I first met Claire back in 2016 when I interviewed her for a blog post I was writing for Mental Health First Aid for World Mental Health Day. The theme was #Take10Together – my idea to ask Claire 10 questions in 10 minutes. We ended up being on the phone for well over an hour!
For me, Claire was the one person who opened my eyes to how panic attacks really made me feel, how they could easily take over my life and, in particular, the huge impact they had over my working life.
Even though I had already been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Panic Disorder, Claire’s first book “We’re All Mad Here” just made everything I had experienced so normal; that I wasn’t really a complete freak.
Fast forward to 2021 and Claire has just published her new book “F**k I think I’m dying”. Part memoir and part guide, this knowledgeable, humorous, and warm book does not give you the answers of how you can get rid of your panic attacks, instead it’s focus is on not letting the attacks takeover your life.
If someone had explained to me a long time ago about why we experience panic, what is going off in my head when the amygdala (the reptilian part of the brain) is acting like a smoke alarm, and strategies to work with it rather than I against it, this would have saved me so many tears, feelings of helplessness and shame.
Shame has been a big part of my anxiety journey with panic attacks. For the several decades I experienced them in the corporate environment, especially within meetings (which I will come on to shortly), I beat myself up as to why I was having them. My inner critic went something along the lines of “you’re not good enough, you’re pathetic, you’re not confident enough, you’re stupid”… you get the picture.
The panic often felt at odds with who I was, or who I at least appeared to be at work – a successful, confident and extroverted individual. Yet behind closed doors, in the toilet cubicle, in the car park (basically, wherever I had bolted to with the sheer terror) I was falling apart on the inside and just not asking for help.
Panic At Work
Claire has dedicated a chapter of her book to panic attacks and the workplace. What I love is that she linked the chapter with humour, something workplaces often need more of and to be honest they would be far nicer (and more productive!) places if they did.
When I interviewed Claire for this book, we chatted about how meetings can be panic inducing for many people. Think about it: being locked in (not really but you know what I mean) a room with a bunch of people, eyeballing each other, politics, bravado, trying to find out how you fit in, knowing when to speak, presenting information, plus we are probably bouncing off all the pheromones that are coming of others if it is an intense situation – It is a lot for our brains to take onboard and process.
I always used to sit near the door (a fast exit if I had a panic attack coming on) and bring tissues and water with me (in case I broke into an attack but couldn’t leave). I melt with sweat with my panic attacks, hence the tissues and water. These are not excellent coping strategies I might add.
Perhaps if I could have had a conversation openly about it with people at work, understand myself what is happening and be able to explain to others, it would have saved me so much heartache.
Hopefully the world is changing in its understanding about panic attacks and with Claire’s brilliant book, a tool to help educate those who don’t have panic attacks but who could support others who do. Now, wouldn’t that be a gamechanger in the workplace.
F**k I Think I’m Dying – Chapter Five: Panic at Work and Laughter, the Superpower
The following is an extract from Chapter 5 of F**k I Think I’m Dying: How I Learned to Live With Panic by Claire Eastham (Square Peg, 2021)
Is the employment system biased against people who have panic attacks? Or indeed, any form of mental health condition?
I talked to Ruth Cooper-Dickson, founder of CHAMPS, a global consultancy that provides mental health and wellbeing training. Ruth has worked with some of the largest corporations in the UK and around the world.
‘We all have biases, it is part of human nature and we cannot understand everyone’s frame of reference. Not everyone has experienced mental illness or dealt with someone who is struggling, or they may have had a particular experience which has shaped how they feel about mental ill health. Trust is always hard to build with any human and with your manager knowing, if you are open this will not go against you.’
This may be a harsh and sobering point, but she’s right. There are no guarantees that a person won’t be judged for any aspect of their identity, let alone being open about a mental illness. Women are still less likely to be offered a job over a man due to the ‘threat of future maternity leave’. Not to mention, as Emma Gannon highlights: ‘a woman is still paid 22 per cent less per hour than a man. It is assumed that they value work relationships more than money.’
Despite various educational and awareness campaigns, I’m sceptical about their long-term impact. As a great cynic, I’d be off-brand if I weren’t. Sure, people attend the mental health talk organised by HR and they try the free mindfulness class at lunchtime, but does it really alter attitudes long term?
Personally, I think it takes generations for prejudice to be phased out. Stigma is maintained by a lack of understanding and understanding often comes from personal experience. A boss who has never experienced depression might not understand why a colleague can’t get out of bed, let alone come to work. Said colleague might be labelled as ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’, when in fact they’re very ill. Whereas, a cold or a bad case of the shits has been experienced by most people, making it easier to sympathise.
Before the breakdown, colleagues could never understand why I got ‘so worked up’ about speaking in meetings or networking events.
‘Nobody is focusing on you,’ was a favourite statement batted around, as though this would immediately drive out the crazy from my brain. It’s natural that people respond to irrational behaviour with rationality, but it rarely helps a person living with anxiety. How could I explain this or expect them to understand? The thing is, Anna, my whole body seizes up and I can barely remember my name, let alone be glib. There’s a constant stream of abuse circulating through my brain and I spend most social interactions analysing people’s faces and body language, trying to assess whether or not they hate me. Vodka? Sounds great.
Bias and prejudice in the workplace are nothing new, and not limited to mental illness. It felt like too big a beast to confront.
At the time I had to assess what was more of a priority, my recovery and feeling supported in my current job, or worrying about future problems that I couldn’t control and may never occur. So I let that one go.
Did I progress within the company over the remaining two years I was there? Sadly not. Still, I like to think that was my decision. I was ready to move on and test out a new environment. It felt like a proactive step.
I wasn’t going to ignore my condition in any area of my life going forward; it would be foolish as I’d come so far in recovery. This is not to say that the idea of ‘coming out’ to a new employer didn’t fill me with dread, but all that would come in time. (Naturally after the three-month probation period!)
This promise to my brain was tested almost immediately in my second job, at a small, independent and rather eccentric publisher. A mere three days into the role I was informed that I’d be giving a presentation the following week to around thirty people. No joke. I would present twelve of our upcoming books to an external team who’d be selling them all over the world. Normally this would be done by the editor, but seeing as he was on holiday, I was expected to
step in. ‘That’s not a problem is it?’ he asked pleasantly. ‘Not at all!’ I smile. What else could I say? Actually no, the thing is, the thought of giving a presentation in front of my own reflection, let alone thirty professionals, makes me wish I was dead. I was hoping to drop this bomb well after my probation meeting when you couldn’t bin me without pay.
Despite a bumpy start, the whole thing went surprisingly well. For starters, the 85-year-old CEO was even more batshit than me and not only answered his phone in the first two minutes of the presentation: ‘Hello? HELLO! I can’t talk right now, Bob, I’m stuck in a dark room full of strangers!’ (Imagine the whole thing said in a strong New York accent.) After which he promptly fell asleep and was snoring so loudly it was hard for even the most serious audience members not to laugh. Turns out that this bizarre exchange was the perfect icebreaker! It rerouted my brain and although I was still experiencing panic, it no longer felt overwhelming. The humour liberated me.
Oh, and, Bob, if you’re reading this, cheers for the call!
Win a Signed Copy of F**k I Think I’m Dying by Claire Eastham
To help increase understanding of anxiety, we are giving away several signed copies of Claire’s book ‘F**k I Think I’m Dying’.
As we hope you can tell from the above extract, this book is a must-read for those who experience panic attacks or who want to better understand anxiety and panic attacks so they can better support others. Had Claire published this book several (or rather many) years earlier, it would have been a gamechanger for the way I viewed my own anxiety in those early days of experiencing anxiety and not really knowing what was going on, or how to navigate it.
For your chance to win a copy, you can enter our competition on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter – and don’t forget to share with your friends and family so that they too can be in the chance of getting their hands on a signed copy.
The competition is UK only and ends on 16th May 2021 at Midnight. Winners will be chosen at random on Monday 17th May 2021.