Have you ever played with a pill in your pocket while sitting in a partner’s office, knowing it’s the only thing between you and a panic attack? Have you ever sat in a client meeting taking your pulse on your wrist under the table to monitor your racing heartbeat? Did you ever hyperventilate at an associate luncheon? Has a Zoom call ever triggered your fight-or-flight response even while you’re sitting in your own house?

Maybe not, but I’m certain I’m not the only one who’s felt their throat close and their legs shake uncontrollably while pleading their case to a judge in court. I practiced law for 20 years with anxiety and panic disorders, all the while hiding my symptoms and pretending to be in complete control. I know I’m not alone because according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults. That’s over 18% of the population, and only 37% of those suffering receive treatment.

I went largely untreated because I feared showing any sign of weakness. I wanted to control it myself. And as a young woman in a law firm, I already felt the pressure to prove my abilities and outshine my male counterparts to get ahead. I assumed the partners I worked under would think any sign of mental instability compromised my ability to do my job.

While disclosing or requesting time off for physical illness was almost always met with compassion and accommodation, I feared that discussing my mental struggles would be met with a loss in confidence resulting in less client interaction and opportunity to advance. So I perpetuated the façade with destructive perfectionism and isolation. Under that added pressure, my symptoms grew more frequent, intense and unpredictable.

I can’t be sure what would have happened had I exposed my “secret,” but what I do know for sure is that if 2020 has any silver lining, it is that words like “well-being,” “mindfulness” and “mental health” have become part of our everyday vocabulary. And I know that when I went to the partners in my firm to discuss the book I was writing about my disorders and finding freedom from them, they were supportive and excited.

Since then, my firm has embraced my mission to bring mental health awareness to our profession, offering firm-wide presentations on stress and anxiety management and naming me a wellness liaison. In addition, when I’ve discussed my anxiety with clients, something I’d never considered possible, they have not only been compassionate, but have shared either their own experience with anxiety or the experience of their spouse or child.

This is a seismic shift in corporate culture, and I am committed to doing my part in making sure mental health awareness remains a priority even after we return to some kind of new normal.

If you are feeling anxious as you consider reentry to office life, here are some strategies to help:

  1. Burst the bubble. If you are feeling anxious about returning to an office environment, find someone in your workplace you can trust to confide in if you are not ready to have the conversation with your partners or boss. If the space feels unsafe not only because of lingering COVID concerns but because you have to hide your anxiety, your symptoms will likely get worse.
  2. Exposure therapy. Try not to avoid things because you think they will trigger your anxiety. Ask yourself if your world is expanding or shrinking. It obviously shrunk for all of us this past year, but as we are able to expand it again, be aware of where you might be resisting solely because of your anxiety.
  3. Identify your pressure points. Manage unrealistic expectations and deadlines and overscheduling your time by setting healthy goals and boundaries both at work and at home. Build in an extra few minutes between tasks and projects to reset with grounding techniques (described below).
  4. Small Steps. Don’t expect to get from A to B in one huge leap without triggering anxiety.  Going back to the office for just one day a week may feel overwhelming, never mind five! Take small steps. Martha Beck (author, Harvard Ph.D. and life coach to Oprah) refers to it as taking one-degree turns rather than 90 degrees. These feel “doable” and can create significant, sustainable change in your life without triggering the anxiety caused by sudden drastic change.
  5. Meditate, breathe and ground. Meditating in the morning can help establish a baseline sense of calm. Add breath work and grounding techniques throughout your day as stress in your body and anxious thoughts build.
  6. Move! Studies show that metabolizing anxious energy through moderate exercise, especially outside, can significantly reduce stress and anxiety.

For a deeper dive into anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and panic disorders, and specific meditations, techniques and strategies for coping (including breathing and grounding), visit my website.

Written by Wendy Tamis Robbins.

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