Mental health is always a hard topic.
We think it’s getting easier, but I see it more as a one step forwards, two step back kind of thing.
Recently I was involved in a work event surrounding mental health that opened my eyes even more—to things I knew of, and some I didn’t.
We talked about suicide, depression, psychotic disorders, and more.
We talked about symptoms and what to watch out for, addictions, causes and how to live with it.
We even talked about how to help someone who’s in the midst of it all.
But what we didn’t cover—despite this being a work-related event—is how mental health can affect your productivity levels.
One may think it’s simple.
You’re depressed, you don’t get out of bed, you’re obviously not being productive.
But what if you do?
What if you drag yourself to work, but end up staring at the screen, not really seeing it?
What if you’re an anxious person, and you have a panic attack mid-shift?
Do these things affect your productivity?
And more common of all…
What about stress?
Good old stress, always a reliable buddy when you least need him.
I wrote a post a few months back on mental health for indies and how to take care of yourself.
With this, I’d like to dig a bit deeper.
It won’t be pleasant to read.
It may even be hard for some.
It was definitely hard emotionally for me to write it, as I’ve seen a bit of each in friends/family/acquaintances.
But, let’s peel off that veil together and really look at mental health’s effect on productivity, and see the links this may have when you’re a writer.
How stress affects productivity
You may not thing much of it when things start piling on your plate.
A friend asks you to have a look at an essay for them.
Your family member needs help redecorating.
You’re working hard at editing your manuscript.
One of your pets gets sick…
Separate, these events can be dealt with in a way that doesn’t affect the rest of your life.
But when the universe seems to have it in for you and all you get are more things on your to-do lists (and yes, I do mean that plural!), it’s time to take a step back.
Things pile up, causing stress, which causes anxiety (there’s more on that later!), and eventually get you to focus on all the negatives rather than positives.
You may even start feeling like you’re failing at everything because you can’t do any of your tasks right, leading to decreased motivation to try to actually finish something.
As a writer, I know stress affects me—deeply.
I can’t enjoy little things in my life (like a movie with my husband, or a chat with my mum) when I’m stressed about meeting deadlines and so many to-do lists.
I end up awake in the middle of the night, going over them in my head, and as a result get little sleep. Then that little sleep affects my mood, makes me irritable and negative, and it’s a never-ending vicious cycle!
The best thing to do (or, at least, that I’ve learned to do)?
I mean it.
Go for a walk.
Play with your pets.
Go on a shopping spree.
Whatever floats your boat.
Then come back to your massive to-do lists and make a plan.
Prioritise in order of what needs to be done.
If possible, delegate some tasks to trustworthy people.
Get some of these things off your plate so that you can focus on what’s important: you.
Helping others makes you a great person.
But you’ll cease being a person if you don’t help yourself first.
That starts with learning how to manage stress, and not letting things accumulate on your plate.
What are panic attacks and how can they affect productivity?
Panic attacks are an extreme form of anxiety.
I recently found out how bad they are because a) I’ve suffered from quite a few of these the last few months and b) my werewolf in my new novel suffers from them too, and I had to do massive research for it.
It’s my personal experiences with them (and a morbid curiosity about the topic!) that led me to incorporate this particular issue in my writing.
Anxiety can affect anyone, but not necessarily to the same extent.
It’s a natural response that helps us avoid dangerous situations and motivates us, in some instances, to solve everyday problems.
And it’s not always negative situations that cause anxiety!
Marriages or births can also cause it.
While it varies in severity, it can range from a mild uneasiness to severe panic attacks, and can be short-term or long-term.
People with anxiety-related disorders have excessive levels of anxiety that interfere with day-to-day living and affect the person’s work, relationships, and emotional state.
Signs of anxiety can be psychological or physical
- Sense of impending doom and imminent danger
- Excessive worry
- Decreased attention and concentration
- Environment feels unreal and unfamiliar
- Speeding up or slowing down of thoughts
- Getting easily distracted
- Vivid dreams
- Respiratory (hyperventilation, shortness of breath)
- Cardiovascular (heart palpitations, chest pain)
- Gastrointestinal (choking, dry mouth, nausea)
- Musculoskeletal (muscle ache and tension, restlessness)
Many people can give better accounts than me on this, but I find that when I have a panic attack, nothing—and I mean nothing—else exists.
All my being is focused on whatever it is that’s causing me to have the attack in the first place: I’m a wreck.
I could’ve had the best day ever, but none of that matters, because I’m focused on the one thing that screwed it up.
And when that happens, your productivity is shot. It will take a while to get back to normal.
The best thing you can do?
If you’re on meds, great—so long as they’re working.
Speaking to a psychiatrist, general counsellor, etc., also great.
Having a support system is important, and helps a lot more than people realise.
But most importantly?
Try to recognise the signs, if you can, and implement a coping mechanism.
I never knew how hard until I learned how to, and then had to teach it to my husband.
But there is one thing that’s helped me tremendously, and those of you suffering from these attacks that read this will probably recognise it.
Disclaimer: I did not invent this.
Whenever you feel a panic attack coming on, try this:
- Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Slowly look around you and find…
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell (or 2 smells you like)
- 1 emotion you feel
It’s called grounding and can help when you feel like you’ve gone so far in your head and lost all control of your surroundings.
And if ever you see someone having a panic attack, don’t tell them to ‘calm down’. Instead, try to get them to breathe with you, hold their hand if they’ll let you (and if they seem like they won’t hit you) and get them to sync their breathing with yours. It may help.
If you suffer from severe anxiety or panic attacks, don’t try to deal with it yourself. Speak with your general practitioner. Get some help. The worst thing you can do for yourself is not get help.
As a writer, panic attacks can occur when you’re writing or reading something, or even while you’re going about your regular day.
Once you’ve found a coping mechanism and have developed a way to deal with them, don’t be afraid to share it.
There are many of us out there with anxiety-related disorders, and the more we admit to it, the more we can help each other.
What’s depression and how can it affect productivity?
Depression is part of what science calls mood-related disorders.
We may all experience losses or tragedies at some point in life that will lead to sadness.
When I was young, I lost my first dog. I was barely 12, had recently moved to Canada, and found out he was poisoned by the people we left him in Romania with (family members, to boot).
I’d been a straight-A student until then, but to this day I remember the crippling sadness that overtook me. I couldn’t get out of bed, lost interest in most everything that I used to enjoy, and was a wreck for over two months.
Then I slowly started healing, and getting back to myself. But it’s not always that simple.
Depression can be short-term or long-term. When you recover without treatment and manage to cope with ‘the blues’, they call it a short-term depressed mood.
When the mood extends to over two weeks and causes radical changes in a person, such as a gain/loss of weight, problems with sleep, irritability and thoughts of suicide, it’s what they call major depression.
I live in Canada now, and the most recent figures released by my government show that depression affects about 13% of Canadian adults at some point in their lives.
The WHO itself ranks depression as the leading contributor to the global burden of disease for persons aged 15 to 44. Goes to show, it’s not something to be ignored.
Depression can affect productivity levels because it not only affects your overall mood, but your emotions, thinking, behaviour and physical well-being.
People suffering from depression will be crippled with feelings of:
- Hopelessness (thus incapable of taking joy in achieving small tasks)
They’ll also suffer from mood swings.
Thinking, rather than focused on solving problems, will be aimed towards frequent self-criticism, worry, and pessimism.
Depression also impairs our ability to retain memories and makes it harder to make decisions.
Behaviour-wise, depression will lead to:
- Crying spells and withdrawal from others, making it harder to work in a team
- Loss of interest in personal appearance
- Loss of motivation
- Isolation from the support system that could’ve helped
Physical effects include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- …and much more
If you look at all these symptoms, and take them into account with what you need to be productive—motivation, positivity, faith in yourself, the will to persevere, etc—you can see how depression would get someone completely off track.
As writers, we can’t get our stuff done if we’re not motivated.
And sometimes, when depression sets in, we look for other escapes, like alcohol or drugs.
Most people may not be aware of this, but alcohol can be a factor in increasing the signs of depression.
While most people will use alcohol to get temporary relief from their symptoms—to forget—it actually slows the operation of the central nervous system and will intensify the usual mood.
So for a person with depression, they’ll feel even more so under the influence of alcohol.
Treatments that have been known to work with depression are antidepressants, electroconvulsive therapy, and cognitive behaviour therapy.
Other methods are interpersonal psychotherapy, reading self-help books based on cognitive behavioural therapy, and psycho-dynamic psychotherapy.
Family doctors/physicians, counsellors, mental health therapists, and clinical psychologists, as well as psychiatrists, are the best resources to help.
With medication and other treatments such as exercise, acupuncture, alcohol avoidance, yoga, and massage therapy, a depressive disorder can get better.
But it’s a nonstop fight, so please, if you have depression or think you might or know someone who might, seek out help.
How suicidal tendencies affect productivity and how to help someone in need
Major depression can lead to suicidal tendencies. That’s a fact.
If you or someone you know is suffering from major depression and you believe they might have suicidal tendencies, please encourage them to seek help from a qualified professional before it’s too late.
(I know I’m sounding repetitive here, but you have to take it seriously).
There is an approach we were taught for mental first aid and it follows five simple steps (ALGEE):
- Assess the risk of suicide and/or harm. If there is a risk, do crisis first aid:
- Engage the person in a serious conversation (connect with them, and listen very closely)
- Ask about suicide (no, asking someone if they have thoughts of killing themselves will not make them suicidal. Rather, it may be a great relief to someone and help them open up)
- Explore risk (try to figure out if they already have a plan, or if they have prior suicidal behaviour)
- Engage the person in a plan for safety (provide them a sense of hope) then help them carry out the plan to safety and connect them with an appropriate professional
- Listen carefully
- Give reassurance that they’re not alone and it doesn’t make them a bad person
- Encourage them to seek professional help
- Encourage other means of help and provide resources
When a person’s life is on the line, it seems silly to think about their productivity levels.
But sometimes, the fact that a person’s productivity levels decrease because of major depression and they stop making even the barest of efforts is a sign that they’re reaching the point of no return. That’s when help is most needed.
If someone is considering suicide, they won’t be making plans for the future or trying to achieve new things.
On the contrary: their productive levels (if any) will be focused towards organising their life and putting things in place—that way when they’re not around anymore, it makes it easier for their loved ones.
Writing can be a lonely profession.
That’s how you may not know that someone who’s a writer could experience any of the clinical signs of major depression until it’s too late.
But it’s important to remember that art is a form of expression.
And while it will not cure depression, sometimes letting out the emotions on paper will help, as raw as they may be.
How psychotic disorders affect productivity levels
Psychotic disorders cause a person to lose touch with reality.
They can be minor (like a mild form of paranoia) or extreme (like hearing voices and acting upon their orders). What I didn’t know—and found out during this course—is that there are four phases during a psychotic episode.
The four phases of a psychotic episode:
- The premorbid phase, which is the time before the symptoms start
- The prorome phase, which is where the symptoms are vague and hardly noticeable
- The acute phase, which is where psychotic symptoms are experienced (delusions, hallucinations, disorganised thinking and behaviour)
- The recovery phase, where, with treatment, most people recover
Common symptoms of psychotic episodes:
- Mood swings
- Increased anxiety
- Blunted or inappropriate emotions
- Irrational/angry/fearful responses to friends and family
- Change in appetite
- Reduced energy and motivation
While those changes are red flags, what really would affect productivity when it comes to psychotic disorders are the changes a disorder causes in thinking and perception such as difficulties with concentration, sense of alteration of self or others, inability to turn off their imagination, inappropriate use of language, or difficulty controlling thoughts.
Changes in behaviour from psychotic disorders:
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite
- Withdrawal from activities
- Deterioration in studies/work
- Sudden excesses like extreme religiosity
Physical symptoms from psychotic disorders:
- Bizarre body sensations
- Extreme activity
I had a family member with these symptoms.
I say had, because I’m not quite sure where they ended up.
At the time I was a teenager, but even I was able to recognise something was wrong.
I just didn’t know how to help. And none of the adults did, either.
This person was extremely paranoid, suspicious, had inappropriate emotions and language responses that caused them to lose jobs all the time.
They couldn’t control their thoughts and thought people were after them, and withdrew from social activities and family and friends.
It made it hard for them to be a productive member of society, as they didn’t seek help, no one was aware enough of what was going on, and in the end, the person went into a downwards spiral.
The symptoms of psychotic disorders may be laughable for those who don’t know what they are.
You may think it’s funny to see a homeless person mumbling to themselves, or hear someone talk about aliens.
But to the person living in this world, what seems ludicrous to you is very, very real to them.
As writers, we live in our fictional worlds; we ‘talk’ to our characters, hell, we even talk to ourselves!
But it’s important to realise when any of these behaviours get out of hand and become extreme to the point of interfering with daily life and enjoyment of life.
Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders impact workplace productivity.
Whether you’re your own boss or working in a company, if you suffer from any of these you’re more likely to be absent frequently or consistently late, to have a decreased productivity, increased accidents, frequent complaints of fatigue or unexplained pains, difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering things, decreased interest or involvement in one’s work, and maybe even displays of anger or blaming of others.
You may just have a bad day, or week, or month and be displaying some of these symptoms as a response to the stress you’re under.
But it’s important to recognise when that morphs into something more.
And even more important is seeking help, starting with your general practitioner or your national help line.
At the end of the day, we’re imperfect beings. That’s what being human means.
We don’t have to strive for perfection.
We don’t have to burn ourselves out to achieve a project.
We just have to be, let be, and let the universe align.
It’s not easy and it takes work.
But those extra minutes a day you spend on yourself—they’re what will help you reach old age.
They’re what will have your family thank their lucky stars that you’re still around.
And in the end, they’re what will give you the best productivity levels you’ve ever had.
IMPORTANT NOTE: if you notice any of the symptoms described above in yourself or someone you know, please seek professional help or encourage the person to seek professional help. While the ALGEE method has been proven to be a great mental health first aid tool, it is not fool-proof and most of these conditions require long-term help.