There is no health without mental health
Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), pp. 17-18
Keeping a lid on panic
My first panic attack happened when I was 24—at work. My youth had been a mix of laughter, play and curiosity—and excessive worry, anxiety and stomach aches. But this was something new.
I was the shop foreman at an ultralight aircraft manufacturing facility. We’d been under the gun for six months, working excessive amounts of overtime to fill the orders. If these orders weren’t completed and shipped by the specified date, the contracts would become void and everything lost. The overtime resulted in more things going wrong—and I had a boss with a temper.
Out of the blue one day my heart started pounding and I sweated profusely. I thought I was either going crazy or having a heart attack—then I lost consciousness. A few minutes later, I felt better, but my boss insisted on taking me to the hospital emergency. After telling the doctor what had happened, I was given some tests. They didn’t find anything wrong with me.
The following few weeks at work were terrible. I started having these attacks several times a day, not knowing what was happening to me. Because the emergency visit didn’t find anything wrong, I did my best to hide what was going on. Also, I became aware that all it took to trigger an attack was thinking about the possibility of it happening again, so I avoided even admitting that something was going on with me.
I finally went to my doctor, who prescribed some pills to calm me down. I left the doctor’s office without a diagnosis. This was the 1980s, when there was very little awareness about anxiety disorders. I only used the pills occasionally, when I had a really bad day.
And I decided to leave that stressful job. In the two weeks I was off work, I found that my panic attacks were reduced in frequency and duration when I increased my exercise. But, even as I felt better, I was always aware that the wrong feeling or circumstance could once again trigger an attack.
Reaching rock bottom
Fast forward about 20 years. I experienced varying degrees of panic along the way. I tried different medications and made trips to a psychiatrist. I did lots of research on the Web. I also experienced a number of different work situations—sometimes I left jobs because of stress, sometimes because of my personal desire to learn and grow; other times because of union shake-ups or the company folding.
In 2004, I was a self-employed contractor, testing and inspecting hydrogen fuel cell buses. I began having multiple panic attacks every day. My attacks happened mostly at work, even though the pressure I was feeling had more to do with worry about financial uncertainty. I had purchased a condo the previous year, and the three-year work contract was ending in September. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place. Being self-employed, I wasn’t covered by an extended health plan. I had no paid sick time, so just had to grin and bear my situation as best I could.
I think the attacks happened more at work because of the greater interaction there—and the fear dynamic. Even though it wasn’t visibly obvious that I was having an attack (in the way, e.g., a seizure would be), my fear of being witnessed fed the panic.
My way of coping with these attacks at work was to use avoidance strategies. Because of the stigma, I wasn’t ready to admit a problem—to others or myself. When the attacks started, I’d quietly remove myself from the situation and the panic would slowly subside.
Once I was off work, I found leaving the house became harder each day. Panic disorder has an unsympathetic way of constantly attaching the triggers that provoke anxiety to more and more areas of one’s life. I was afraid to be in public places in case I had a panic attack. A simple trip to the bank or grocery store made me feel like a soldier walking through hostile territory with sniper rifles aimed at me the entire time.
By not leaving the house, however, I was reinforcing the belief that I’d never be okay and my life was about to implode. I was drowning in future negative thinking and had visions of losing everything I’d worked for . . .
I was at rock bottom.
Life throws unexpected curve balls
I had been building my confidence for some time, so in September 2005 I applied for a manager’s job at my workplace, knowing full well that the work stress would increase. The challenge was too tempting and I was feeling better than I had in years. I was the successful candidate.
Within a month of becoming manager, however, life delivered some heart-wrenching news: my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It took only two months of quick deterioration until he died. I made time to be there every day and was with him during his final moments. But my father’s illness opened up a new world of things to cope with.
At work, I could feel the stress building, daily. I was expected to work 10 to12 hours a day, to hire and fire employees, to attend 12 scheduled meetings a week, as well as manage the daily production schedules and large crews of hourly paid employees.
I had constant stiffness in my shoulders, back and neck. I woke up every morning tied up in knots and with a sore jaw from grinding my teeth at night. And after two years of this I started getting the panic attacks at work again, especially during meetings. My survival instincts of fleeing the situation would kick in; I’d go to the washroom, rinse my face with cold water and try to pull it together. But I knew my avoidance strategy would not be helpful in the long run.
This spike in anxiety had as much to do with the fact I hadn’t been practising the skills I’d learned for keeping anxiety under control—at least not practising enough. I tried to practise on walks at lunch time, but on the job there was no opportunity. At home, I was exhausted and still doing work.
I was feeling burned out and decided to pay my doctor a visit. He recommended that I take six weeks stress leave from work and visit him every couple of weeks to update.
The human resources department at my workplace contacted me to find out what was happening (I was on short-term disability) and when I could be expected back at work. I explained my situation, but realized, after the conversation, that they had no understanding of why my doctor had recommended I take time off. I felt pressured to return to work, ready or not. So I decided I’d better reassess my future with this company.
I took a hard look at my life, my values and my needs and decided I should look for something more suitable.
I did find something more suitable and personally fulfilling. I’m now working for AnxietyBC, where having an anxiety disorder is an asset because I can relate to the experiences of people looking for information. And, being immersed in the subject matter definitely helps me keep my anxiety under control.
Employers need to become aware of the many stressors in the workplace. They need to implement programs and activities that proactively reduce the impact of these stressors before they become a problem. No one can be efficient when they are burned out.
Ultimately, there is no health without mental health.
About the authorArto was born in the Queen Charlotte Islands and has lived in BC all his life. He worked in the aviation industry for over 20 years. Through volunteering and his own experience with anxiety, Arto now works as General Manager of Anxiety BC. He is grateful to be helping others