Updated: Sep 14, 2020
A year ago, on the advice of multiple doctors, I made the really difficult decision to take a medical leave of absence from work. This decision was easy in some senses - going back to work truly felt impossible due to panic attacks happening multiple times a week. But for this type A overachieving perfectionist, a break from work was a bit of a foreign concept.
Overcoming panic attacks requires a good amount of time and a lot of work. Even something as seemingly benign as a trip to Target required a lot of mental effort for me. In five months off of work I learned to practice regular relaxation strategies, regular exercise, and exposure to the triggers that were challenging for me. I learned what strategies would work to calm my brain once it felt triggered, and what strategies were especially helpful for preventing those feelings in the first place. But practicing those strategies in the workplace was brand new. Being at work, away from the comfort of my home and in the place I felt most triggered felt especially vulnerable. Here are 4 strategies I used to make my transition back to work a success:
I had hard conversations. My boss was someone I trusted - she had earned that trust with her leadership, compassion, and open office door. She knew of my anxiety and that made a huge difference in my healing. The conversation with her wasn’t hard because it was my boss, it was hard because it required me to be vulnerable. I explained to her what my triggers were at work and she listened without judgment. Her knowledge allowed her to support me in ways that she would not have been able to had she not known.
I had a team. At work I had a few friends with whom I trusted to share my story. We had conversations about what my triggers were and what strategies were helpful for me when I was feeling stressed. When I felt stressed they were there to encourage me and help me use my coping strategies. When I had a success they were there to celebrate with me.
I had a gameplan. Overcoming panic disorder requires systematic desensitization to triggers. With the support of the people I worked with, I was able to develop a plan for addressing those triggers slowly and steadily. The first week I went back I was only at work for short periods of time - the first time was literally 20 minutes just to say hi to people. The next day was a little over an hour, and I increased steadily from there as I felt comfortable. This plan was only made possible by my boss - had she not been so flexible, this really imperative piece to my success would not have happened.
I had an out. The biggest trigger for me was feeling trapped. It made me feel lightheaded, dizzy, and like the room was closing in. Always having an out was a way to significantly reduce my anxiety proactively. Prior to times I knew I may feel most stressed I would talk with a colleague about what my out would be. In the 10 weeks I was at work before everything shut down due to COVID, I never once needed to use that out. But it was there, and knowing that made a huge difference.
Mental health matters, especially when it comes to working moms. The more we talk about it, the less stigmatized it becomes. I like to think that as much as my colleagues helped me, I helped the system. I didn’t talk about my struggle with everyone, but I did talk about it with some of the people who will have a broad impact on others. Not only were they able to hear about the struggle I was having, and one which is not that uncommon, but they were able to see me be successful because of the accommodations they made for me.
Can you imagine what corporate America would be like if supervisors supported those with mental health struggles? Like really supported them? People would be happier, healthier, and more efficient - not just for the benefit of themselves, but their company too. I hope that if the shutdown of the economy due to COVID has shown us anything, it’s that we don’t have to go back to the status quo - it wasn’t working in the first place.
Written By: Kristen McNeely