Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Let's have a kind and honest conversation about mental illness and mental health and well-being in diplomacy that moves beyond platitudes.
I love the words you're about to read for many reasons. Chief among them is that the words convey what it's like to experience clinical anxiety in a way that's easily understood for those who don’t.
Diplomacy can demand so much of diplomats and those living the diplomatic life. There are constant deadlines, potentially scant resources (money and time) in which to meet them, there are the dangerous environments and near-constant change.
We know about these major demands before we embark on a posting or return home after one. But our lived experience has a way of being very different to the theory. Sometimes, it’s not the high crime or poor air quality of a place that gets to us; it can be the lack of having a good shampoo available locally that really gets to us.
And this is OK. Indeed, it’s more than OK: It makes us human.
The diplomatic life tests our big and small resilience all the time. And we know that psychological resilience requires us to be able to flex to meet the stress and then spring back to form. This flex/spring back cycle is important, but I fear that many of us are consistently in the flex, either because our environment demands it, or we FEEL that our environment demands it.
Perception is reality. And, in radical understatement, being consistently flexed isn’t good.
While not all of us currently live with clinical anxiety, we all must be responsible for our own mental health and well-being. We must flex AND return to form.
More from me later. Let’s read the words from one of you.
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Not long ago, Phil / The Lonely Diplomat asked us to “sit on the stairs” with him and answer a simple question: “how are you”? At the time, I could honestly say “I’m doing better, thanks Phil”. But it was an important question, and a few weeks earlier my response would have been very different.
I’m a diplomat. Like most of us, I’m a highly-motivated, high-achiever. I love what I do, thrive under pressure, and all those other clichés. I was also recently diagnosed with a condition that among other things induces clinical anxiety. I’m not ashamed of this – in fact I’m incredibly proud of how I manage it – so for the first time I’m sharing some details of it.
Many of us live with stresses and concerns that, while they may not be clinical, are on a scale we might classify as “anxiety”. I’m no expert, but I do have first-hand experience of clinical anxiety compared to “stress”. And because it’s chemical, it’s less rational and not caused by externalities – though they can exacerbate it, of course. The best way I can describe it is a living in a near-constant state of pressure, often tinged with dread. To put into context for fellow diplomats, it’s like permanently being in the last days before a visit, but you’re worrying about whether there’s milk in the house, not the programme of a VIP. Ironically, I’m usually better when I’ve got “big”, “important” things to worry about (gimme those visits any day!).
While clinical anxiety is different from stress or worry, I fully expect that diplomats and their families often have experiences somewhere on this spectrum. We work busy and often high-stakes jobs, have to travel, and try to balance work and family. And this is all amplified when we go on posting - when we take ourselves and our families into foreign environments, often with different languages and cultures; there’s new geographies to learn, housing to find, schools to settle kids into. There’s a sh*tload of paperwork, change, and uncertainty. At the best of times, and for the healthiest of minds, the transition to posting can be tough.
Anxiety magnifies those stresses. For example, for most people when Google maps fails in a foreign city, you rationalise the situation: you speak the language, you more or less know your way around, and your partner may be right there beside you. It’s genuinely not a big deal. For those of us with anxiety, small things like this can overwhelm you. The city closes in on you, your heart-rate increases, you might shake or sweat, and your mind can send you into a downward spiral. Whereas even in tough situations most people can tell themselves that “this too will pass”, anxiety tells us that this will not, in fact, pass.
So how can we manage anxiety? In my view, ‘toxic positivity’ is a real thing. The idea that positivity is a choice implies that those of us with anxious tendencies (or other mental health challenges) are simply choosing not to be positive. While well-intentioned, such “feel good” quotes often have the effect of minimising the real, lived experiences of others. The “Good Vibes Only” or “You Can Beat This” mantras, while intended to be motivating, can reinforce the self-critic in anxious people, telling us that if only we tried harder we’d be able to overcome this chemical reaction.
The simple truth is, we can’t. But there are lots of things we can do to manage our condition, meet it with self-compassion, and lean in to the array of experiences that it comes with. there are a few strategies I have found helpful. I suspect these tips might be useful to anyone feeling under pressure, regardless of the cause. I also suspect most high-achievers will tell themselves, just as I used to, that “I don’t need tips to manage my stress”. In my experience, it’s all very well not to need basic resilience tips, until suddenly you do.
1. Take your meds
There’s one thing that can beat clinical anxiety, and it’s your meds. ‘Nuff said.
2. Control what you can
Lists can be a powerful tool for goal-driven people. A big breakthrough for me especially in the early stages of posting was writing down the things that heightened my anxiety. Some (“after months of looking we still can’t find a house”) were completely rational and would stress the best of us out. Others (“I don’t know where to buy my preferred brand of shampoo”) in hindsight were…. well, less so. No matter how big or small the issues, writing down what you feel is amplifying your stress - and what you can do about it - can help things feel more manageable. And as it turns out, you can buy shampoo on the internet. Who knew?
3. On the count-down
In situations where anxiety has closed the world in on you, psychologists recommend the following trick: identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. I sometimes forget which order they go in (and you can imagine what this does to my over-achieving mind), but it doesn’t really matter if you’re trying to taste three things and smell one. What matters is that this trick brings you back to the moment: it pulls your mind out of an anxious spiral by forcing it to count, and the identification of actual things you can see and touch connects you back with the real world.
4. Meditate more
Mindfulness is an excellent coping mechanism. I meditate for 15 minutes every morning – and on days when I don’t, I can feel my anxiety rising. Mindfulness teaches us to notice the world around us without unconsciously reacting to it. This is an incredibly powerful technique for those who are easily agitated. For example, if crowds heighten your anxious tendencies, mindfulness teaches us to notice the people without overthinking the crowds. It might seem minor, but cumulatively – and especially in a new city – the little things can be overwhelming to an anxious mind. Training ourselves to notice without reaction is one of the healthiest things we can do. And that’s before we mention the sheer indulgence of 15 peaceful minutes each day by yourself, for yourself. [More on the benefits of mindfulness soon! - Phil]
5. Know your people
It’s so important to know who you can tell when things are not ok. Most often, that’s a partner, but it might be a trusted doctor, a manager, colleague, or friend. We are a proud bunch, us high-achievers, but we all need at least one trusted person who we can say “I’m not ok” to. Recognise that the first person you have to be able to admit it to, though, is yourself.
So how do we support our partners, friends, and contemporaries struggling with anxiety without resorting to toxic positivity? I asked my wonderful, patient husband what advice he would have for partners to those living with anxiety. He highlighted the importance of empathy, calmness, and sitting with us through it. I strongly endorse this. I promise you, there is nothing less helpful than telling an anxious person to “calm down” - trust me, if I could calm down, I would.
As my husband identifies, what people with anxiety most often need is someone to calmly be with us and allow us to feel and to work through our anxieties. To paraphrase Phil’s intellectual crush (and mine!) Brené Brown, when someone is stuck in a hole, empathy is getting into the hole with them and recognizing it’s bad (as distinct from sympathy: shouting from the top “ooh, it’s bad huh?!”). Rather than talking in feel-good slogans, good support is putting yourself in their place, and accepting their experiences for what they are. Simple suggestions like switching “it’ll be fine” for “this is hard, but we can do hard things” can make a world of difference.
As we all navigate increasingly busy lives with a unique set of pressures, small daily actions to bolster resilience and help manage stress can be valuable. For me, anxiety is a new fact of life. I can’t change it, but I can manage it while living a full and fulfilling life, and continuing with this career that I love.
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The words and insights shared here are at once vulnerable and inspiring. I want to honour them and express my sincere thanks to the reader who shared them with us.
I also want to applaud them – and others – who continue to show up and give their best in the service of their countries day after day when going through periods of intense anxiety.
This speaks volumes of your strength and commitment and we need – as a diplomatic community – to recognise the cost that this work can have on us as humans.
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I want to honour these words by starting a conversation about how we can support ourselves and each other in a way that builds us all up.
I want to start a conversation in two parts and I invite you to join me:
- Within ourselves
We all get anxious, it’s part of the human condition. Some of us experience it in ways where we need help to manage it. If this is you, please seek professional help.
How do you work through anxiety or stress? Do you allow yourself to experience it? Do you seek support? Do you ignore or deny it and tell yourself to toughen up?
- With each other
A career in diplomacy attracts many high-achieving and driven individuals. I feel that many of us experience high levels of anxiety and work hard to never show it.
Can you have a kind and honest conversation with those in your teams and share your experiences with anxiety in a vulnerable and authentic way?
It’s not until we’re able to do this will the mental health and well-being statements issued by our employing agencies move beyond platitudes and actually work.
Discussions about mental health and well-being in the workplace can’t stay in the second or third person or be spoken off in general ways; they must move into the first person if they are to work. When we see and hear others share their stories and experiences, we have permission to acknowledge our own experiences. Please read that again.
I’m here to help with both these conversations. Contact me and let’s talk.
Where to now?
Brené Brown, ‘Dare To Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts’ (www.brenebrown.com)
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
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Important notice: All views expressed above do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.