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Taking on anxiety: Your mental health comes first.

If you type ‘anxiety’ into a search engine, the following definition is the result: ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.’ It’s short and simple, but quite frankly it doesn’t describe the true debilitating effect that anxiety can have.

Back in February, Steve Whyley – a Service Manager in Technology – shared his wife’s experience with anxiety and his perspective on how he learned to understand what she was going through, and how they developed coping strategies.

An invisible illness, anxiety isn’t a topic that is commonly discussed in the workplace, but Steve opened up conversations across the bank, and was taken aback by the overwhelming positive response.

I spoke to Steve about how opening up has helped spread a powerful message across the bank, and the support he received from his colleagues.

Talking about mental health

When Steve told the bank his story of supporting his wife, Jade, through her anxiety, and how together they coped with the ups and downs it presented, he explained:

“When my wife has an anxiety attack, she struggles to sleep. Lying next to her you can feel her shake as adrenaline pumps through her body. Often freezing cold, or boiling hot, she tosses and turns desperately seeking comfort. Then there are the chest pains. She describes these as someone standing on her chest  -  a tightness so intense that she feels like she's having a heart attack.”

Often something you can’t see, it’s the symptoms of anxiety that can affect someone in both a psychological, and very often, physical way.

I asked Steve what motivated him to share his story initially on Reddit (a blog which garnered 40,000 views in less than 12 hours!), and then with his colleagues across the bank.

“Originally it was just an email to my wife. I wanted to put pen to paper about what we’d been through over the last few years, and she really liked it and encouraged me to put it out there.”

After the amazing response from his blog, Jade bravely shared it through her own social media account with friends and family. Both were overwhelmed by the support. “It opened up a big discussion, and she was getting private messages from people on medication or who were going through counselling. She often thinks she’s the only one experiencing this. When she’s feeling down or particularly anxious, she doesn’t understand why it’s happening to her. It was good for her to see that it happens to other people.”

A ‘Time to Talk’ event was being promoted within RBS, and Steve sent his writing to our bank magazine, Outside In, believing it would be useful for his colleagues to hear about it. “When we shared it, people started talking and it made Jade feel better for sharing her story. I thought it would be a good vehicle for other people to share their story.”

Understanding the triggers and causes of anxiety

To fully understand what Jade was going through, Steve spent time researching anxiety to look at different ways he could help her. I asked if he had spoken to anyone at work for support. “When things were particularly bad I didn’t want to tell anyone – but it was actually counterproductive. I should have told my manager because she’s brilliant and if I needed to take time off, or start or finish early she’s very supportive.”

Together, Steve and Jade found the right doctor and the right counsellor, who fully understood what Jade needed to be healthy. “We found a great counsellor who recommended books and stuff we could do as a couple like exercising and eating better food – things that were accessible.” He used the internet, posing questions and getting the answers he needed. “If I had my time again, I would use RBS more and use those tools.”

The tools RBS offers are being more widely spread across the bank, through articles that feature exceptional people like Steve and by sharing information on our social forums. There’s also our Employee Assistance Programme that covers personal issues, from mental health to finances, and Enable, an employee led network offering support to colleagues. “The experience was hugely positive and I showed my wife some of the comments. She thought it was brilliant that RBS allowed this discussion to take place in such a safe environment. I think that’s a big part of mental health – it’s a big secret, but when you let people in, it’s really helpful.”

First hand advice: live your life

Along with emails thanking Steve for sharing his story, he received messages asking for advice, particularly from worried parents who had young children experiencing mental health issues. However, Steve is quick to emphasise that what he says is purely from his own experience.

“The first thing – I am no expert but this was helpful to my wife, so what I’m saying could help others. Get yourself a good, understanding doctor, and if they do suggest medication, talk it through with them. Find out what it is and do your own research online. Also find yourself a good counsellor – we found a good site called It’s Good to Talk. We found a great counsellor who used to travel to London to see Jade, as her priority was to make her better. She was able to steer her in the right direction, where she’d be able to spot things that would cause her anxiety and almost stop them. For example – if you’ve got a party on a Saturday night, you could make sure that you don’t do anything on Friday night so you have nothing back to back that could cause anxiety. It might sound obvious – but thinking of strategies to cope can really help.”

Steve also found that looking at your diet and creating certain routines such as planning your meals, making a to-do list and making sure you don’t read your phone before sleep helped.

Most importantly – live your life! We were guilty of this early on. There’s a real temptation to not do anything and live your life in a bubble of fear – you think if you go out and do something, it could start some kind of anxiety attack. But you should use good days to do things – show that person they’re capable of doing more than what they think. Don’t do a bungee jump maybe, but go to the cinema. Go to dinners. Live your life.”

And the most valuable lesson is to make sure you do something about it. “Often you’ll feel better for it. If you’re not taking any action and you’re hoping it will get better on its own – I don’t think it will. Try and improve your situation – see a doctor, try counselling, alter your diet. It can be overwhelming to do it all at once, but one thing at a time can make it very achievable.”

Why not follow in Steve’s footsteps and start a discussion with family, friends or colleagues? With one in four of us affected by mental health issues, you could unknowingly be giving someone the reassurance they need.