How leaving anxiety unchecked can lead to burn out
I remember a colleague in my new team explaining that she had anxiety and that she was concerned that she couldn’t deliver on a particular piece of work. I tried to be supportive and asked what she needed but I don’t think I understood the term ‘anxiety’ or what she was going through.
Looking back, it’s something that I had experienced for as long as I could remember, but I had never perceived it that way. As a child I would lay awake at night worried that I had said the wrong thing and upset someone, or that I would be in vast amounts of trouble for some imagined incident which never happened (unless you count the time I accidentally broke my aunt’s wine table by climbing over it but even that wasn’t as bad as the fear of being told off).
In my 20’s I had been crippled by a fear of failure or of making mistakes, so much so that after only 15 months after qualifying as a lawyer I quit. When I look back now, I can see that this was one of the first times I experienced impostor syndrome. I felt like someone would ‘find me out at any moment’ and didn’t believe myself capable of being a lawyer.
Fast forward 10 years and a big promotion. I found myself in a constant state of fear once more. Fear that I was not good enough, fear that I might make a mistake, fear that I would be shamed by being downgraded. I was too afraid to admit any of it to my manager, as I was afraid it would be used against me in my performance rating! I was constantly waiting for someone to realise that I was not good enough to be doing the job.
I was sleeping less and less, I pushed myself harder to try to prove to myself (or anyone else that was interested) that I was good enough, I beat myself up if I didn’t know things despite being in a new role, I was hypervigilant; I thought that I had to anticipate every question before it was asked or else I felt like I had failed.
I was experiencing impostor syndrome and struggling with anxiety as a result.
In just a few short months the stress began to take a toll. I was constantly exhausted, I couldn’t think straight, I had no ability to concentrate and my memory was shot. I felt detached from everything and found no joy in any of my hobbies. My body ached like I had just done a 20-mile run, not walked half a mile from the station to the office. Day by day it got worse, until the day that I finally cracked. I don’t remember how I got home, only that I did. I was burnt out.
Burn out is not a medically recognised term but it’s generally perceived as a response to a prolonged experience of stress. The reality was that the stress was entirely of my own making, nobody else expected me to know everything from day one, or be an immediate high performer as someone newly promoted. They were all in my mind.
When we experience high levels of stress we switch on the sympathetic nervous system. You might know it as the ‘fight of flight’ response. When this happens, the body shifts all it’s energy resources towards defending itself from an external attack, or fleeing as fast as it can; it increases blood flow, pumps out cortisol to increase vigilance and provide fuel for a fast response, and it switches off non-vital responses (have you ever struggled to remember how to unlock your phone in an emergency situation?). It’s what enabled our caveman ancestors to fight off an invading tribe, or flee from a sabre tooth tiger – and it’s designed to be a short-term response.
The reality is that the world we live in today, the invading tribe has become your boss demanding that report before 3pm, or the sabre tooth tiger an email that we really don’t want to deal with.
When we spend longer periods in a state of fight or flight, the body struggles to maintain normal functions with raised hormone levels pumping around. A long-term overdose of cortisol has a toxic effect of the hippocampus, and brain cells start to die off, which is why memory and focus decrease. The adrenals begin to struggle under the strain of producing the cortisol, leaving us feeling exhausted.
What can you do if you find yourself in this situation?
1. Identify where the stresses are coming from and challenge yourself as to whether they are external demands or ones you are creating in your own mind.
2. Get outdoors – research has shown that spending time outdoors in nature can help reduce stress and increase a self of well-being.
3. Get support – peer support can help you to see that you are not alone and that others are feeling the same way, your manager should provide you with support to see how much of this is an external demand and how much is of your mind’s making. Also consider obtaining professional support.
I’m glad to say that I did recover and I’m now mindful of observing my thoughts and behaviours before they get out of control. Awareness is the first step to change.