May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which means it’s the perfect time to talk about the role mental health plays in our overall health and wellbeing. In the workplace, our mental health influences who we are and how we function. Ideally, we are all in good mental health, meaning we have the ability to cope with the normal stresses of life.
But the reality is, mental health – much like physical health – requires constant attention and work. This is especially true if an individual is navigating a mental health condition, illness, or disorder that affects their wellbeing.
To help break the stigma, GE Research Lead Scientist Andrew Hoffman has graciously offered to share a glimpse into his mental health journey. Andrew is an accomplished research scientist with a love for materials design and applied physics. He also has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, and generalized anxiety disorder. While Andrew’s mental health diagnoses affect him and his relationships with co-workers, they do not define him.
Andrew is open about his mental health struggles and is an active member of GE’s Disability Advocacy Network (DAN) employee resource group (ERG). DAN provides support and resources that enable people with disabilities, their families, and allies to connect and thrive. DAN members raise awareness and foster a sense of inclusion in our communities through events, education, and advocacy efforts.
Here’s what Andrew had to say about dealing with the challenges of mental health…
This Mental Health Awareness Month I want to talk about a topic that’s often stigmatized, but I didn’t realize how much so until I watched Ted Lasso. In the show, the main character is criticized by others, and his role questioned due to his panic attacks. I love that the show portrays panic attacks as a legitimate health issue, and that it also shows the value of therapy. Because I feel this topic is a bit alienated, I want to share my own experiences with anxiety and panic attacks.
I experienced a panic attack a few weeks ago at work. Panic attacks for me usually start with an increased heart rate, followed by a deep feeling in my stomach that my entire gut has left me. It’s similar to an out of body experience. I often hear people compare panic attacks to a heart attack, and though I’ve never had a heart attack, I think it’s a good description. My last panic attack caused slurred speech, droopy eyes, and that lightheaded feeling like I might faint. I also had extreme nausea like that experienced during a migraine. Panic attacks are scary because they often come on quickly and all at once.
Like panic attacks, anxiety attacks cause my heart rate to increase. This is often coupled with “brain fog” and the unnerving feeling that something imminently bad and catastrophic will happen. My anxiety attacks are often triggered by stressful thought processes that start with small “mental nuclei,” then lead into more serious thought patterns. Often times I lose sleep. I recently experienced an anxiety attack during a work trip to France. I was walking in Paris with a colleague when I realized my room key was missing. I assumed the key was taken and that someone had entered my room and stole all my belongings. My gut reaction was to run several miles back to the hotel to ensure everything was okay. Instead, I was able to calmly talk myself through the situation. I told myself that there was nothing that could be stolen that couldn’t be replaced, and that the missing room key did not necessarily mean it was stolen. I also told myself that if someone did break into my room it probably would have already happened and therefore out of my control. I was able to enjoy the rest of the evening and get some beautiful shots of the Eifel Tower at night.
The biggest point I want to emphasize: People often associate panic and anxiety attacks with weakness. I would argue that those battling these issues are actually strong and courageous. Having suffered from these through much of my life, I know what it takes to wake up every morning determined to take ownership of my life. I know others suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks have the same brave outlook on life, and to me they are all survivors and heroes of their own lives.
So, what has helped me to cope with these issues in my personal life? First and foremost, it is critical for me to know that these things do not define who I am. I have found strength and peace in knowing that my ailments do not devalue me and in many ways, I view them as a blessing to be able to empathize with others who are also suffering.
Having supportive colleagues, friends, and family is also critical. Finding others who understand or can at least sympathize and provide support makes a big difference. During my recent panic attack, I was lucky enough to have extremely supportive colleagues who understood that I needed some rest. I was able to head home to take a nap and recover. No probing questions were asked; only love and support from the amazing people I am lucky to work with.
Another important thing to know is that you can see a doctor and that there are medications available to alleviate your symptoms. Going to a doctor for medication is not drug seeking behavior; it’s behavior that’s healthy and will enable you to take better control of your mental health. In a similar vein, therapy can be life changing. It can open up thought processes that help you discover, explore, and understand the affects of past traumas. It can help you to better understand your triggers and work towards building immunity to them. I’m usually surprised by how my weekly therapy sessions lead me to a whole new discovery about myself. I almost always leave feeling empowered.
Lastly, meditation and mindfulness coupled with all of the above have been life changing. People often associate meditation with a lack of thought, but it’s just the opposite. Meditation is about allowing your subconscious thoughts to play themselves out. It’s an exercise in listening to yourself. When first starting or if it’s been a while, meditation can be overwhelming, but with practice it’s a valuable personal empowerment tool.
This Mental Health Awareness Month I challenge everyone to discover something new they can do to improve their self-care. As an additional challenge, I encourage everyone to find at least one friend or colleague to support. Let them know you are there to support them however they choose to approach their own growth and self-improvement.
Remember, mental health is just as important as physical health, and we should all treat it as such.