"I was near rock bottom": one in-house lawyer's mental health journey

In-house lawyer Doris Woo gives a compelling account of her experience with stress and anxiety, and explains her ground rules for managing it in her every day working life.

mental health

A few months before my mental health scare, I was looking forward to starting my first in-house legal role. But a perfect storm was brewing from the learning curve of my new job and the large workload that quickly accompanied it.

Instead of telling colleagues I was struggling, which I felt self-conscious about because everyone else in my team had full workloads, I completely internalised my problems and tried to muscle through each day with very few breaks. I was pretty drained arriving home each night, with only a couple of  hours to unwind before bedtime. 

In under two months, the stress worsened into chest pains, and anxiety about not finding answers to help me do my job properly became the norm. The chest pains became so severe that they kept me up at night.

During my second visit to the GP for chest pains, I had an irregular electrocardiogram reading and minutes later was wheeled into an ambulance to the nearest A&E, where I was diagnosed with acute pericarditis.

I was signed off sick for three weeks and prohibited from air travel and exercise (including yoga). I did a meditation course on the Headspace app for understanding stress and anxiety. I read a couple of self-help books recommended to me. I built a three-foot Lego model of the Saturn V rocket.

Returning to work

When I returned to work, I was telling myself with worrying frequency that I was going back to a job that was going to kill me.

Over the next month, this progressed to suicidal thoughts, for example, walking out in front of moving traffic or hoping a flight I was on would crash. I still hadn’t resumed my yoga practice since my pericarditis diagnosis – in hindsight, I stopped an important routine that helped my mental resilience.

Soon after, I had a mental breakdown during a short break abroad; I promptly booked the next flight home and at the departure gate looked online for a local counsellor.

When I returned home, I phoned my GP requesting a referral to get treatment for my depression. I had a call from my local NHS mental health team, which involved a series of very personal questions about how often I thought about and followed through with suicidal thoughts and other acts of self-harm. I was crying during most of the call, realising that mentally, I was near rock bottom.

Meanwhile, my counsellor taught me various grounding techniques to pull myself out of dark territory and back into reality, and also how to put a limit on how much emotional capacity I can give to deal with problems during the day. I only had a few sessions with the counsellor before a space become available on an NHS programme for cognitive behavioural training (CBT). 

CBT taught me how to identify so-called thinking distortions that come with depression and anxiety. I also learned that depression sometimes can make the act of doing even one positive action difficult, and that making myself do an enjoyable activity was an effective way to escape the gravity of depression or low mood.

Understanding the link between thoughts, behaviours and actions was obviously helpful to rationalise how I become stressed, anxious or depressed, but to also deal with the external factors, I have set some ground rules/red lines for being kinder to myself in the way I work, to help avoid another major relapse and having to seek formal mental health treatment again.

My rules

Take breaks at regular intervals during working hours

My minimum is a 15-minute break every one to two hours, especially when my diary is particularly busy and more frequent breaks are not possible.

If I am lucky enough to have more time, I will use the Pomodoro technique, which involves taking short two- to three-minute breaks in between 25-minute intervals of work, followed by a longer 15-minute break after completing several sets of work/short breaks. I use a free online Pomodoro timer

I also go for a 20-minute walk around lunchtime, which I find physically and mentally refreshing before I head into a less productive afternoon session of work. 

Draw a line between office time and personal time

I try to log off during the same two-hour period each day and only make rare exceptions for this. Unless I’m specifically asked to monitor emails or deal with business-critical matters outside of office hours, I won’t check my work mobile until the start of the next working day.

Listen to your body

Before my illness, my work-life balance was less balance and more burning the candle at both ends (which I considered a badge of honour), but this episode was a blunt warning that I needed to slow down. 

Since finishing CBT, I’ve had minor relapses of stress and anxiety, which usually manifest as tight shoulders and intermittent chest pains. Now that I’m more attentive to these warning signs and do my best to ease off or take a break, observing my ground rules gives me a buffer which, when breached too often, means having to do more to reverse the cumulative stress. I also use my yoga practice to check how my body and mind are feeling at the start of the day – regular yoga practice is known to strengthen the ability to bounce back from stress. 

I also want to recommended a few other resources: during this year’s online Junior Lawyers Division’s annual conference, Dr Barbara Mariposa presented this guided breathing exercise which I’ve used as a quick fix when needing a moment of calm. And, as previously recommended in Hannah Bignell's Gazette article, Richard Martin’s autobiography This Too Will Pass described his mental health struggles as an employment law partner and the challenges he faced during his recovery.

While I don’t live in fear of a relapse, I also accept that anxiety and depression may reappear later on in my life. Although being able to work from home has been beneficial for my mental health in many ways, I am more sensitive to swings between feeling good and feeling low during my working day.

Until now, I probably never fully understood how much the thoughts and feelings of someone feeling low or depressed defies logic; I can’t think of anything less useful than to be told to “snap out of it”. Learning how to thrive and be happy despite the possibility of a relapse is a work in progress, a case of win some lose some. 

I wrote this article to share how I dealt with a badly managed episode of stress which turned into anxiety and depression. If you are going through something similar, I hope this gives insight on one way to come out the other side.