Let's talk about freelancing and mental health...

From panic, to feeling overwhelmed and managing uncertainty

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This week’s newsletter is all about mental health and the importance of making time to maintain it. While majorly important, it’s often overlooked when we’re busy being freelance parents with deadlines to hit, payments to chase and little people to look after. Making time for 10 minutes of mindfulness, yoga or a relaxing bath can seem laughable. But it really shouldn’t be.

What I didn’t anticipate was that in the week I’d come to write this newsletter, I’d be facing some challenges of my own. And by challenge, I mean a client who has started to cause me major anxiety and stress. As I said before in my newsletter about client relationships, facing bumps in the road – whether about feedback or payment terms – is my cryptonite and the part I dislike the most about working for myself.

While waiting for a phone call to discuss an issue, I found myself completely disabled. I couldn’t focus on any other work, I started to catastrophise and I gradually felt more and more sick as the day went on. This is where my confident exterior starts to show cracks and I wish I had real-life colleagues to talk it through with. Even when I know I’m in the right, I start to have major wobbles when I know someone may be treating me unfairly and have to really work hard to keep my cool.

Ironically, I started to read through the advice that today’s TFP guest, Zahra Hunton, an Accredited Occupational Therapist and Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist (and mum of two), has given on tackling feelings of anxiety and panic - and I’m happy to tell you that they really did help. I didn’t intend to make myself a human guinea pig, but sometimes life has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need at the right time.

I spoke to Zahra to find out how we can all help ourselves to feel better – whether we’ve become overwhelmed and taken on too much, or are facing feelings of panic due to a stressful situation that’s spiralled out of control.

What to do when you feel overwhelmed

We’ve all been there. You’ve taken on too much, your child is sick and that invoice you sent six weeks ago is now really late. It’s hard to know what to focus on first and you become snappy, unhappy and definitely not your best self. When this happens, Zahra recommends creating a list of things to do; prioritising and working through each one before ticking them off. This psychological trick helps you to feel like you’re actually getting somewhere, rather than trying to do lots of things (badly) all at once.

“When you feel like this, it’s good to remember why you went freelance in the first place,” advises Zahra. “Write a list of all the positives and include your best attributes that make you a successful freelancer. You should also notice when you start to engage in unhelpful and negative thoughts. Bring your focus back to the present and use the STOPP technique: stop and step back, take a breath, observe, pull back and put in some perspective and practise what works”.

Dealing with worry and uncertainty

Uncertainty is a pretty unavoidable part of being freelance and for many of us, Covid-19 has brought it in spades. Zahra advises managing this by trying to identify what is a hypothetical worry VS a realistic worry. “Once you have identified what is a realistic worry, you can begin to deal with it,” she says. “Breaking worries or problems down into bite-sized chunks, prioritising and then dealing with them can make things feel easier”.

Zahra also suggests thinking about how you’ve coped with stressful situations before as we are often far stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for. “Reassess your ability to cope under stress by writing a list of personal strengths such as being organised or a good communicator. This is a positive problem-solving skill”.  Another temptation when things start to feel out of control is to try and become overly controlling which can make life even more stressful. “Once you begin to notice that uncertainty is unavoidable, you can start to teach yourself to tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and worry less about having all of the control”.

Do not fear panic

We all experience feelings of panic and anxiety at some point in our lives and Zahra explains that it’s a natural sensation triggered by our innate ‘fight or flight’ response. “When this is triggered, blood and adrenalin are pumped around our bodies which induces anxiety symptoms,” she says. “You might feel your heart racing, your palms sweating and in some more serious cases, you may even black out or go dizzy”.

So what can we do when we start to feel those awful feelings of panic rise up? “Exercise releases endorphins and pent up energy so is a magic cure for anxiety,” says Zahra. If that just doesn’t feel doable in the moment, Zahra suggests trying to realistically look at the problem objectively. Ask yourself:

What harm has been done?

Will I be feeling anxious about this in three-months’ time?

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

If my friend was anxious about this, what advice would I give them?

“Often anxiety means we blow things out of proportion, so having an objective opinion based on asking these questions is a good way to decide whether or not you need to feel this anxious,” she adds. “Anxiety will feel different for everyone but try to remember that it isn’t dangerous -  although it can feel horrible, especially during a panic attack”.

Taking time to relax

One very important way of nipping stress and anxiety in the bud, or learning to manage it, is with relaxation techniques that bring your heart rate down.

“Everyone relaxes in different ways,” says Zahra. “Write down your top five ways to relax such as walking, reading, mindful colouring, having a cup of tea etc. This skill is often put at the bottom of the list but it needs to be practiced and is very important”.

“By doing this, we help our bodies to be better equipped at making repairs to the body and combatting infections and stress. You can try and put the body into relaxation mode with deep muscle relaxation or progressive relaxation,” Zahra continues. “Create a calm environment where you won’t be disturbed and take 10-15 minutes for yourself. Many apps and websites offer guided relaxation and meditation such as Calm and Headspace if you need a bit of help, or you can simply put on some calming music, close your eyes and take some deep breaths”.

Zahra is based in Nottingham and offers both private online or face-to-face therapy sessions. For more details, or to show her some love, you can contact her at zahunton@gmail.com. She is also offering a 15% discount on all initial appointments - this is an exclusive offer available only to subscribers of The Freelance Parent.

Related reading

This Guardian article titled How to Stop Catastrophising: An Expert’s Guide features advice from a clinical psychologist who suggests a three-pronged plan for tackling anxiety and approaching each day logically and positively.

The Mental Health Foundation just published this very helpful article on dealing with feelings of anxiety during the pandemic and the challenges many of us are facing right now.

New to freelancing and feeling a little bit anxious? Read this article on Underpinned called ‘You’re a new freelancer. How are you facing the anxiety? and find out how to make sure you’re getting the right support.

Next week will be the second of my mental health-focussed newsletters and we’ll be building more on relaxation techniques and taking time to unwind. Writer and yoga teacher Lara Piras has developed a wonderful yoga routine for subscribers of The Freelance Parent so stay tuned for more mood-lifting and calm-inducing content.

Don’t forget that if you enjoyed this newsletter, please feel free to forward it on and you can buy me a virtual cuppa on Kofi here.