Category Archives: Mental Health

Finding Our Best Path and Pace in Hiking and Life

Whether it’s on a hiking trail or in life, trying to move at the pace of people speeding past me doesn’t work. It’s debilitating to think I must.

Every person is unique, a new tile on the mosaic of life. We come in different sizes, shapes, colors. Some are shiny, complex, even neon. Others are solid rectangles in muted tones. Each has a place and purpose. Some are meant to walk with you for a time, then one or another of you moves on. Some slow only for pleasantries. Others breeze past or fall behind at a pace so quick you barely notice each other.

The best hiking pace is different for each of us, just as our careers and life are meant to travel on different trajectories.

Finding the paths that we most enjoy and on which we can best succeed is part of our challenge. Some of us are better scramblers, adapting quickly to changing surfaces. Others are fearless climbers, willing to pull themselves without support below. Some speed along quickly, but only on flat surfaces. Others can hike inclines far longer than others, as long as the mountain isn’t too steep.

Even when we find our best path, moving too quickly can cause us to stumble, blowing out our legs before we reach our objective.

When out hiking, I could spend my time focused on how unfair it is that many others get to the end first. Countless trail runners and hikers blaze past me in any given day. They finish faster. I take comfort in knowing my pace allows me to absorb the beauty that surrounds me.

Sometimes I move too fast, missing what would have been a great moment. I did this hiking past a husband and wife, after brief conversation, on the way to Surprise and Amphitheater lakes in the Grand Tetons. Later, as I returned, they told me that a small, independent black bear had planted itself on the trail behind me to gorge on a huckleberry bush. It was so food focused that the bear gave assembling hikers only a passing glance as the group finally decided it was large enough to pass safely. As a solo hiker, bear encounters aren’t high on my list of desires. But I would have enjoyed watching a bear in that particular setting.

I could have become upset seeing a younger woman fly past with two miles still left to go up Pikes Peak. She was carrying only a large water bottle, wearing tight shorts and an array of tattoos. She was also running at a pace I couldn’t sustain on flat surfaces, let alone on a trail climbing 7,800 feet in the 13 miles up.

If I tried to speed up to follow at her pace, I would have blown my legs. It would have taken me longer, using more recovery time, than my body could handle to complete the hike in one day.

Sometimes, I pass other hikers. I don’t look on them with any air of superiority. I never know why I might have passed them. Sometimes, it can be as simple as I trained longer and harder, perhaps because I had fewer competing responsibilities. But often, the story is far more complicated. They may be recovering from an injury. They might have hiked further, or been on their fifth straight day of hiking. They may be older. They may have had an impediment handed to them at birth that adds to their challenges. This might be their first hike, or their first day at altitude.

On the hike up Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail.

Sometimes, the reason for a struggle is far clearer. As my youngest brother and I started hiking back down Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail, we saw a young woman standing on the side, hands on hips and appearing deeply pained. Her distress caught our attention long enough to hear her yelling ahead to her boyfriend, pleading with him to slow. She tried walking again, but could barely move. That’s when we noticed that she was carrying only a single 12-ounce plastic water bottle, emptied so long ago that even the water residue had evaporated.

He had told her that she had enough water when they started. He considered whether she could make it solely in the context of his own preparation. He was wrong. Fortunately, I had extra water bottles stuffed in my backpack.

A few hours later, this same young woman and her boyfriend passed us near the end of the return hike. She saw us and stopped: “There’s no way I would have made it without your water. Thank you so much.” Clearly, she was capable of moving far faster than I could, with the right fuel and equipment. But she had been immobilized by poor guidance and preparation. So often in life, it’s not fundamental skills and desires that derail careers. It’s inadequacy of preparation, or an absence of strong mentors willing to share their wisdom. (There are both public policy and personal responsibility implications here, but I leave those to your individual consideration.)

While hiking, I’ve had people check to see if I needed help. I’ve offered help to others. It’s part of the instant community that makes the outdoors a gratifying place to spend time.

Because I must move at my pace doesn’t mean I don’t ask questions. When I find an experienced hiker, I might ask about equipment choices, nutrition strategies or training plans. I try to figure out what they’re doing that might help me, just as I learned from literally hundreds of others during my government and corporate career.

But I don’t dwell on envy. It ruins the joy of the experience.

I learned long ago that I’m my best self mentally when I’m grateful for what I have rather than distressed at what I’m lacking. I need to find my best path, and travel on it at the pace I’m prepared to handle.

Mental Health Trail Lesson: The Right People Reenergize Us

When our human batteries run low, physically and mentally, we need to plug in. At times, recharging means sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness or other forms of self-care. Often, however, the most nourishing self-care comes from spending time with good people.

This may be a mental health insight, but it applies equally well whether at work, home or play. For me, a hike etched the concept into my mind. The mental health trail lesson was clear. Sometimes we need people to reenergize us.

I can’t even begin to explain why I kept going past my planned limits.

I arrived at Yellowstone National Park only late the evening before. I woke up early to hike the Seven Mile Hole Trail. It’s a 10-mile out-and-back round trip, with the equivalent of less than 200 flights of stairs down and up in elevation change.

Looking up the Yellowstone River from the bottom of the Seven Mile Hole Trail.

Heading down to the 6,600 feet of elevation at the trail’s Yellowstone River bottom, I was okay. I had worried that hiking on my first day at altitude might hit hard. I did struggle coming back up. I stopped frequently to let my thighs and calves calm their throbbing. I had to control my heart rate and breathing. But I had expected to hurt with so much of the trail’s elevation change packed together.

Once I made it back out of the hole, my legs quickly reenergized. I hydrated and inhaled enough calories while I rested on a long-downed log. I drank extra to stave off risk of altitude sickness.

As I hiked back toward the trailhead, I saw a turnoff toward Mt. Washburn. Mt. Washburn had been my hiking plan for the next day. I decided to try and do it then in order to free up a day to see more. I didn’t consider that I was adding an extra thousand feet of elevation gain, and more miles too, taking the spur trail rather than going up and down from Dunraven Pass. More importantly, I was doing it on depleted muscles.

As I approached within about a mile of the peak, my legs gave out. I simply couldn’t go any more. If I could have taken an hour to rest, they might have refreshed. But thunder and lightning in the distance were moving rapidly my direction. As much as I wanted to reach the summit, I didn’t want to be exposed in the open just as lightning arrived. I certainly didn’t have the legs to speed up.

So I quit on the hike, turning around to head back down the spur trail. I had planned to say a prayer for my recently deceased uncle and godfather when I reached the summit. I don’t pray often, so was disappointed I hadn’t made it, feeling like I’d failed him.

Although the return down the spur trail was far easier than going up, it was still a struggle. By the time I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, I had 15 miles on then-aching legs. I’d done a decent job hydrating so was fortunate not to feel altitude sickness. Still, I was short of water and had sucked down the Gatorade I packed. I was moving very slowly.

As I turned back onto the Seven Mile Hole Trail, two women were coming back from their hike down Seven Mile Hole. They slowed for a few minutes as we exchanged pleasantries and talked about the challenges of steep, gravelly trails. We talked about where we were from and what we did. After a while, they were anxious to move quicker. I couldn’t keep up.

Before long, they were out of view. Minutes later, I heard a voice shouting from ahead. It was one of the women. “Hey, we didn’t get your name,” one yelled back. I sped up enough to catch up and introduce myself to the couple.

They walked more slowly. I pushed as fast as my legs would allow. We talked about politics, religion, suicide prevention and the responses they received when they came out to their families, seemingly covering just about every subject that societal stigmas would tell us are taboo when meeting new people. The last three miles of what had been a tough hike passed quickly. I learned from their experiences, and hopefully shared some ideas in return. They reminded me of another couple, close friends who make life better every time I see them.

I’d been barely functional when I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, but their energy gave me the motivation to keep moving. Their stories and insights distracted me from physical pain. I was grateful to have met them.

That day isn’t the only time I’ve felt sapped of energy. Even without the excuse of having already hiked 15 miles, I’ve found many times through life that I just didn’t have it in me to take the next step. I couldn’t get myself to do more. I wanted to collapse in front of the television and stay there immobile for countless hours, days, even weeks and months. Depression can have that effect, but so can pushing our bodies and minds past their capacities.

On the worst days, the best way for me to find the energy to get up and go is to walk side-by-side with someone who takes the time to care. The boost of energy I got from spending time with these women I had met as strangers carried me through the day. Family, friends and colleagues have served that role countless times over many decades, often at times more critical than they would know.

Maybe that’s why the best jobs are ones shared with good coworkers and managers. Perhaps that’s why the best relationships involve the give and take of recharging each other. Certainly that’s why the right human interactions are such an important part of mental health.

At a recent mental health forum, a speaker who had spent years in prison solitary confinement talked about how people there would deeply cut themselves just to be taken to the prison hospital. There, they would talk to someone who seemed to care. They would feel the long-lost sensation of touch, just enough to remind them of their humanity.

Appropriate hugs and other touch are certainly important parts of human connection. On that day, during that Seven Mile Hole hike, it was words that I needed.

Those words, suggesting care, concern and interest, gave me the energy to keep going.

Sometimes You Chase False Summits

I’d climbed many mountains before, but not ones out West where you cross the tree line with miles remaining to hike.

At Humphrey’s Peak, my goal was to reach the summit. Humphrey’s Peak, in Flagstaff, Arizona, served as a critical scene in a story I’d written. I needed to know what I conceived was accurate. I needed to make it to the peak.

Days before, I’d hiked in the nearby Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point. It’s a 12-mile trail that starts at 7,000 feet of elevation and descends to 3,500 feet at Plateau Point.

After some less rigorous sightseeing, I drove to Flagstaff and carb loaded for the Humphrey’s Peak hike. At sunrise, I was at the trailhead, situated at 9,000 feet. The trail climbs over five miles to 12,700 feet at the peak. It was mid-November, the end of hiking season for a peak that could then just as easily be encased in snow and ice.

While there was ice on the trails at higher elevations, particularly in shaded areas below the tree line, it wasn’t the footing that made this hike difficult. I’d been in the Chicago area only a few days before. My only incline work had been at lower elevations in the Grand Canyon. I was far from altitude-adjusted. This became abundantly clear once I passed the tree line, trudging through the lunar landscape covering the last 1-1/2 miles to the summit.

The trail up to one of three false summits on Humphrey’s Peak.

Even more clear then was that I hadn’t trained enough. I was forced to stop frequently, to rest my legs and to keep my heart and lungs from bursting through my ribs.

As I approached what looked like the summit, I was relieved as much as delighted. I’d made it. The descent would be far easier.

I hadn’t made it though.

I’d been chasing a false summit. I had further to go.

Humphrey’s Peak has three false summits. They give you hope that you’re almost to your goal, only to crush your spirit as you take what you think are the final incline steps. When you look up, though, the trail continues over the ridge.

When I hit these false summits, in hiking and in life, I have to take a break, gather my thoughts and admit I’d been fooled. Hardest of all, I need to keep going. My goal hadn’t been to get to something that seemed like the summit. It had been to get to the top, even if that meant enduring 20-mile-per-hour winds aggravating nearly freezing temperatures.

On Humphrey’s Peak, as in life, my goals kept moving from what I had been envisioning, feeling at times nearly impossible to achieve. Several times during my career, I was told I needed just one more achievement or to wait to get past the current hiring freeze. A promotion was no more than months away. But something else would intervene. A bad quarter. New leadership. Different priorities. Internal politics.

The goal moved.

The disappointment of thinking I’d made it, only to find out that there more struggle to endure, could be debilitating. But I believed I could still make it. It was worth working toward that goal. It might have been further away than I thought, but I couldn’t give up.

Life is full of times we discover that it’s a far longer path to what we want to achieve than we can possibly see—or even imagine.

Those disappointments can either be roadblocks or hurdles, depending on how we face them. Often, I had to fight off my gut reactions—depleted energy and altered attitude.

When I hit those false summits on Humphrey’s Peak, I knew that if I ever wanted to reach the true summit, it was better to keep going than to climb down and start again another day on another mountain.

That meant shaking off my frustration, and trudging on.

NEXT WEEK: Sometimes You Are So Depleted, You Need Other People.

A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

Building a career sometimes takes fighting through dreary days in an unfulfilling job. You might face a manager determined to impede your progress, at least until you identify and secure an alternative path.

Fighting back from a mental health challenge—or any other life struggle—can feel the same. You have to face obstacles and take steps even when the benefits of your struggle seem so incremental as to be initially invisible.

Still, as I’ve found with hiking, having a goal you’re striving to achieve makes enduring the suck factor on difficult days far more bearable.

Reaching the summit of Pikes Peak was the goal that motivated me through tedious training.

Chicago’s western suburbs aren’t ideal training grounds for mountain hikes. Yet that’s where I spend most of my time. On good days, outdoor training seems at least connected to nature even if flat surfaces here constrict my enjoyment. On bad weather days, incline treadmills and stair climbers are my best options.

I’d much rather work out in actual mountains, taking on longer, steeper trails and higher elevations as my abilities expand. Conducting a mountain workout surrounded by thick oaks, tall pines and tiny squirrel feet scampering on matted leaves would turn training into its own goal. I don’t have that option.

When weather cooperates, two outdoor locations draw most of my incline workouts.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, the wishfully named Mount Hoy is best known as a tubing slope developed on an old landfill. Hiking here provides 100 feet of elevation gain in a short distance, nothing compared to challenges in the Appalachians, Smokies, Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Before I depart for a steeper challenge, I make sure I can go up and down the hill continuously for a few hours carrying a full pack.

On rare clear days, Chicago’s visible skyline is worth a view, even from 30 miles away. From the top of Mount Hoy, Blackwell’s treetops and surrounding lakes also provide welcome distraction. These are pretty views. However, by the time I’m into my 18th trip up the same hill, the setting loses its motivational lure.

The same can be said of Swallow Cliffs. It’s a Cook County toboggan run surrounded by two sets of stairs that provide less elevation change though steeper climbing than at Blackwell. A couple of hours going up and down stairs with full pack helps build muscle strength for more vertically challenging hikes.

When I don’t have a tough hike coming up, I have a hard time sustaining interest in the repetitive hiking at Blackwell or Swallow Cliffs. I often return to more leisurely and nature-infused walks at the Morton Arboretum.

Even when I distract myself by marveling at the diversity of people climbing stairs at Swallow Cliffs or the peacefulness of the far less frequently used Mount Hoy, it’s easy to let the pains and soreness that come with incline workouts deter me from continuing.

With a tough goal ahead, like a recent trip scripted to culminate on Pikes Peak’s Barr Trail, I can better muster the energy to fight through tired, pained exhaustion.

If I didn’t push while training, it would dramatically reduce the odds I’d achieve my real goal. I couldn’t expect to make the 26-mile, 7,000-foot-plus elevation gain Barr Trail hike if I couldn’t make the third hour at Swallow Cliffs or at Blackwell. So, rather than stop when my legs ached, I stretched out walking flat sections for a few extra minutes before returning to the hill or stairs.

Having a clear goal, something imaginable and at least potentially achievable, enabled me to put in work my body and mind were telling me I was too tired to accomplish.

The concept applies to every aspect of life. I sucked up a significant number of difficult workdays during my corporate career. I was determined to retire early to avoid my Dad’s fate of going straight from desk to casket. He never felt the freedom to pursue passions outside of his family.

Goals have also been essential to my mental health battle. Whenever I complete a goal, I figure out what I want to focus on next. There was a time in my life when that goal needed to be measured in hours and days. But having a longer-term goal, something I can be sure I don’t want to miss, provides the motivation I need now to fight through darker days.

A foreseeable, achievable future helps me take that next step when my mind and body conspire to tell me I’ve had enough.

Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. Continue reading

Leading Integrated, Supportive Lives

In groups I’m co-facilitating in Chicago, discussing and supporting each other through common struggles quickly erases boundaries of race, age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. I feel the same way when I’m out on the trails. Everyone watches each other’s back, offering helpful hints on the next obstacle, like this waterfall climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While too many political leaders encourage divides (no, this is not directed at just one person), no one can prevent us from leading integrated, supportive lives if we choose to pursue unity and peace over segregation and conflict.
Hiking up the side of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

13 Reasons Why Not on Suicide

For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.

Speaking at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser/rally for No Stigmas.
Photo courtesy Adam Pitra and No Stigmas.

With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.

During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.

My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:

  1. Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
  2. Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
  3. That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
  4. There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
  5. Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
  6. Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
  7. Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
  8. About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
  9. Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
  10. People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
  11. Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
  12. A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
  13. If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.

These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.

I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.

You’re worth it.

Helping Employees Cope Through PTSD

While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.

PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.

(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)

Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.

Screen+Shot+2016-08-23+at+2.39.25+PMThe ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.

Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.

Continue reading

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
Continue reading

Stepping Up When Anxiety Shuts An Employee Down

(Part of a series written originally for mental health advocacy group NoStigmas.)

If you manage a large team or even a few people over a number of years, chances are you’ve encountered an employee struggling with an anxiety disorder. React well as a leader/manager and you’ll help the struggling employee recover and contribute to your organizational success. Pile onto their problem and you’ll help send that employee, and your results, into downward spiral.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one type of anxiety disorder in a typical year.  While anxiety disorders are treatable, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has found that only one-third of those struggling seek help.

As a leader/manager in any organizational setting, you don’t need to diagnose the disorder to recognize when an employee needs help. If you believe help is needed, consider the following:

Draw attention to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Many organizations establish EAP outlets because they pay off financially. An employee struggling with an anxiety disorder is more valuable to the company after learning to manage their mental health. If you believe an employee who may need help would be uncomfortable directly discussing EAP programs with you, ask a human resources partner to talk to your full team about EAP offerings.

Consider your employee’s workload. An employee struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, may need you to hand out work assignments at a pace they can handle. If you overwhelm them with more work than they can conceivably accomplish – and don’t help set priorities – you may trigger a debilitating reaction.

Create an environment for success. Social Anxiety Disorder is among the most common anxiety challenges. From a leader/manager perspective, you may notice an employee blushing, shaking, tensing muscles or even displaying periods of unusual confusion that can accompany panic attacks. If this happens, create safer situations for the employee to build social success. An employee may be “afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others,” according to WebMD, with the fear potentially compounded by a lack of social skills or situational experience. You can create confidence that comes from experience by slowly building an employee’s comfort in social situations. Consider asking them to present a topic to you individually, inviting their active participation in small group discussions, and offering to be their practice audience if you know they are facing an uncomfortable speaking role. Even being the center of attention without needing to speak can make someone struggling with anxiety uncomfortable. Ensure that this attention doesn’t last long enough to trigger a tough reaction.

Provide advance warning. Anxiety disorders can be triggered if an employee faces a situation without time to identify a success path. To the extent you can give an employee a heads up on a new work requirement and bolster their confidence, you might mitigate an episodic reaction. Some anxiety disorders prevent people from thinking through issues, getting ideas stuck in the “fight-or-flight” section of their brain. Time, problem resolution discussions and encouragement can help the brain find circuits past its instinctive amygdala to problem-solving regions of the mind.

Anxiety disorders are categorized as mental illnesses, but they are not mental capacity limits. Theories about the causes of anxiety disorders include components of brain chemistry, brain circuitry and genetic traits. High-stress life experiences can contribute to chemical imbalances and circuit stresses. Fortunately, treatments for anxiety disorders are available with proven success records. Some individuals can recover in as little as a few weeks, while treatments in tougher cases can take more than a year (usually simultaneous with work).

To treat a chemical imbalance, redirect thought patterns or alleviate anxiety symptoms, your employee may need to search for a therapist, find a support group, and/or get medical help in identifying an appropriate prescription. Managers don’t play a role in these actions (other than through recommending EAP connections). Managers, however, can play a role in helping an employee follow through on many coping strategies recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

ADAA suggestions for an anxiety disorder sufferer include:

  • Managing time with to-do lists and engaging managers in setting priorities.
  • Not procrastinating so that work is done well before an agreed deadline.
  • Not overcommitting.
  • Asking for help.
  • Avoiding toxic coworkers. (Managers can help here.)
  • Taking breaks. A walk around the block or a few minutes of deep breathing can help clear one’s head.
  • Setting boundaries.
  • Savoring success. Celebrate good work before moving on.
  • Be healthy. Eat healthy. Sleep. Exercise. Limit caffeine and alcohol.

Keep these practices in mind. Consider adjusting your management style on everything from the food brought in as treats to the frequency at which you change priorities, the ways in which you communicate and the team members with whom the anxiety sufferer must interact.

A good employee may trigger into an anxiety disorder, even after years of great performance. The good employee is still there. As a leader/manager, you can help bring the best back out of them with a little care and concern. It’s in your interest to make the effort.