Advising With Anxiety – My Experience

I’ve lived with anxiety for pretty much my entire life. As a small child, I used to get frequent tummy aches and did not realize until my freshman year of college that the proper term for that feeling was “anxiety”. That same semester, I paid my university’s counseling center a visit and officially began my journey towards recovery. Now I know, of course, that there is no such thing as recovering from anxiety but that one can merely learn how to cope with it instead. I’ve seen counselors on and off for years and would like to think of myself as being in remission with occasional flare ups.

My close relationship with anxiety is one of the original reasons I wanted to study psychology and enter some type of counseling career. I wanted to help others who were struggling similarly. Little did I know that speaking to and empathizing daily with others who live with anxiety, even in my current role as an academic advisor, can actually be incredibly triggering. For the most part, I am fine. I can talk to students, tell them I totally understand what they are going through and provide them with resources and advice on how to develop the proper coping strategies. But then there is this one thing, this one word that, if mentioned, sends a chill down my spine: insomnia.

At the peak of my anxiety, I struggled a great deal with insomnia. I’d lie awake all night and go almost 24 hours without sleep. This rarely happens now (literally knocked on my wooden desk after typing that) but I still fear that just thinking or talking, or writing about it for that matter, will cause it to happen again. In fact, I had a conversation with a colleague about it once in which he told me that sometimes he struggles with it. Well that’s all my brain needed to hear for it to begin flooding my mind with thoughts like this one: “What if I can’t sleep tonight because we talked about the I-word?”. And sure enough, I had a horrible, tossing and turning, anxiety filled slumber. Even now, you can bet that this blog post is one I will never re-read because it has the I-word in it.

So what can we do when our own demons are making a sudden (or a slow creeping) reappearance as a result of our work? Here are some strategies I have implemented but I am curious as to what others do. So please, after reading this, leave some of your thoughts in the comments.

Talk to someone

Whether that someone be a friend, family member or professional, verbally processing our emotions improves our emotional intelligence by increasing our emotional self-awareness. Recently I found an article that aims to explain why some of us experience burnout while others do not. In the article, the author writes, “Emotional self-awareness, one of the components of EI [emotional intelligence] for example, allows us to understand the sources of our frustration or anxiety and improves our ability to consider different responses” (Wiens & McKee, 2017). Humans are social beings and we thus need the support of others. If anything, you will likely find that your colleagues are struggling similarly. The article talks about this too, “Empathy also helps to fight stress. When we actively try to understand others, we often begin to care about them. Compassion, as with other positive emotions, can counter the physiological effects of stress. And, attuning to other people’s perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs contributes to our ability to gain trust and influence others. This, on a very practical level, often means we get the help we need before stress spirals into burnout” (Wiens & McKee, 2017). If you ever walk by my office with the door wide open sans me in it, you can find me in my colleague’s office 98 percent of the time venting about one frustration or another or just looking for support.

Get some distance

I am lucky to have some telecommute days each month that allow me to work from the comfort of my couch with my puppy Rosie by my side. Just getting some temporary physical distance from my office and my students, even if it is just for one day, can help me recharge. If you’re not as fortunate, consider taking a long weekend every once in a while during which you don’t open your work email or give work another thought. If now is not the time for you to miss work, consider taking a break mentally, which leads me to my last strategy:

Distract yourself

These days, everyone talks about mindfulness and meditation as the cure all for any ailment that may come your way. While there are many studies to back up the benefits of it, research has also shown that it can be detrimental depending on the individual and in what way it is used. A synthesis of existing studies written by Willoughby B Britton cites research which shows that individuals who struggle with anxiety and who are non- avoidant (I.e., individuals for whom “…anxiety and other disorders can be caused and maintained… by attentional bias toward threat) do not benefit from mindfulness (2019). To clarify, for all of us ruminators out there, focusing even more on our anxiety, and the trigger behind it, can make said anxiety worse. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love mindfulness and have benefited positively from it. But sometimes, I just need a distraction – whether in the form of a funny YouTube video, binge watching an entire Netflix show as soon as I get home or listening to my dad complain about my mom’s excessive usage of paper products (I.e. toilet paper, paper towels, etc – those paper products ain’t cheap!).


Now I want to hear from you. If you struggle with something like anxiety or other forms of mental illness, how do you cope when your work becomes triggering or too emotionally and mentally taxing? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


Citations

Britton, W. B. (2019). Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinion in Psychology28, 159–165. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.12.011

Wiens, K., & McKee, A. (2017, July 20). Why Some People Get Burned Out and Others Don’t. Retrieved January 29, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-some-people-get-burned-out-and-others-dont?utm_source=linkedin&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hbr


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