I am suffering from anxiety issues. A couple of people have said to me that the topic isn’t discussed as much as it could be, so I thought I’d write about my experiences in the hope that they might help others in a similar situation.
For me, the aspects of my anxiety are both physical and mental. I suffer from back and neck pain due to tension, which can only be reduced by massage, prescription muscle relaxants and sleep. I get an eyelid twitch (which is really annoying!). I can’t “switch off” when something is on my mind and I react in an unusual or exaggerated way to situations which should be of no real concern.
I have realised, over the past few months, that my issues are related to feelings of having insufficient time. It’s interesting to realise that when I wrote about efficiency in 2014, when it began to become more acute for me, this ties into the beginnings of a phase when I began to suffer from feelings of anxiety.
The feeling of panic comes on with no warning. For example, I don’t feel under any stress whatsoever, but then I’ll think of something stupid and minor – I’m running late to get lunch or a technical piece of work is taking too long – and my body will start to react. My heart rate elevates. If I’m talking to someone, my speech rate will increase and I’ll start to have problems catching my breath. I have to stop and usually get away from everyone to calm myself down.
These panic attacks are usually tied in with a sense of insufficient available time. That’s tied in directly to the cause of my anxiety issues. Oddly, even people reassuring me that there is, in fact, plenty of time also makes me panic slightly… in case they’re mistaken.
I thought, before sitting down to write about it, that the anxiety from which I’ve been suffering is a comparatively recent thing. But the longer I think about it, the more that I come to realise that it’s been building slowly for a long time.
The region of the country to which I moved in 2001 played a great part in changing who I am. Attempts to make new friends were wholly rejected and it was only three to four years after moving to Switzerland that I found a group of like-minded photographers to occasionally spend time with.
Spending so much time essentially on my own meant that I had to learn how to deal with life without any local support. I was under a lot of pressure to improve and get faster at my job and I was seen very much as the outsider, both because of my nationality and because of the entrenched characters of the local people with whom I worked. My actions were under scrutiny, much in the same way that you look at an insect trapped in a glass.
The network of people I now call acquaintances all come from the tech. environment and so that became very important to me after the photographic community dissipated. Through them, I began to focus on improving my technical abilities.
My employer at the time, however, actively blocked the majority of my suggestions for improving our processes or adopting more modern ideas. So I naturally became more and more irate at the lack of respect for my opinion. That was exacerbated by the projects which we didn’t complete well, because we were on tight deadlines and because I felt that I was getting the blame for the lack of efficiency and success.
I spent a lot of time back then trying to keep my anger under control. When it became obvious that I was losing that battle, I had no choice but to move on to somewhere new, mainly for the sake of my mental health and to get away from the corrosive situation. With hindsight, this couple of years was probably the first stage of my anxiety issues.
Once I moved to a new role with a new employer, I calmed down a lot and the anger issues largely resolved themselves. However, my first true leadership role and the intense pressure to try and corral a team of young and inexperienced colleagues began to take its toll in a different way. I had to work a lot more hours than I’d worked in the nine or ten years since I’d left the mountain valleys. I did a good job, but the pressure was always on. The higher I set the bar, the more was expected of me. If I excelled, then that became the norm and any slip from that level was criticized. Which I naturally took hard, having gained praise first and then having to accept being knocked down again.
The pressure and never-ending fight for improvement and efficiency, quite simply, exhausted me. I didn’t have enough mental energy to look after myself as much as I needed to.
The worst stage of my anxiety issues started at the beginning of last year. I took the risky decision to accept a massive project for a client, which was lucrative, but which would mean two months of very intense work, no room for error or delay, and many long hours. That put me under a lot of strain and I chose to retreat to working at home – both to gain a couple of extra hours of work time each day, and also to isolate myself from the distractions of working in a team.
This was, in hindsight, a terrible decision. Working in complete isolation in front of a screen for more than a dozen hours per day was initially great for productivity, but meant that all of the other responsibilities simply stacked up. Planning work in such a ridiculously tight timeframe is idiotic, because this breeds more mistakes. No-one is a machine and you need to allow yourself time to make mistakes and fix them.
And then, two weeks later, my dad suddenly died.
That obviously knocked me for six and the following couple of months were terrible. Not only did I need to deal with the grief and the practicalities of the situation, but I also had little respite from the pressures of my working commitments. Although I was able to take time out to get to England and be with my family, I still had to deal with the realities of my personal situation alongside the massive expectations of my employers.
The high levels of stress throughout 2018 – in particular until the spring – intensified my anxiety issues. When I found that I could no longer operate at the high level which was expected of me, I stepped back and worked as a developer again, although it became clear that this wasn’t a solution to my issues. The pressure was still there and other business concerns were still very relevant. And although the management did their best to accommodate me stepping back, the massive pressure was still on the company to improve and there was no-one else there to pick up the slack.
When I finally came to the decision that the needs of the company were too unrealistic for me, I knew that I had to change my working situation. I kept saying to myself: “Mark, you have twenty years’ experience. It really shouldn’t be this hard. What would you be doing if you could choose anything?”
And so I came to Say Hello, where I can choose where and when I work. We decide which projects to take on, and we have few overheads. I no longer have to worry so much if a task takes a couple of hours longer than we expected. The goal is to do work which we enjoy and to meet our costs. Not work every single minute to earn as much money as humanly possible.
Losing my sister in 2010 and my dad last year has put my life into perspective. These experiences, as well as the positive and negative sides of my working life, have shown me that we each get our allotted time on this planet and we should make the most of that time. I am still battling with anxiety issues, but I am not ashamed of that. I pay attention to my own needs and I communicate with those around me to make sure that I can function better with them.
I am not a machine and I can’t live this life without help. Speaking to people about how I feel – be it my wife on a very personal and intimate level, or my acquaintances and working colleagues – enables me to get the support and help I need. By communicating clearly and openly with clients, I can help to educate them about the importance of allowing sufficient time to achieve good, stable results.
Communication with others helps us to carry the heavier loads in life. Miscommunication, or a lack of communication, simply adds to the burdens which we sometimes struggle with anyway. No-one can carry the burdens of life without help, and I am grateful to those around me for helping me with mine.