Down the Rabbit Hole: My Experience Approaching Anxiety and Stress
There are not many scarier feelings than not knowing how to deal with something you can’t understand.
The final call
Saturday night. The week had been busy, as always, with a lot of projects and deadlines to meet. I had spent the day with some friends catching up but felt too tired to stay long with them so I decided to go to bed early. Since the pandemic had started, I had issues sleeping well and I almost grew used to finishing all my days physically exhausted. I remember I was putting on my pajamas when, suddenly, everything faded out like when you are changing scenes in a movie. When I opened my eyes again, my boyfriend was sitting next to me saying words I could not process. Everything looked like part of a very strange dream and I couldn’t understand if I was awake or not. Well, it turned out I hadn’t fallen asleep, as my initial guess was, but had been unconscious for several minutes… with convulsions.
At the hospital, they told me that the most likely explanation was something called a vasovagal syncope, a defensive mechanism triggered by your body, normally caused by an intense emotional distress. You know how when a computer is overloaded with a lot of programs and information that it sometimes restarts suddenly? That is what happened to my body. Luckily it was nothing too serious (apparently I fell on the bed—don’t want to imagine if I had fainted in another place) and I got sent home after a couple of days of observation. They found nothing wrong with the neurological exploration. But clearly, this was a sign, a message from my body telling me, “If you don’t let me stop, I am going to make you.” So… how did I reach that point?
The beginning of everything
I would like to say that everything started with the pandemic but, as in many cases, the pandemic became a potentiator of things that were buried inside. Things I didn’t know that were there until they became painfully real.
I think there is no one who has not been affected in one way or another after COVID started: uncertain lockdowns, overload of unreliable information, the fear of getting the infection, the ever-rising daily deaths… This combination proved to be one of the most challenging situations our modern society has recently experienced. Everyone approached this unpredictable period in a different way. Some started to learn a new hobby, others decided to exercise at home… and in my case, I unconsciously sought refuge at work. At some point during the pandemic, I had the impression that the only connection to my previous life was work, which continued mostly unchanged given that, at Avature, we’ve always had a very strong remote work culture that allowed employees to own their tasks autonomously regardless of where they were physically.
I have always enjoyed what I do at the company and it seemed almost natural to dedicate more time to it now that I didn’t have to care about public transport schedules. Not that I was asked to do so, but it was a very good excuse to keep going and get to the end of the day with a sense of purpose. It should have been temporary, but the restrictions started to get lifted and I continued doing the same. In my case, this was a combination of different factors: to start with, COVID hadn’t truly ended and people kept getting sick, but I also had a lot of personal issues going on at that time that kept me worried most of the days.
Work was a safe space where I knew what to expect. The outer world was a different place I didn’t want to think about much.
When your mind decides to ignore
An entire year went by, intense as ever. I barely took any days off because… what was the point? I didn’t feel like doing much on holidays so I didn’t feel (physically) tired. At the end of the day, I was working from home. But without me noticing, all these months were taking their toll. I could not sleep well at night. I frequently had a tingling sensation in my arms. My head felt heavy most of the time and my energy levels dropped. I felt that there was something… just not right. Some people told me they saw me behave differently. But I couldn’t explain it well and all the professionals I spoke with told me that I was in a good shape and that there was nothing worrisome with my tests. The question remained unanswered for some more time until I finally lost consciousness and ended up in the hospital. That was the moment when reality hit me: I had been pushing myself way too long and I had already reached the limit.
Having stress for long periods of time does have a heavy impact on your body and your mind and one of the possible escapes that your system can take is “resetting” itself and pushing you to rest. Don’t worry—this is not going to happen to you if you have a difficult week from time to time, but the more time it goes on, the more chances for it to become a thing.
To me, it was very difficult to process all this new situation. I had always been healthy and I had even gone to therapy before the pandemic started so I could hardly believe that I had an anxiety problem. You know, that is precisely the point. Sometimes we get on living thinking that feeling bad is just part of how things are. We just accept it. So at that point, what really was causing my anxiety to spike even more was not knowing how to deal with the anxiety.
Dealing with anxiety at work
Once I got back to work, I originally wanted to speak to my manager but she happened to be on holiday and I didn’t feel like talking to my team just yet. I thought I was going to bore them with my issues and of course they already had a lot of problems of their own. But the doctors had told me it was absolutely essential that I took things easier during the next couple of days and that I ideally shouldn’t work, so I really needed to talk to someone.
I turned to HR. I honestly didn’t know what I was expecting or what their reaction would be. Here in Spain—which is where I am based—there is still this idea among the society of mental health not being a serious issue. I knew the HR team wouldn’t perceive it that way but I could not have anticipated having such an open conversation. I was surprised by how naturally they approached the topic. They told me not to worry about not having an official sick note and insisted that I took as many days off as needed, that they will sort everything out internally.
I now understand that this is exactly how things should be like but, sadly, not all companies are like that. An hour after I hung up with HR, I got a call from the director of my department, who tends to be super busy with meetings and snowed under projects. His first words when I picked up the phone were “I just spoke to HR. How can we help you? What do you need from us?” It was all it took for me to break down and to let go of all things that had been haunting me for months.
The process itself was very gradual. Work-wise, I took some days off and then went back part-time to see how I was reacting. My manager, once she returned from her vacations, helped me prioritize my projects and establish new goals. On a personal side, I visited a lot of specialists to get a better diagnosis and tried to follow new habits. It is a very slow process, of course, and one that I am still going through.
Learning can happen at every place
We tend to think that we are alone with our problems. That we need to be strong and carry on, that everything will get better with time. But sometimes it is not the case. A broken ankle can turn into something more serious if you don’t treat it correctly. Dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other mental condition is exactly the same but with more layers of complexity. Mental conditions are an extremely personal process and everyone tries to fight against them with their own tools, but there are many factors that have an impact (even some we had never considered.)
In my case, what really was a turning point was sharing what I was going through with other people from work and understanding that most of them had gone through similar journeys. I knew what I was feeling was not going to disappear from one day to another, even if I started to adjust my life and introduce changes, but I tried not to get carried away by the panic. I still felt fear but I kept telling myself, “This is a normal reaction that your body is having. It will eventually be over.” Once you reach that point, this is all you can do. Trust the professionals that are helping you and keep going. Always keep going.
Of course I am not happy about what happened but I am grateful in a way because I was able to learn. And I want to think that all this has helped me become more connected with myself and my body and have a healthier relationship with my work and other people. And precisely talking about work, this is a path I wouldn’t have been able to walk if it was not thanks to the help, support, and understanding that I received from my managers and the rest of the team. In my view, you should never be afraid to talk about these types of issues with your organization. If they value you as a person, they will be there for you. If they are not, perhaps it is time to rethink if you are in the right place.
I have been thinking for a long time if I wanted to tell this story or not, not because I am ashamed of what I went through, but because it felt too personal and I had doubts that anyone would feel identified. But if there is something that this experience has taught me is that we are never alone: whatever happens to you has been lived by many other people in the past. Reach out, speak to them, and don’t be afraid to open up. I may have closed this chapter in my life but the story continues. I don’t know what lies ahead but next time, I will be more prepared.
Thanks for reading!
P.S.: If you ever want to talk because you are going through a similar situation, my door is open. You can always send me a message via LinkedIn 🙂