Loving your job while coping with mental illness

I have always been “fine, thank you”. And a lot of times I really am.

I’m generally someone who loves life and enjoys working. But I also struggle with depression, chronic anxiety and acute panic attacks due to past trauma. And when issues come up in my private life and pressure starts building up, it inevitably bleeds into my work life. Or it can also happen that on a perfectly normal day I am suddenly triggered into reliving my trauma by a seemingly small detail. Stuff can get very dark very quickly. Yet when you are an ambitious, hard-working person, it’s hard to admit that you get overwhelmed and vulnerable.

For a very long time, my illness was a shameful secret. I was scared that I would never be able to keep any job. What if I was unfit to work? What if I just wasn’t strong enough, too damaged for a professional career? Can I really afford to take sick leave, or will people think I’m weak and useless? Will my good days ever make up for the bad ones?

Luckily, the better I understand myself and my illness, the more confident I am about myself. I have also discovered coping mechanisms that help me embrace my work life, see value in the work for me and value in what I can bring to a job. I don’t know you or your story, and I’m not here to tell you what to do. But I would like to share some of the strategies I have found useful. (Please be aware that they are not meant to be a substitute for professional help.)

Determine the cause of your stress

Rather than saying, “Everything is so stressful” – what are the specific points in your job you worry about? Personally, I am easily triggered into panic by constant criticism and aggressive and abusive behaviour – especially on the phone, where the aggression feels uncontrolled and anonymous. Once I have named the causes, I will see if I can find a way to manage them. Create a list of proactive and realistic suggestions of how you could feel safer and better equipped to face your challenges, and see if your manager or HR can work with you to implement some changes.

Name your feelings

Especially for people with anxiety or past trauma, emotions can be overwhelming. My natural reaction is to run away from them as fast as I can, with my back turned to them. With this image in mind, I try to stop running, turn around and face the feeling. Am I feeling angry, scared, nervous? Telling myself, “I am feeling nervous right now”, or even, “It’s ok, I’m only feeling nervous right now”, sounds simple and silly, but I find it incredibly effective as it helps me gain control of a chaotic situation. If a specific negative feeling comes up repeatedly and you are unable to define it, it may be important to take your time and examine what it is and where it comes from, if needed with a mental health professional.

Take yourself seriously, but not too seriously

Making mistakes, or even the fear of making mistakes, can feel like the end of the world to me. But sometimes setting a different tone helps put some distance between myself and the situation. Rather than saying, “Everything depends on this meeting going well!”, I try to think of it as an experiment. Occasionally I develop a small plan for my own amusement or field study, such as trying a different approach or a different opening line. It adds a more playful feeling and takes the pressure off. Where possible, practice the high art of laughing about things that don’t go quite according to plan.

Treat yourself to good vibes

I have been incredibly lucky with the many wonderful people I got to work with. But just like everywhere else in life, there are always a few who leave me feeling drained of energy: chronic complainers for example, or people with no clear professional boundaries. And, yes, in my opinion, it is perfectly okay not to engage and just get on with your job instead. For example: “That really does sound difficult. And I appreciate how busy you are, but I was wondering if you could you help me out and send me those reports by tomorrow?” On the other hand, having coworkers I like and can have a laugh with is the sweetest deal to me and a huge stress relief.

Create safe spaces

I need to keep my office clean, clutter-free, and with personal items on my wall and desk that remind me of good things. As a visual and smell-sensitive person, I also enjoy fresh flowers on my desk. Taking good care of your workspace adds value to it as well: it’s like eating at a beautifully set kitchen table rather than standing by the sink. On the long run, it supports your sense of well-being and safety. I also like to find favourite spots somewhere outside the building where I can go to catch some fresh air and maybe enjoy the view.

Own your story

Occasionally people will weigh in with their opinion and tell me that I am too sensitive or too thin-skinned. They are usually well-meaning, and utterly unhelpful. File this sort of unsolicited advice to “irrelevant” and don’t feel obligated to agree with them. Your mental health is bigger than just your workplace. Your story is what makes you, you, and there is strength in that. During my professional struggles, I started taking photographs and managed to express my emotions through visual images; this helped me get in touch with my feelings and embrace my experience. I have learned that being highly sensitive, emotional, and empathetic also comes with benefits. Benefits that can make me a valuable member of the team.

Photo and article by the lovely Katharina Grabner aka @ephebicbears

Note to photo: “A picture I took of my dear friend and former coworker Julia. This was a bit of empty space at our old office where we loved to hang out.”


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