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‘Covid’s impact on my mental health was gradual; I didn’t wake up one morning and say “Oh, I don’t feel right”’

‘Covid’s impact on my mental health was gradual; I didn’t wake up one morning and say “Oh, I don’t feel right”’

Hannah Byk is BetterPoints’ National Programme Account Manager. Here she opens up candidly and movingly about the onset of depression during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 12 months, we can all see the impact Covid-19 has had on us all: financially (tick), lack of a social life and seeing – well – anyone (tick), missing celebrations (tick), no travel (tick), gaining weight (tick), drinking more than we should (tick); but what I failed to really appreciate until recently is the snowball effect all that had on my mental health.

It would probably help to go back a few paces. I’m 36, happily married, have wonderful family and friends. I love to cook, travel and love getting lost in music. I exercise regularly and socialise as often as I can – those dancing shoes of mine are well and truly worn in. Then suddenly – well for me any way – things took a turn. I started to feel agitated, disinterested, tired and distracted. I was snapping at my husband, my boss and my friends, and having complete meltdowns.

I’d gone from someone who I recognised in myself as self-assured, passionate, interested, curious and the life and soul of the party to not really caring about anything or anyone, finding it hard to even say “hello” to colleagues let alone engage in the usual Monday morning chit-chat on team calls. A constant feeling in the pit of my stomach – you know the one like you’re on a rollercoaster on that first incline before a huge drop. Feeling overwhelmed and holding back either tears or anger, or both, after taking personally something which would normally be water off a duck’s back. The feeling of this ever-mounting pressure to be a good wife, a good employee, a good friend (from where exactly, I don’t know) pushing down on me, barely able to get through a day without crying, snapping or feeling anxious.

This was a gradual process. This didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t wake up one morning and say ‘oh I don’t feel quite right.’

The first lockdown felt like a novelty actually. Like many employees, I was placed on furlough whilst the whole UK ground to a halt. Being told to not go to work and stay at home whilst the sun was high in the sky was actually a great excuse to take some much-needed R&R in the garden, running and walking in my local area, baking lots of treats and getting some projects done around the house.

Looking back though, this is where it started. The ‘low’ thoughts. The uncertainty about everything slowly started to creep in. Would my job still be there in a few months? How would I pay my mortgage if it wasn’t? What about starting a family in a pandemic? Will I ever be able to see family and friends? Will anyone I know contract Covid? – the list goes on. I tried to push the thoughts to the back of my mind but slowly lost the will to go running or do much exercise at all really, I carried on baking and became more insular. I couldn’t sleep properly, and I was probably drinking too often. I felt disconnected and fatigued with video calls with friends and family and not to mention online quizzes! After a couple of months, I returned to work – phew! I knew that there were so many who wouldn’t be so lucky.

Once I returned, I thought these feelings of anxiety would stop. They didn’t. I continued to push these to one side and tried to get on with my work hoping that they’d fade in time once the routine was back.

Everything felt different though. I was becoming overwhelmed at tasks I’d usually fly through; I was unsure and lacked the ability and confidence to make decisions – scared of mistakes or just not being ‘good enough’ (whatever that is). This spilled over into my personal life; I felt lost, anxious, lonely and sad but at the same time trying to hold it all together so anyone I knew around me wouldn’t notice. I believed I was failing at everything.

One day in Autumn, a package arrived at the house. It was a box full of lovely treats from my colleague and a simple note to say she was thinking of me. Even then I hadn’t realised my behaviour and mood was something of concern to others. I took the opportunity to use some of the goodies from the gift box, hand and foot masks, face creams and lighting a lovely candle. I decided I would try to make this more of an evening routine. After dinner I would take myself upstairs and have 15 minutes of peace and quiet, put on a face mask or have a hot bath as a way to remove myself from the day. Those few minutes relaxing really helped, it gave me a routine that wasn’t work or housework but something just for me, that I was in control of and some much-needed mindfulness. I even tried some meditation.

Throughout the run-up to Christmas my anxiety hit an all-time peak. There was no particular trigger for this but the ‘episodes’ of these anxiety attacks became too frequent. At least twice a week and even on Christmas morning – but having to hold it together so that our guests wouldn’t realise internally I was falling apart at the seams. Perhaps the thought of not seeing my nearest and dearest over the festive period or the prospect of further lockdown measures – or perhaps my husband knocking over a tub of sticky toffee sauce was just too much! I was no longer able to hide it from family or friends.

I’d convinced myself that feeling like this was ‘weak’ and I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t feel like this because yes, I have a job and yes, I have a roof over my head with warm food in my belly. The cycle continued like this for quite a while, trying to rationalise the feelings I was having after each anxiety attack. After not being able to hold back the tears on a work call, eventually I decided to ask for help. It was the best thing I could have done. A small weight was lifted. My husband already knew what was going on but trying to explain my feelings to family was difficult.

The initial worries of them not taking me seriously, or understanding, was weighing heavy on my mind but in truth – telling them was therapy in itself, though it was hard to do. Admitting to myself and to others that I had an issue was one of the steps I knew I needed to take in order to give myself some accountability; and to ensure I wasn’t going through it on my own.

The doctor was also really supportive, offering counselling and therapies to help manage my newly diagnosed anxiety and depression. He told me that more people go to speak to him due to mental health issues than they do for chest infections. Knowing I wasn’t alone in this was really reassuring. I now don’t see this as a weakness anymore. I just needed to hit reset and ask for help.

It’s only been a few weeks since myself proclaimed ‘reset’ – I’ve worked hard on my routine every day. I make sure that I eat enough of the right foods, cut out my alcohol intake, be active every day and if there’s an excuse to wear make-up then you guessed it, I’m shovelling it on. I know there is a long way to go but I have hope. I’m sure I will have more times of increased stress or anxiety attacks but I’ve opened up to colleagues, friends and family about the troubles I’ve faced. That alone has been one of the best things I could have done. I finally have some mental clarity and a support network around me.

I know that everyone who goes through a mental health issue will be faced with different challenges, but the point here is that there’s no shame in it. None. There’s no shame in asking for help and it really is ok not to be ok.

A well-structured home-working day can help employees’s mental health.
A lack of structure can take its toll on mental health, so we built the 5-a-Day HR tool to help give that structure back to people. It offers employers a simple and effective way to support the mental and physical wellbeing of staff working from home, and to spot early warning signs if things begin to deteriorate. 

Please drop us a line if you’d like us to show how we can help.