By Olivia Rogine
I was in the fifth grade the first time I had a panic attack. I had just learned about the solar system and became entirely overwhelmed by the idea that beyond our galaxy, there was another, and another, and another…and ‘WOW, where does it all end?’ I thought.
At the time, I didn’t have a word for my racing thoughts, the rush of my heartbeat, and the profuse sweat emitting from my newly developing body. Only years later, with the help of my therapist, was I able to identify what that feeling was - anxiety, in its full, uncomfortable, and visible form.
After science class that day, what I was ultimately fearful of was the unknown; but what was even more significant was how my body reacted to it. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, especially in public spaces, you likely know just how unsettling the ‘what-ifs’ can be.
I’ve learned that what-ifs can spiral into what-thens and what-thens quickly turn into what-nexts.
As an adult, my personal experiences with anxiety have occurred in public spaces – only now, public spaces are sometimes professional spaces, which means no guidance counselor offices, private bathrooms, or art studios (my sanctuaries from childhood through adolescence and my early-adult years).
Until now, I’ve worked in environments where I’ve struggled feeling seen as my full personal and professional self – anxiety and all. I’ve struggled with the question of how exactly one introduces an employer to their anxiety. Would it be easier to avoid or cover the topic with little white lies and calling in sick when I need to (yes, I’ve been there)?
While it might feel taboo to merge your personal and professional selves, there are some tangible steps you can take to break down the mental health barriers that exist within so many of our workplaces and institutions, and take a step forward in your mental health journey:
1 . Start your day off with a reflection, intention, or moment of solitude
I like to start off my days with a mental health and self-care oriented intention like: “I am taking care of myself today by ___.” If you’re not a pen-to-paper journaling type, try creating a prompt that speaks to you in the notes app on your phone or have a little chat with yourself on your way to work. Setting daily intentions has really allowed me to commit to myself before I commit myself to work for the day.
2. “HR” doesn’t have to be a scary place
At the risk of sounding like an employee on-boarding facilitator, I’ll skip straight to it – if you’re experiencing anxiety in the workplace, the first place you should go is human resources. If your employer has an HR department, chances are, they also have policies in place to support employees.
If you feel safe doing so (I recognize that not all workplaces are as wellness-focused as GNI HQ), being upfront about your mental health can help down the line when you may need to leave the office early for therapy for example.
3. Build support with a mentor or understanding co-worker
While anxiety feels and looks different for everyone who experiences it, it often can be difficult to be proactive about systemic change when you’re feeling alone or overwhelmed. If you’re in need of support in the workplace, seek out an advocate - a mentor relationship or a formal internal employee coalition is a good place to start.
4. Make suggestions
When you feel like you have the right people in your corner, making suggestions to address anxiety and mental health as a whole in the workplace is a little less daunting. Perhaps your employer doesn’t recognize May as Mental Health Awareness Month.
By speaking up and suggesting your workplace hold activities or events in light of Mental Health Awareness Month, it reinforces the importance of mental health to you and your colleagues. Similarly, implementing small changes in your manager relationship can break down boundaries and address the anxiety you may be experiencing.
For example, if you have a virtual check-in or weekly online status update - suggest adding in an emotional ranking system. The prompt could be as simple as asking how you are feeling today on a scale of 1-5. This helps both you and your manager or direct reports feel more comfortable inquiring how you are doing and addressing triggers or solutions as needed.
5. Find a safe space
A wellness room, dim nook, or cafe table in the sunshine - wherever your safe space is, find it! This can be somewhere you retreat to for personal check-ins and privacy when you need it – consider it your mental sanctuary. Personally, I’m a fan of utilizing phone booths for five minutes of Headspace, literally and figuratively.
6. Crying is okay – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise
Sometimes, you just have to feel your feels. If you find yourself needing some space to feel (and heal), it’s okay (and healthy) to admit when you need a break. Hopefully you work in an environment that has a personal day policy and supports the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of their employees. Being open and honest about utilizing personal days can be daunting but doing so will reinforce the need for employers to take the matter to heart.
If and when you do take a mental health day, try putting an out-of-office message up that states the need to recharge - it will encourage others to do so the next time they consider taking a personal day themselves.
As someone who has experienced anxiety at varying degrees for a majority of my life, it took me a long time to believe that I can be both an anxious person and fully able professional. While my anxiety certainly doesn’t define me, it does have the ability to shape my daily experiences. The moment I started taking steps to advocate for my mental well-being, in and out of the workplace, I was finally able to shape my daily experiences for the better.
Do you have workplace mental health tips you’d like to share? Are you a people manager? How do you support the mental health of your supervisees? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
GNI is not a team of psychologists or therapists. We are a team of strong, supportive women working to encourage other women in our community to prioritize self-care. If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety and/or depression, please seek assistance and talk to a professional. If you are unable to afford a therapist at this time, please visit crisistextline.org or text HOME to 741741 to talk to a trained counselor. We’re with you every step of the way - you’ve got this.