Rebecca Griffiths talks about being honest, seeking help and taking positive action against anxiety
It is an understatement to say that working in public relations is not generally aligned with someone suffering from anxiety. By its nature the job is very public facing, uncertain, target-driven and high pressured – whatever sector of PR you work in.
Anxiety has certainly characterised nearly all of my PR career. I have worked in a variety of roles – from in-house, to consultancy and now running my own business – during which I have succeeded, in spite of travelling a winding path of mediums and lows when it came to my mental health.
A few years ago now, when I had started my first major in-house PR role I would wake up with a knot in my stomach, cry all the way in to work and most days barely make it through the door because I had panic attacks. Eventually I left the job because I felt like I couldn’t cope, despite my colleagues being incredibly supportive and willing me to stay. Leaving that job is a big regret.
A few years later when I was working at a big communications consultancy, I remember going away on a lovely weekend to the Cotswolds with some university friends – something which should have been a fun time. However all I remember is the sick, dizzy, anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t take my mind off the research report which I would be launching the next week. What would happen if it didn’t get coverage? My anxiety about work has dominated and ruined many a weekend and family holiday.
Most of the time, these feelings manifested themselves in physical symptoms – sickness, aching, tiredness, dizziness – and I procrastinated and scraped my way through by the skin of my teeth until they subsided (although they were always there). At others I had to take time off work, as I simply couldn’t carry on – it felt like the weight of the world had fallen on top of me and I didn’t have the energy to climb out
The ironic thing is that no one ever told me I was doing badly at my job – generally I have always got amazing results. However in my mind, it would only be a matter of time before I was discovered as a fraud.
Around eighteen months ago I had my last major anxiety attack. It was triggered by a project which had been relentless (a lot of anxiety attacks stem from one particular thing, sometimes quite small). It was actually a huge success, but it left me a mess. I could barely get out of bed. I cried all the way to the school playground to drop off my kids (and most of the time to be honest).
When you are low and anxious it is hard to take positive action, however I knew I had to push myself to change my life, otherwise this affliction would hold me back forever. Despite it being extremely hard, I started pushing myself to make changes. Since that time I have been on a steady upward path. I haven’t woken up feeling terrible dread for a long time and actually feel motivated. When I look back over the past few months, I can honestly say I have not felt sick with fear, other than a couple of fleeting moments which quickly passed.
The first positive action included going to the doctor to get help and making an appointment for Cogitative Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Talking things through with someone has been fantastic, as I have been able to share my innermost thoughts and feelings with someone completely impartial. Therapy has helped me to think more clearly about what is real and what isn’t.
My therapist told me in my first session that exercise produces natural antidepressants (never instead of prescribed ones!), so a few months ago I also started to exercise a few times a week, and do you know what? She was right. Not only have I felt fitter, trimmer and slept better, but those moments of crippling anxiety have happened less frequently.
I definitely don’t hold all the answers – my anxiety will always be present in some shape or form – however here are some other things that have helped me over the past few months. If you are in the same boat (and I know that many are) hopefully these might help you too:
Look at the evidence for your feelings
One useful exercise has been examining evidence for my anxious feelings. For example: “this project will be a disaster, my clients shout at me and I’ll lose my job.” Let’s look at this statement with some realism goggles on! Have any projects I’ve worked on been a disaster? No. Has my client ever shouted at me or are they likely to? No (because I’m not a child). Have I ever lost my job because I’ve been rubbish? No. Is that scenario realistic? Absolutely not. Writing it down also helps, as I am a very visual person. Also something is rarely ever a complete failure or complete success: there are always variables, no matter what the project is that you are working on.
Think about your responsibility
I always think everything is my fault, however in reality it isn’t that black and white. If a piece of media coverage comes out which isn’t spot on, rather than it being 100% my fault, it helps to think who else is responsible too – the journalist, the client, the interviewee. In fact only 25% might be my responsibility. It is easy in PR to beat yourself up for everything that goes wrong and take too much of the blame.
Understand that everyone is in the same boat
In the bestselling book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers reveals some great truths– one of the main ones being that everyone feels fear when they are in an unfamiliar situation. In fact fear will ‘never go away as long as I continue to grow.’ Also that ‘not only am I going to experience fear when I am on unfamiliar territory but so is everyone else.’
It is easy to look at everyone else and believe that they are never anxious about anything and get things right all the time. The truth is that everyone experiences fear. Since I’ve been sharing my experiences of anxiety more, I have heard so many stories from people who feel exactly the same. Even if a colleague comes across as the most confident person you have ever met, just realise that they do feel fear and anxiety, however they may process and vocalise it in different ways. In fact sometimes mild anxiety can be a great motivator.
A lot of my work revolves around communications in the workplace, so I’m aware that countless people never tell their boss or colleagues how they feel for fear that they might look weak. I have always been extremely honest about my anxiety and do you know what – no one has minded! In fact they have been extremely encouraging.
Be kind to yourself
As a society we are always switched on, our brains are constantly processing information – particularly working in PR. We are also unnecessarily unkind to ourselves. So take a step back and be kind to yourself when you feel fragile.
For instance, if you start to feel anxiety rising after a busy morning, say to yourself (perhaps out loud) “come on, be kind to yourself.” Take a break, go for a walk, do some exercise, have a sleep for an hour (if you can). After a while you will feel more able to tackle the next task positively.
Life is busy enough without being hard on yourself all the time. Certainly in a year’s time you won’t look back and think – “I wish I hadn’t taken that break for an hour.” You will certainly look back and think “I wish I’d taken a break and hadn’t burned myself out.”
Always part of me
That is my story. I don’t pretend to be a guru, or to be completely sorted – anxiety will always be a major part of my working life. In fact it is an important part of who I am, and I feel it in some degree every day.
However by being honest, seeking help, taking positive action – even when I feel that I would rather do anything else – recognising that everyone has feels fear and being kinder to myself, I feel like I have kicked anxiety to the kerb.
Rebecca Griffiths runs Griffiths PR, which specialises in communications in HR, leadership and business education. She takes an interest in the future of leadership and the work, including workplace mental health and wellbeing. Rebecca lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two young sons. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.