. Because this friend told me that it had taken them weeks to pluck up the courage to speak to me about how they were feeling, and that the reason they felt “safe” in doing so was because of the Facebook status I published at the turn of the year about my desire to mix things up a little and my continuing experiments with medication. I’d had a similar message a few days previously from another friend.
Both messages reminded me that not everybody benefits from the same mixture of confidence and circumstance that leads me to be open about this stuff. And that the fact that I am open, that I am a walking safe space, is Good Work, and something that I should keep doing.
But this post isn’t intended to be an introspective one, or in any way self-congratulatory. Inspired by that email, and by the conversations my friend and I have had since, I thought I’d put together a practical guide to my high-functioning anxiety. These “hacks”, for want of a better term, have more to do with keeping me not only busy, but productive, than my medication ever has. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, in many cases, they are the reason I’ve been able to make it into work in the morning.
1. Being honest
In full recognition of the fact that this unfortunately isn’t a possibility for everybody, I need to admit that being honest about my anxiety and depression has made the biggest difference to my ability to manage these conditions at work.
I’m not just talking about disclosing them on application forms, although that’s something I always do (again, and with my economic privilege showing, if you won’t take me as I am then I’m not going to be able to do a good job for you, so we might as well call it off now). No: I’m talking about open and honest communication with line managers and HR, engaging equality law, the whole shebang.
This didn’t always come easy to me: in fact, I actively struggled against it. For years, I viewed my anxiety and depression as signs of weakness, and hid them accordingly. The result, as you might remember (it kicked off this series), was three weeks off on the sick, shivering in my pyjamas.
But the problem wasn’t just that I worked until I dropped. I work in an extremely professional environment, but sometimes my conditions cause me to behave in an unprofessional way. This, of course, led to a couple of misunderstandings – until I decided to trigger a formal occupational health process and obtain written confirmation of what was going on and how those higher up in the business would support me. It’s something I’ve been keen to write about on here for the longest time, but it’s difficult to know how to do in a way that’s sufficiently general.
The result has been a huge weight off my mind: not a get out of jail free card, or an excuse to slack off, but the knowledge that there’s a good reason why I’m not always 100% “on it”, and that that’s okay.
2. Keeping focussed
Peak productivity, for me, relies on a delicate balance. I do my best work under pressure, but when I’m tightly wound anything just slightly out of whack can put me off my game.
I’ve written before about my love of the Pomodoro method but it remains an utter lifeline for me, particularly in an office environment where it’s easy to get distracted by email notifications and phone calls. My day job means I’m making sense of complex concepts daily, and that’s not possible when 17 different people have questions that read as if they need answered now while two people are having a giggly conversation in the kitchen. So I put on my headphones, set my Focus Keeper app and get to spend the next 25 minutes figuring out that perfect turn of phrase in my own little world.
It’s impossible to fully seal yourself off from the world when you work in an office which is fine, I wouldn’t want to. But the Pomodoro method gives me a little more control over the way in which I engage with it.
3. Bullet journaling
This one goes out to Sarah, who gave me a row last week for having never mentioned my bullet journal on here before. I mean, why have a bullet journal if you don’t blog about it, right? But my silence is for very good reason: the system is supposed to be completely customisable and able to do whatever you want it to do, which means mine is pretty practical rather than Pinterest pretty.
I do like my monthly divider tabs though.
My bullet journal contains the traditional monthly and daily logs, lists of purchases and PR samples and a colour-coded “habit tracker”, in which I log whether I’ve managed to get through the day without fizzy juice or remembered my skincare. Taking a couple of minutes to colour in my achievements and note down what I want to remember from the day before I go to sleep soothes me, as well as giving me a much-needed break from screen time. And turning it into a hardback work of art will only waste time and undermine the purpose of this list. I’m intending to experiment with more lists in the coming months though, so I may turn into Boho Berry yet.
4. Scheduling downtime
The backlash against self-care, with its gendered language and newly-minted focus on consumption, is now well underway if the articles I’ve read recently are any guide (h/t Paula, Siobhan). But rather than being just the hygge that the rest of us can pronounce, self care for me is an essential part of what keeps me productive.
While I wouldn’t say I “schedule” downtime as such – although it’s something that, as I prepare to take my day job part time and get more mindful about my other interests, I’m going to give more consideration to in the future – knowing that I have evenings or days approaching when I have nothing planned is a great motivator when I’m at my busiest. It’s also important to me to maintain enough flexibility in my schedule that if I’m having a really shitty day, or a deskbound panic spiral, I can close my eyes and perform a calming, ritual shifting of the things that are stressing me out to other times. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, being able to tell yourself that after you’ve accomplished this particular task you can fall into an Uber, order a pizza and have a bubble bath and an early night is a powerful motivator.
5. Caring less
Like every other blogger you know, I read (Charlotte’s copy of) The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** over Christmas. But unlike them, I didn’t feel my whole attitude to life changing…
…because I’d already had that particular epiphany.
I first met the Fuck-Off Fairy a few years back, through a post on Offbeat Home and Life that literally did change my life. I’m sure I’ve shared this quote before, but the Fuck-Off Fairy:
…shows up on the night of your 30th birthday, while you are sleeping, and waves a magic wand over you.
She comes to release you from the expectations that you should always be nice and polite and say yes to what other people want from you. She helps you see your authentic self, and how beautiful and fabulous that self is, and how the world will not end if you are true to you, rather than to others’ expectations of you.
The Fuck-Off Fairy teaches you to stand up for yourself and believe in your value. She gets that sometimes “fuck off” needs to be said politely and with a smile, but while delivering the message clearly. She is an important part of the coming-of-age process.
Best of all, she delivered her message in a single blog post, and without any of the fucking paperwork that seems to be an essential part of author Sarah Knight’s method.
“Caring less” may seem counter-intuitive – particularly now, when the world is going to shit and protest is more important than ever – but it’s an essential part of staying sane. It’s about picking your battles, conserving your energy and not wasting your emotional bandwidth on other people’s opinions. It’s about cancelling plans when you have to, standing up for what you want and what you believe in and making every “sorry” count, because you really, truly mean it. It was, for me, as somebody who spent more years than she cares to recall as a bullied child, sobbing about what other people thought about her, like flipping a switch in my brain.
It has, believe it or not, made me a better person, a better colleague and a better friend.
I guess the only thing I want to say in conclusion is that these hacks are all things that I have developed over going on two decades of mental interestingness. You may also find them helpful, but they’re not intended as a substitute for you getting the treatment that you need and deserve. Depression and anxiety are not signs of weakness; neither is asking for help with them.
And if you too are working full time with all of this going on in your brain, know that you have my admiration and respect.
PS My metal cuff, hand-stamped with the Frank Turner lyric “last minutes and lost evenings”, was made by my friend Emma at Star of the Sea Jewellery; the Shake It Off mug is from House of Wonderland; Spare and Found Parts is the debut fantasy novel by the incredible Sarah Maria Griffin; and my notebooks are from Kate Spade and Paperchase. I think that’s everything.