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Anxiety in the Workplace

“How are you, really?” “If you need anything at all, let me know.” “I hope you are staying patient with yourself.  You are incredibly strong - but human nonetheless!”

These are amazingly kind words to hear when you are in the thick of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.  The kind of words that help you keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The kind of words that tell you that you are thought of, cared about, loved.  What if I told you these words didn’t come from my best friend, or my husband, or a family member?  What if I told you these words came from my boss?

I’ve worked in a small, full inclusion school district as a Behavior Specialist for the last six years.  A year and a half ago, the school year started like any other.  I had high hopes it would be better than the year before - the previous school year was my first as a working mom of two little ones.  My daughter was almost 5 months old and my son two and a half years.  Throughout the school year it felt like a miracle if I could get through a full week without needing to stay home with one of them due to ear infections or viral induced asthma.  Now they were older, I wasn’t nursing anymore (which meant I didn’t have the burden of trying to find a place on campus and a time between students and meetings to pump), and I was starting to figure this working mom of two thing out.  And then a month or so into the year my body started to give in to the stress the last couple of years had brought.  I finally contacted my doctor after one particularly difficult night, and two weeks later I was scheduled to have my gallbladder removed due to gallstones.

Two months after the surgery I was experiencing increased levels of anxiety and began having more frequent somatic symptoms.  My stomach hurt all the time, and I began losing weight because I wasn’t eating much.  If you’ve experienced gastro-intestinal issues, you’re familiar with the doctors appointments and “try and see” approaches that can feel unending and unhelpful.  Together with increased anxiety and the same demands of working full time and raising two toddlers, life was feeling impossible.  And then it all came to a head - I had a panic attack - in a meeting - mid sentence.  I didn’t know it at the time.  All I knew was that the room felt like it was closing in on me and if I didn’t get out at that very moment, I was going to faint.  Fortunately for me, I work with the most incredible group of professionals, some of whom left the meeting to make sure I was ok and then insist I go home instead of trying to pull through.  That’s what moms do, right?  We pull through.  So it takes another mom to say, “No.  I’ve got this.  You go take care of yourself.”

The rest of the school year is honestly a total blur.  Getting two toddlers ready and out of the house in the morning while in so much physical pain and doing two drop offs made me so exhausted I felt like I had put in a full day’s work by the time I finally pulled up to campus.  All I remember about those last 6 weeks is that I couldn’t see how I could possibly continue that after summer break.

Early on that summer, in addition to the others I mentioned, my boss sent me this text: “This is going to get better but it might take a while.  If you need to take a leave from work or need anything at all - and I mean anything - I trust you will let me know.”  I’m sure you can imagine what those messages did.  They allowed me to start considering giving myself permission to take a break (A break?  What’s that??).  As a mom, and especially as a working mom, it can be so easy to get into a pattern of go go go that is so intense that you can start to lose perspective.  I was forgetting that I am human too, I have my own limitations, and that I am not nearly as good for others when I’m not taking care of myself.  That July I underwent more testing to figure out what was causing my pain.  After I received very inconclusive results, I realized this was going to take some time and I needed to remove one of the weights from my back - work.  My boss’s offering of taking a leave of absence made actually taking the leave so much easier.  After I reached out and let her know, she asked if she could come to my house.  She sat in my living room and listened to me fully explain how difficult the previous few months had been.  She told me how cared about I was, and that I had a whole team of people who were ready to support me how ever they could.  For the first time in months, I felt a glimmer of relief.

Taking a leave of absence allowed me to do 3 things:

  1. As a “helper,” I love taking care of others.  But I was spread so thin I had very little time or energy to care for myself, and my body was making it very clear that I needed to.  This time allowed me to focus on healing myself.

  2. I had time to breathe.  Taking a break meant that I didn’t have to rush quite so much in the morning, and since mornings were the hardest time of day for me, this was a big help.

  3. It freed up some time for me to access support and “fill my cup.”  I was able to get back into therapy without having to work it into such a tight schedule.  I was able to resume a regular exercise routine because I had time to do it.  I was able to keep up with things around the house more easily, which really helped my emotions.  I had more time with my kids.  I felt robbed of the summer of 2019, and I felt like my kids were robbed too.  With this time, I was able to be with them a lot more than I ever previously had.

Throughout my time off, my boss continued to reach out to check on me.  My panic attacks had led to some agoraphobia and leaving my house for anything was nerve wracking.  As I started to practice going out for short trips, my boss would offer to meet me for breakfast or lunch.  She would ask how I was feeling, and when she asked, she genuinely wanted to know.  I was able to talk to her very candidly about my symptoms without fear of judgement.  While I was out longer than we all had hoped, I never once felt pressure to come back before I was ready.  It was this support that made all the difference.

After 5 months, it was time for me to start easing my way back to work.  The main trigger for my panic attacks is the feeling of being trapped, which meant that the meetings that I attend as a good third of my job were very anxiety producing.  Instead of hoping for the best, my boss made accommodations for me.  It’s funny, creating accommodations for students’ anxiety and other disabilities is part of my job, but I had never thought of doing the same thing for myself until my boss described it that way.  I will never forget her saying, “It may be months before you can attend a meeting in person, and that’s ok.”

My transition back to campus was slow, starting with staying on campus for 10 minutes to say hi to people and then leaving.  As I worked my way up over the next few weeks, I felt such victories.  In early March, 8 weeks after getting back to work, I attended my first full meeting in person.  And it wasn’t just any meeting - there were parents, school staff, and attorneys present.  But I had worked my way up to it and was ready.  I can’t say I didn’t have anxiety over it.  But I didn’t panic, and I got through that whole meeting.

None of this would have been possible without the support of my boss and several colleagues.  They were a huge part of my tribe that enabled me to take my life back.  This experience has made me wonder what kind of an impact this support could be to so many.  What if more of us had a boss who said, “how are you, really?’ and then worked to actually support us through the challenges?  What if more of us knew we could take a break without a fear of judgment or repercussions?  What if more of us could have accommodations at work that could make us even more effective in our jobs?  Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched - I think it’s actually just what we need.

My boss’s support enabled me to continue to be a working mom. She recognized that my mental health mattered - not just for me, but for my children, my husband, and the students and staff I support in my job.  Her support enabled me to set an example of taking care of myself when I needed to, and it enabled me to return to work and be effective in my job.

 “You are incredibly strong, but human nonetheless.”

May all of us working moms remember this.


Kristen McNeely

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