‘I can’t return to work until I know that I will never experience anxiety like that again.’
I looked at my client sitting in front of me. A C-Suite executive, used to flying all over the world, managing millions of dollars and hundreds of people in multiple locations, across cultures, navigating international HR laws, international corporate law, and a family here in Australia, his home base just told me that he never wants to experience anxiety again.
A thought flashed through my mind – wait your expectation is to never feel anxiety “like that again” and your work life consistent of what?
I brought myself back into the moment with my client and asked – do you have an expectation that you will be completely anxiety free before you can return to paid employment?
His answer – Yes
My next question, did you live a completely anxiety free life prior to this most recent incident?
His answer – yes…
My response – really? That’s pretty remarkable.
His response – well, I’ve had some you know, small experiences, but they don’t last, and they weren’t anything like I had last month.
As we continued to explore this, several things became quite clear
- This client had experienced a panic attack and now considered this to be intolerable and something to be avoided at all costs (including working as a global CEO)
- The panic attack left this client feeling out of control, a fate worse than death for a lot of ambitious, driven to succeed people.
- This client had developed some rigid thinking about the role that anxiety has played in his life and the complete absence of it, and the assurance that it would never return (ever) was his primary indicator that was ready and able to return to work.
We have a problem here. The problem of unrealistic expectations.
All too often I have had client’s express to me that they need the complete eradication of all symptoms and the assurance that these symptoms will never return prior to them being able to return to paid work.
While I’m pretty sure we would all like to know we will never experience a disease symptom in our life, or experience any sense of anxiety I can assure you that type of goal is completely unrealistic and if we as health professionals are not challenging this type of thinking then we are actually contributing to setting our client’s up to fail.
What I know to be true, from personal experience and 20 years as a Consultant Rehabilitation Counsellor that living anxiety free is a really tough ask. And it’s my role to help client’s take their learning from therapy into their preparation for work, and into workplaces so that they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to be able to manage any increase in anxiety they will (and are likely to) experience.
Working while recovering from a panic attack or learning to live with an anxiety disorder is possible. We can all lead fruitful work lives, continue to build our careers, and even apply for and accept a promotion while we are living with anxiety and panic.
Anxiety is not a death sentence for your career or your work.
I’ve had my own experiences with anxiety since I was 12. I still remember my very first panic attack. It wasn’t pleasant for me. I wish it didn’t happen, but it did, and it wasn’t the first and it possibly won’t be the last. Additionally, I’ve lived with anxiety for a long time too. I don’t like it. I wish it wasn’t a thing in my life. It is but I don’t want it to limit me.
What I have heard a lot of client express is that anxiety and panic makes them feel
- Powerless, something they are certainly not used to.
- Confused and unable to make decisions.
- Agitated, irritable, sometimes angry or rude.
- Out of control.
- Tired, being anxious is plain exhausting.
When it comes to thinking about the impact that anxiety might have on work performance the common themes are
- It makes me feel weak, I don’t want to look weak at work.
- I’m scared I will make a mistake.
- I’m scared I will be humiliated.
- I’m scared my reputation will be damaged.
It is these fears that help clients to make the decision that they have to be anxiety free and have the assurance that they will never experience an anxiety symptom while at work – EVER.
We have, as a health profession collective become better at helping people manage their symptoms on a day to day basis. However, what we often miss for a lot of client’s is how they have now given meaning to their symptoms. Thoughts like
If I am anxious, I will make a mistake
If I make a mistake, I will be humiliated
If I am humiliated my career will be ruined
If my career is ruined my life is over
Therefore, I cannot be anxious at all ever
Most clinicians will want to go straight to address these unhelpful thoughts and this is why modalities like CBT and ACT have had so much to offer us. However, my concern is that these modalities are great in the safety of the treatment room or space, but I don’t see enough ACTION or practice of therapy outside of the treatment space. And it’s incredibly difficult to practice your “anxiety tools” if you are still learning, there are multimillion-dollar contracts on the line and your ongoing default thinking is – anxiety will ruin my life.
Therefore we need to create safety and security of our client’s to be able to practice their new skills (often referred to as coping skills) outside of the clinic or treatment room, working towards the type of environments that will simulate their work. Sounds easy right – Ha!
How do we make our work, work well when we are living with anxiety? Here are my go- to’s:
- Practice your coping skills at home, with friends and family, in social situations.
- Learn what your likely triggers at work are going to be.
- Develop a contingency of what is an unacceptable or dangerous level for anxiety for you to experience.
- Practice the language you will use if someone asks how you are?
- Practice self-compassion.
Please understand this, the avoidance of work will not make you better in the long run. The research is clear  , the longer we away from work the more difficult it becomes to return to work.
Here’s to making work, work well
Articles use in the writing of this blog post https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/realising-the-health-benefits-of-work.pdf
Who is Jo Muirhead?
Jo is all about connecting people to purpose through inspiration and innovation. Author of The Entrepreneurial Clinician and creator of The Book Of Evidence she is also the Founder and CEO of PurpleCo – a team of specialist allied health consultants dedicated to helping people who experience injury illness and trauma reclaim their lives through work.
Jo graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Health Science, Rehabilitation Counselling in 1994.
Jo is passionate about the health benefits of work and truly believes that everyone has the right to meaningful and rewarding employment.
Purple Co grew out of this belief as a truncated form of PURpose for peoPLE.
How to contact Jo:
+61 414 276 265