The Mental Health Elephant is Still in The Room!
Let’s be very clear: we ALL have mental health. We are human, we are thinking beings, so it is part of what makes us… well, human.
But what do we do with it when it goes wrong? Sometimes out of nowhere. When the panic and worry become so overwhelming that you feel you can’t cope?
That’s why I am writing this extremely personal blog. It’s an effort to shed light and insight on moving from mental health awareness and towards action – for you or someone you know.
I was recently asked if I would like to be a judge at the UK Business Awards 2019 – to judge entries for the “Wellbeing at Work Award”. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. It got me thinking about my own previous challenges over the years and what a workplace could do to help employees. After all, it was only a year ago that I was signed off work because of my own poor state of mental health.
What you will get from me is a brutally honest depiction of where I ended up, what I was experiencing at my worst and then the chain of events, insights and personal understandings that got me to “getting fixed”.
The more stories that are shared about what poor mental health feels like, what it does to you and your family and what you can actually do to get fixed, the more others who are trapped in their internal struggles can be helped.
Some might say we are a bit “awarenessed-out”
What this is NOT, is another awareness blog – some might say we are a bit “awarenessed out”. I have bared my sole so that others may be able to get insights of their own, move from awareness to action and find their own “fix” for themselves.
Whatever the reason for our unconscious bias, mental health in the workplace still has a negative air about it for many people. Despite all the awareness.
Why is it that so many organisations are acknowledging the rise in awareness of poor mental health, yet are like rabbits in the headlights when creating their own programme of mental wellbeing?
It seems the mental health elephant is still in the room.
“In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” – Alien, 1979
I know that many people out there live in heightened states of anxiety about something (money, bills, your job, marriage issues, toxic work culture). You can spend most of your waking life (and night-time at 3am) wrangling with your own internal dialogue around your worries, issues and problems – it can get overwhelming. Poor mental health is a very lonely and confusing place. You feel stuck in a mental prison!
At my lowest, I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, hated being near anyone – “no one understands me!!” I treated well wishes from friends and family with contempt – “what the hell do they know!?” The 0-60 from zero to hulk-raging anger was impressive, figuratively speaking – literally micro-seconds. No-one had a chance.
The panic attacks were brutal.
The panic attacks were brutal. I ended up in hospital 4 times, wired up to an ECG machine, brown paper bag over my face, huffing and puffing, choking on my own breath with my heart running 200bpm.
I was scared of dying. Panic attacks were a daily occurrence. But I had my routine – find a main road so people could see me if I keeled over. I once flagged down an ambulance. I couldn’t get on trains – too claustrophobic, I felt trapped and would have to get off – took me hours to get home!
I even questioned whether it was all worth it – this life thing. What’s the point? It just makes you feel like c*** all the time.
I had such dark, negative thoughts that felt so damn real it was gut wrenching. The internal dialogue was relentless and always negative, never positive. It would tell me I was s*** at my job, my wife hated me, my kids think I am loser and this is your lot buddy. But worst of all – I hated myself, what I believed I had become – a let-down to everyone.
There was an endless flow of unanswerable questions – How did I get here? What happened? Where did it all go wrong? What if I can’t fix it? What if I can’t get back to work? What if I lose the house? What if? what if?..what if?.. In my head I was screaming. I was in this vacuum, this twisted, soul-less void.
As the strapline from the film Alien says – “in space no-one can hear you scream”.
The energy had all gone. I was physically and mentally spent. I had burnt out
So, there’s the context. I was horrible to my family and to myself. My poor, poor family. Something HAD to change.
The Road to Recovery – My Personal Insights and the 6 steps it took
Poor mental health is a lonely, scary place which drives you into yourself, withdraws you from life. It’s hard to accept, hard to understand, you feel weak and vulnerable. Yet, you can put on this brave face at the right time and just get through the day. “I’m fine”, “I’m just tired”.
I honestly didn’t see a problem – I was knackered and just in a funny mood. It’ll pass…Won’t it?
It was my wife that saved me. She literally begged me to go to the Doctor. I had made her, and our four kids’ lives, hell for over nine months. So, I went to my local GP (reluctantly, I should add). I still thought she was overreacting – what does she know? “I’m fine”.
I walked into the Doctors, sat down and cried for 15 minutes, shaking and trembling like a leaf. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on the road to recovery.
Now, I am no Psychotherapist, Psychologist or Doctor – I will not give out medical advice or tell you what to do. What I will share are my greatest insights that worked for me – the key bits that made the biggest difference for me, personally. Perhaps some of this could work for you.
- Recognition and Acceptance is the First Step
“Don’t be ashamed to admit you are vulnerable. Recognise you’re taking the first steps to save your own life.” – Carle Anne Trisler
If you are in denial, or you fight it, then you won’t move forward. Even at my worst, hulk-smashing, home-wrecking, mood-swinging time – it took an ultimatum from my wife for me to take action. It wasn’t easy because my big, fat, hungry ego was stood right in the way.
Let’s be really clear – I did not think I had a problem. In my head I was just exhausted and I was surrounded by idiots. It was everyone else’s fault, right?
Wrong. I was displaying huge shifts in behaviour away the norm, for many months. I wasn’t me and my wife could see it clearly. That was the trouble – in my mind I was right, it was everyone else who was wrong. Our minds are great at creating narratives to justify our behaviours to ourselves, even when we are clearly out of kilter with the world. Knowing this, allowed me to be more open minded to my situation. Recognition is key. We need to be super aware of behaviour – both our own AND our colleagues.
Next, I had to tell work I wasn’t coming in for a while. Uh-oh – here we go again. “what will I say? what if they fire me? What if they think I am lying? what if they think I am weak?..what if?..what if?”. My Director, at the time, Nicola was amazing, I was totally honest with where I was at. She got it – really got it. She shared stories of people close to her that had been down similar paths. At last! Someone who gets it! I felt relieved.
Oddly, the more I shared my situation with others, the more accepting I became of the situation and the better it got. I also discovered a secret “club” of people that could level with me on the same terms as they shared their own stories of their recovery with me. There was a weird safety in this unspoken “club” of people that had suffered, then recovered, but kept it quiet.
There are loads of them (us), all over the place, busy forgetting the bad times and moving on. But there was comfort for those of us who could share, understand and help each other. But it was a secret society, it seemed. Not talked about, unless you were in the club.
“The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club” – Fight Club, 1999
The first rule of poor mental health club, it seems, is – you do not talk about poor mental health club either! The elephant is still very much in the room.
- Spot the Signs: Survival Mode Comes Before Burnout
I will never forget a model Nicola shared with me from a company called the Energy Project.
It suggests there are four states that we can move in and out of over time – Performance, Recovery, Survival and Burnout.
In an ideal world we would hop between Performance and Recovery. In Performance you have energy, are upbeat, challenged, stimulated and engaged. Yes, you are working hard, but your mood’s good, energy levels are high, you are optimistic, you are productive. But you can’t stay in that performance zone all the time. Periodically you need to go to Recovery and take time out, get some R&R, chillout, re-energise, forget about work for a while. Simple right? What could go wrong?
I didn’t realise it, but I had probably spent the best part of 2 – 3 years in the Survival Zone. Now, stress isn’t a bad thing – on the contrary. It’s a mechanism that’s kept us alive for thousands of years. It prepares you to deal with whatever perceived threat there is. We need it. But the impact of the stress trigger on your body is only supposed to be for short periods. I didn’t go to Recovery and stayed in Survival mode far too long.
Just raise your hand if any of these rings a bell:
- I was generally fed up most of the time – impatient, irritable, frustrated, angry (oh, so angry)
- To others around me, I was defensive, judgemental, anxious, worried.
- I could still operate but I felt terrible. I was not enjoying life much but at the time, I didn’t consciously go there.
- It was happening slowly, bit-by-bit, layer by layer, workloads and expectations changed over time, stress increasing, spending more and more time in fight or flight mode. It had crept up over a couple of years.
And then, BOOM! I hit the Burnout zone. Tired, so tired. 8 coffees before 10am didn’t get me going. Zero energy, wishing my life away week by week just to get to the weekend. Wondering will there ever be a time that you don’t feel so tired. I was exhausted, negative, empty, depressed, sad and hopeless.
Loving Wife enters stage left.
- The Paradox of Certainty – “I Don’t Know” is Fine
“You can’t control everything. Sometimes you just need to relax and have faith that things will work out. Let go a little and let life happen.” – Kody Kiplinger
I used to hate not being in control of outcomes. Whenever I did personality tests “Certainty” scored very highly. I wasn’t comfortable leaving things open – decisions, times to meet, where, when, how, what if? (what-if again!).
I learnt a huge lesson here. The structure and nature of life is uncertain, you can never know exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month – but as human’s we crave security, safety and knowing. It’s a paradox.
So, we tend to think about what might happen in the future to prepare ourselves for possible outcomes and then try to solve possible problems before they happen. And that’s the issue – we try and find certainty ….in uncertainty! All in our minds. All I was creating was a mind full of noise and poor future outcomes that I was literally making up in my head.
When I finally understood that life is about being comfortable in the unknown, life got a whole lot lighter. I am now so very comfortable with accepting things as they happen. When my internal dialogue starts throwing out endless questions around the future, I am happy with saying “I DON’T KNOW”.
- Stop Living in Psychological Time
We are all products of our past that have been conditioned over time by people and events in our lives – by parents, teachers, friends, experiences as a child – a whole host of things that has got us to where we are now. So, we tend to think, feel and behave in accordance with those past events.
Thinking about things in the future is very natural, very human. However, our ego, mind, psyche – whatever you want to call it, tries to take control and predict a future, based on preventing past hurt. So, we hold onto the past, use it as evidence of what might happen, and we do everything we can to avoid it happening again.
“What does your history have to do with today, other than your memory of it?” – Peter Crone
When I had the realisation that I was spending most of my life trying to avoid a bad future that hasn’t even happened yet, I was astounded. Literally, my eyes were opened. So that’s what they mean by living in the now! Literally – I just stopped worrying about what hasn’t happed yet!
- The Neutrality of Life
Life just IS. There is an amazing neutrality to life, once you get to see it, free of any judgement.
I used to think life had it in for me – breaking my finger putting up flat pack, the coffee machine always needed refilling when I used it, colleagues never backed me up in meetings… and why is every single traffic light red?! Yep, life really did have it in for me.
What crock! Well, I can say that now. They were just events, but at I would take them to heart and they would make me angry, resentful and impatient.
It is what it is.
Consider this: a circumstance is just that – a circumstance – it is us that creates our response to it, based on our own filters which are built, over time, based on previous experience and previous events as discussed earlier.
For example, consider someone who has just lost their job. They are feeling stress, it feels bad, what do they do now? – what a disaster! Two months later, they have secured a dream job, met the love of their life at a new workplace and are happier than ever.
They would never have met if it weren’t for them losing that job! Now it becomes a “blessing in disguise”!
This happens to us all, a lot. Stuff happens, it wasn’t what we wanted it to be, we get upset, angry, fearful (pick any emotion) – but then things just seem to work themselves out.
I now trust that life is working for me, not against me. Accepting events and circumstances more on face value. Of course, things may feel bad from time to time, I’m human, that’s what happens – but trusting that things will work out in the end really helps.
It’s the difference between what’s happened (circumstance) and our conversation about it (internal narrative) that creates our state of mind or mood. Seeing an event in the absence of all judgement is very liberating.
- Just Because You Think It, Does Not Make It Real
Basically, life is a psychological experience, made possible through the gift of Thought. Thoughts create the reality that we experience in life, but thoughts themselves are not real – they in themselves are formless. It’s just a thought – it’s what we do with a thought that matters. Do we let it float by and disappear – or do we hold it and act upon it. The choice is ours.
“Thought is not reality; yet it is through Thought that our realities are created.” Sydney Banks
When I understood how this worked, I was struck with amazement. Just because I think it, does not make it real? It’s just a thought? That’s far too simple – surely? Also, we are not our thoughts – we mistakenly believe we are, but we are not. Weird huh? But true. If you can get to grips with that principle, it makes things a whole lot easier.
The key insight for me was this: Every concern I have is of my own creation.
Just sit with that for a while. I am 100% responsible for my experience of life. If I get angry at an external event – that’s my brain, my thought system and my doing. No-one else’s. Life is an inside- out experience. I choose how I respond to circumstance.
To understand that every concern I have is of my own creation and that circumstances are neutral, they are just circumstances – was empowering. My interaction with the circumstance and every other problem I had was based on my PERCEPTION of it. Change my response – change my experience.
“What would you be and what becomes available in the absence of all your concerns?” Peter Crone
Make Wellbeing in The Workplace, Work!
I hope theses insights were useful and you can find your own path to action. If you are in the process of creating your own wellness programme, I hope these insights help consider what would work – and more importantly – what wouldn’t!
- Recognition and acceptance is the first step – talk about Fight Club!
- Spot the signs – survival mode comes before burnout
- The paradox of certainty – “I Don’t Know” is fine
- Stop Living in psychological time – Live in the Now!
- The neutrality of life – Remember that life is not out there to get you: it just IS
- Just because you think it, does not make it real, it’s all a matter of perspective
We work with incredible FTSE 250 companies on employee engagement. If any of this talked you in anyway, get in touch with Bryn to extend the conversation further.