The pandemic highlighted the importance of discussing mental health at work.
By Britt Frank (reprinted from Psychology Today with permission of the author)
In a world where workplace mental health information is sourced from TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, it can be helpful to pause and sort fact from fiction (though to be fair, social media often provides more accurate information than other sources). Here are my top five workplace mental health myths—and what you can do about them.
Myth 1: Be vulnerable and bring all your feelings to work
Like many things in the zeitgeist, the mental health pendulum seems to have overcorrected. “Leave your feelings at the door” used to be the law of the land when it came to work. The idea that people could (and should) simply shrug off their humanity and grind robotically for 60 hours a week was largely an unquestioned expectation. Now, instead of “leave all of your feelings at the door,” the new ethos in the workplace seems to be “bring all your feelings to work.” While it is a beautiful ideal to imagine a workspace where everyone is skillful at both sharing and receiving difficult information, the trend of “trauma-dumping” at work is contraindicated.
Providing specific details of difficult circumstances can create a state of overwhelm for both the sharer and the receiver. In fact, sharing a story in chronological order can reinforce the physiological state that the sharer is hoping to alleviate by disclosing their story. Some trauma-informed modalities such as somatic experiencing avoid telling stories in chronological order for this reason. “SE avoids asking clients to relive their traumatic experiences, rather it approaches the sensations associated with trauma only after establishing bodily sensations associated with safety and comfort.” And while not everyone identifies as “traumatized” or a “trauma survivor,” exposure to traumatic events “is not rare, as has been consistently found in epidemiological studies.”
What you can do: If you are a manager of people, you can encourage your team to share on a scale of 1-10 how their lives are going. This allows everyone to communicate without getting into the details of traumatic narratives. You do not need to be a therapist to your team—a best practice is to be a broker of services, and make sure your team knows what resources are available. If you are experiencing a high-level trauma in your own life, remind yourself that sharing details of difficult events is usually best done with someone fluent in the language of trauma.
Myth 2: You should always start with “why”
When it comes to business development, “start with why” makes sense. If you are feeling stuck with making calls, getting motivated, halting the procrastination cycle, or dealing with difficult feelings, you never want to start with “why.” Broadly speaking, you don’t need to know why a building is on fire to get the people out. You don’t need to know why someone is bleeding to get them to a hospital. When it comes to getting yourself out of survival mode into a choice-based and action-oriented mode, do not start with why.
What you can do: Instead of asking yourself “Why do I feel this way?” or why you can’t do what you want to do, ask yourself this: What are three micro-yesses available to me (micro-yesses are steps that are so ridiculously small you’ll have no trouble doing them) and of those three micro-yesses, which one will I do first?
Myth 3: If you’re anxious at work, there’s something wrong with you
Anxiety is awful, uncomfortable, terrifying… and often necessary. Anxiety is the check-engine light of the mind’s dashboard. Anxiety is the smoke alarm of the internal system. If you didn’t have things like check-engine lights and smoke detectors, you’d never know if you were in danger. We often get so caught up in the discomfort of anxiety that we forget that anxiety is a messenger—not a disorder. As Thomas Szasz put it, “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.” Once we know how to decode its messages, anxiety points toward untended injuries from the past, destructive relationships, or circumstances in the present, and helps us to avoid unwanted things in the future. Anxiety is a “psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential.”
What you can do: Validate, validate, validate. Stay away from thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me,” “I’m overreacting,” and “It’s stupid to feel this way.” Remind yourself that your brain is on your side, and your feelings of anxiety are a sign that your brain feels scared. If you manage a team of people, remind them that anxiety is unpleasant but it is functional. The absolute worst thing to do when you feel anxious is to torment yourself with “why” questions. You don’t need to know why you feel stuck to get yourself unstuck. See Myth #2.
Myth 4: You have an addictive personality
We often focus so intensely on the behaviors that we want to change that we forget that all behavior is functional. In other words, there’s a reason it seems like everything from sugar to sex to whiskey creates a compulsive spiral for you. Is it really that you have an addictive personality, or is it possible that you have emotional injuries, unaddressed traumas, or turbulent relationships that create comfort-seeking behaviors? When you say “I have an addictive personality,” it places the problem as an internal one, rather than recognizing the complex interplay of internal and environmental stressors.
What you can do: Instead of thinking, “I have an addictive personality. This is who I am,” ask yourself, “Is there anything about myself or my life that I am afraid to address?” As addiction expert Gabor Mate put it, “… the first question is not why the addiction; it’s why the pain?”
Then, ask yourself what supportive resources are in your life that can help make it less overwhelming so you can have support when you confront the monsters under your bed.
Myth 5: Productivity at work is about mindset—all you need to do is think positively
The biggest myth about motivation and productivity is that they are purely mental processes. If you’ve ever tried to think your way out of anxiety, talk yourself out of an addiction, or “affirmation” your way out of depression, you know that none of those things work very well. Is the problem you? Or is it possible that the problem is not in your mind but in your body? If you broke your leg, you wouldn’t be able to positive-think your way back into walking. A physical problem needs a physical solution. Often, what we call “mental” health issues are the result of our central nervous system doing what it’s designed to do—alert us when there’s a problem. Mental health is not a mental process—it’s a physiological process.
What you can do: Learning to speak the language of the nervous system goes beyond the scope of this post, but you can remind yourself that “mind work” doesn’t usually work as a first-line intervention because the problem is physiological. When you know just a little bit about your brain, the capacity for choice is restored (to whatever degree you have safety and access to resources) and you can return to the driver’s seat of your life. If you’re asking Dr. Google for help with your mental health, try a search for “somatic tools for mental health” or how to help regulate the nervous system. “In the hybrid categorical–dimensional model, trauma is defined not as an event but the subjective experience of stress, that is, stress response. This experience is generated via afferent interoceptive pathways by sensing what happens in the body in response to external and internal disturbances or stressors.”
When it comes to mental health in the workplace, remind yourself if you are a manager that the most helpful intervention is to point your team towards resources. If you are feeling burned out as a leader, it is helpful to know you do not need empathy to validate your employees or to be a broker of resources. In a perfect world where everyone’s cup is full, empathy is a wonderful gift to share. In the fast-paced, tenuous world that we currently occupy, it can be a huge relief to know that the greatest tools to promote workplace mental health—brokering of resources, validating, and boundaries—are tools that require zero empathy and zero professional mental health training.
When your brain brains better, life gets better.
Learn more at www.scienceofstuck.com
Britt’s latest book The Science of Stuck is out now, you can order it today.
Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW, SEP is a clinician, educator and trauma specialist – as well as the author of The Science of Stuck. She speaks and writes widely about the mental health myths that keep us stuck and stressed. Britt received her BA from Duke University and her MSW from the University of Kansas, where she later became an award- winning adjunct professor. Britt was a primary therapist at a drug and alcohol treatment center, an inpatient therapist at a children’s psychiatric hospital, and now owns a private practice.