Mental Health – Don’t Suffer in Silence, by Paula Hancock, FWN Steering Committee

22 Jun 2022 10:42 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Mental Health Awareness Week (9-13th May 2022)

It was Mental Health Awareness Week at the beginning of May and I wanted to share some insight about how poor mental health has affected me in the past and what I do now to keep my mind fit.  We all know about how important it is to look after our bodies, in the same way it’s just as important to look after our minds.  Yet, as a society I think we really struggle to talk about that, particularly for women in the workplace.  At the time, I was afraid of talking about this at work through fear of being judged as incompetent but in fact I don’t think I recognised the signs that there was something wrong until it all blew up one day.  I wanted to share what happened to me so that it might help  others recognise similar signs and look to seek help before it gets worse. 

How it happened was this.  I’d been working in a company for several years.  I’d been a successful, award-winning intelligence analyst in the police and latterly in the private sector and was making great progress in my career.  I’ve had experience in multiple disciplines across physical, fraud and cyber subjects (this now sounds a bit like my CV!), and in June 2017 I was successful in getting promoted to a team leader role for a team of Cyber Intelligence Analysts.  Cyber was a completely new field to me and although I was eager to share my analytical experience, it also scared me too because I didn’t know the subject very well. 

I put a huge amount of pressure on myself.  I felt like I was given an opportunity to lead and told myself that I'd better not mess this up!!  I obsessed about being a great leader and bought all the appropriate books under the sun to help me.  I wanted to do everything “by the book”.  I took on every opportunity going, volunteered for stuff because I wanted to show that I could do it, even though perhaps I wasn’t the most experienced, I wanted the challenge.  Looking back on this now it should have been a big red flag.  Even though I gobbled up every opportunity, I didn’t think to challenge when I knew that I’d struggle or that I was doing too much.  So, there I was, doing projects that I felt I wasn’t experienced at with little support that I asked for and no training, hoping that I wouldn’t get found out … a massive attack of imposter syndrome! 

I was travelling each week to our showcase suite to do customer presentations, a journey round the M25 of over 100 miles each way, there and back in a day.  Along with the pressure of building an entirely new product for customers, plus managing a new team, I was exhausted and completely worn out.  I started to not recognise myself, I was getting so wound up, being short with people in meetings and being completely on edge all the time, and I’m embarrassed to say that this manifested itself in road-rage.  I wasn’t sleeping properly which made everything worse and on several occasions I caught myself starting to fall asleep at the wheel.  That really frightened me, and you’d think that this would be the event that caused me to stop and realise that things weren’t right and that I needed to get some help.  But actually it wasn’t.  I continued to struggle on.  I said to my myself and my boss that I could do this, I would do this, I wouldn’t fail, I wouldn’t let anyone down.  My solution was that instead of driving, I’d get the train instead.  But the fear persisted, and eventually it was on one of these rail journeys on my way to a customer presentation that I had my first panic attack. 

This was me 5 years ago.  At the time I had an incredibly supportive manager who also happened to be a close friend.  She recognised that things weren’t right and on the day of my panic attack, she made sure I got home safely and took some time off.  I didn’t want time off but knew that I couldn’t keep going as I was.  She suggested that I talk to someone through our Employee Assistance Programme.  This has been my lifesaver.  I was put in touch with a therapist and had several rounds of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety which was treated with a combination of medication and talking therapy.  It’s the therapy that I think has had the greatest impact, although the meds helped to give me that space in my head to process what I’ve learnt through CBT.  Five years on, I’m no longer clinically depressed, and although I still go through smaller bouts, I’m more attuned to the red flags when they appear.  I recognise my thinking errors when they occur and have learnt how to use tools to cope with them and question them so that they don’t consume my thinking. 

I want to share some of the things I've learnt through CBT about my thinking errors in the hope that they may resonate with you and I’ve included some of the reference materials I found useful to help me understand the issues I was facing. 

Thinking errors that were common for me

Catastrophising – creating a mountain out of a molehill.  Since I was little, I have always thought the worst.  If someone I love is travelling somewhere, I'd instantly worry that they’d been involved in an accident if they haven’t let me know when they’d got to their destination. 

Fortune-telling – when things turn out to be not as bad as you expect.  My therapist reflected this back to me when she asked me how many of my worries had actually been true. 

I’ve written, deleted and re-written this blog several times thinking how many people are going to read this and think it’s a load of rubbish.  This is mind-reading, the tendency to assume that others are thinking negative things about you or have negative motives or tendencies.  This is also a key factor in my professional career where imposter syndrome takes over.  Although I’ve won awards throughout my career, I mentally filter these out and only acknowledge information that fits my belief that people think I’m rubbish and consequently I don’t pay much attention to my successes. 

The culmination of my poor mental health was in over-generalising.  Around the time I took on the new leadership role, the United States had just inaugurated a new President like no other, Brexit was just getting going.  In a case of over-generalising, I felt scared for the world and this compounded my worries … if only we knew then that a global pandemic was on the way! 

CBT helped me to reframe and rationalise some of these thinking errors.  For example, getting a little perspective can turn negative catastrophising into a more neutral frame of mind.  How true is it that nothing ever goes right for you?  When making demands of myself and putting myself under so much pressure, paying attention to language like “should” and “must” is key, replacing these words with “prefer”, “wish” or “want”.  I wanted to publish this blog during Mental Health Awareness week, but it just wasn’t going to happen due to various other commitments I had.  My new thought process is that whilst I’d have preferred to do it then, there wasn’t any requirement or need to do it then so why stress?  I’m now putting less pressure on myself which can only ever be a good thing. 

These are just some of the tools that have helped me to retain a more positive mental health status.  I’ve included some resources below that I found helpful in my recovery. 

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies.  By Rhena Brand and Rob Willson. 
  • The Chimp Paradox.  By Dr Stephen Peters.  CBT but in story form. 
  • Happy.  By Ferne Cotton. 
  • Who moved my cheese?  By Dr Spencer Johnson. 
  • The Calm app, available from your usual app store.  I found the music particularly helpful to relax to as well as the sleep stories. 

My takeaway message is that mental health is real, it can happen to anyone, and it can be just as or even more debilitating than a physical injury or illness.  Seek help, reach out to someone you trust or to organisations such as Mind who can offer professional help to support you.  Please don’t suffer in silence. 

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