Within the aviation industry, like any other, we can all experience anxiety from time to time and to varying degrees, around our role, our progress and our job security. During these unprecedented times through the global COVID-19 pandemic we may have, added concerns over furlough, redundancy, reduced incomes, other financial matters, our health and our families.
For some. these feelings are temporary and manageable. However, for others these normal anxieties can start to expand and spread to situations that would not normally worry us. Gradually taking over our lives and dominating to a debilitating extent, if not recognised and addressed.
The problem with anxiety is that it is a perfectly normal and healthy emotion to feel. At all times we may get anxious about things we are experiencing, both in our personal and professional lives. It is an emotion we are used to and is embedded within our DNA. Ultimately it can be traced back to the ‘fight or flight’ response of our earliest ancestors. Once essential to our safety, in the modern world these hard-wired responses can lead to spiralling anxiety that can so easily become extreme and unhealthy to the point that it can impact all aspects of our lives.
The morphing of these feelings from normal, healthy anxiety to the point that it takes over can be subtle and can occur over a long period of time. Making the that fact that these feelings may be becoming an issue hard to spot and identify; it is all too easy in the early stages to dismiss them or try to ignore them and push on through.
In my life, I have experienced two episodes of severe anxiety: once in my early twenties after the death of my Father. and most recently a few years ago following the birth of my first child.
Having been through it once. I should have been more prepared, recognised the symptoms and more proactively implemented the lessons and techniques I knew and had employed the first time around. Unfortunately, in the whirlwind of emotions, fatigue, and the pressure of juggling work and supporting my partner that come hand-in-hand with a newborn, I wasn’t, and didn’t.
The anxiety crept up on me over a few months, and by the time my daughter was less than eight months old I found myself struggling massively with any social event or work situation out of my immediate comfort zone. I could manage my normal work load, within the safe haven of the airport and people I knew; but any situation outside of that caused such severe anxiety that I would have to find any excuse to get out of them or let people down at the last minute and bail out.
It is all too easy in these circumstances to identify inappropriate coping mechanisms that actually may be doing more harm than good. For me, it was simple avoidance. My anxiety triggers were reasonably specific, allowing me to put off, avoid and dodge those scenarios and activities that would trigger me. With hindsight it is clear this was only ever going to be a strategy of short-term effectiveness. and very quickly put a strain on relationships in both my personal and professional lives.
I burned through my annual leave entitlement and started taking odd sick days here and there, covering up the real reasons. Essentially, my life had become one big fire fighting exercise
− managing myself out of one uncomfortable event to another. There was no logic to it. I could happily put on a front and chair a successful Flight Operations and Safety Committee meeting, but the thought of meeting a colleague from another airport for a coffee in the terminal sent me into uncontrollable panic attacks the evening prior – leading to yet another last minute cancellation or excuse.
For anyone who has not directly experienced it, living with an anxiety disorder is understandably hard to comprehend. It is, in my opinion and direct experience, fundamentally illogical.
This is not the flutter of butterflies in the stomach at the thought of doing something understandably nerve-wracking or mildly dangerous; this an almost constant state of stress and anxiety punctuated by short bursts of out-and-out panic, manifested sometimes in overwhelming mental and physical symptoms when faced with simple day-to-day interactions and situations. Situations that everyone else seems to be able to take in their stride without giving them a second thought.
It can also very easily lead to depression to one degree or another, along with feelings of inadequacy and despair. Anxiety and depression are very closely linked and can have similar medication and talking cures.
Honestly, I found the situation I was in during these episodes both embarrassing and frustrating. I hated letting people down and having to make excuses all the time. My profession requires logical thinking and considered analysis and assessment of situations and scenarios, and I was good at it. So why then was I experiencing these illogical and nonsensical feelings and emotions? Why could I not control them?
I was not under any tangible threat; my life wasn’t being endangered by the things causing my anxiety. I don’t have PTSD or an abusive upbringing. Many other people were living day-to-day in much higher stress situations and could cope. Why was I so weak? Not only that, but if I did not understand it, why should I expect anyone else to?
Recognising you have a problem that has exceeded your ability to control and admitting to yourself that you need help is not only extremely difficult, but it is also practically the only way to gain understanding from the people close to you and to get the support and guidance you need.
In my case it reached the point where I requested a career break to try and sort myself out − with a firm resolution that if this were denied I would resign. The only way I could see to gain the space and respite I thought I needed to get myself back on an even keel without having to admit I was in a mental health crisis.
However, this request along with an obvious and unusual drop in my work performance led to a direct challenge around my wellbeing from my immediate manager, leading to an uncomfortable but very necessary frank and honest discussion around my situation and health; and far more support and understanding than I expected and, that, at the time, I thought I deserved.
I feel extremely lucky to have the received the support and guidance that I did from my employer. There was an Employee Assistance Programme, occupational health support, private health cover and supportive colleagues throughout the business. Not everyone out there will be as lucky, but help and support is available not only through Aviation Action but many other resources. I have included some links that I found useful below.
Although at times it may not seems so, especially in the early days of the process, it is possible to beat anxiety and make a full recovery. It is even possible to pass through this experience and come out of the other side in some ways stronger than before.
For me personally, it was a combination of support, activities, methods and techniques that allowed me to overcome my anxiety issues and return to work, full effectiveness and mental health within six months of that uncomfortable conversation with my immediate manager. Activities such as CBT, counselling and mindfulness can be incredibly effective, especially if anxiety is caught, and these measures implemented at an early enough stage.
Thinking back on that time, perhaps the thing that surprises me most was the understanding and support I received from people I’d convinced myself would be the ones telling me to ‘man up’ and ‘pull myself together’. Also, surprising, was the number of people who approached me with sympathy and understanding having directly experienced mental health issues or have seen friends and relatives struggling.
Stigma around mental health issues remains, and not everyone aware of my situation was understanding or supportive. But over the past decade employers and GPs have become more aware of the impact and cost of mental health issues and support networks, and professional services are becoming more and more accessible.
Six years later my daughter is (of course) the light of my life and has been joined by a little brother, the apple of my eye (although neither are very good at sleeping!). I continue to love my job, the work I do and the industry I work in.
Yes, I still have the odd twinge of anxiety. I suspect and accept that I will continue to suffer to a greater or lesser extent for the rest of my life. But thanks to the help and support I have received, I now have the tools to recognise and manage the blips and peaks as they occur in a proactive and healthy way.
Please do get in touch with Aviation Action if you have feelings of anxiety that are concerning you or others around you. The sooner some of these methods and techniques to deal with anxiety can be learned and applied, the easier the road to management and recovery can be.
Some links that could be useful towards helping you and others further understand anxiety, anxiety disorders in their various forms and some of the techniques that I found effective are below.
Aviation Action can help if you find yourself dealing with anxiety, whether personal, professional or both...we are here to help! Please get in touch if you need our support.