My first job was as a matchmaker for a dating service. It required me to be in constant contact with my clients, and these clients weren’t happy. Like, ever. “You didn’t tell me he was only 5’7,” and “She was so boring, how could you think we’d have anything in common?” were just a few of the sentences that I heard on a daily basis. I started having dreams of my clients chasing me down the street, and I’d wake up short of breath. I had never experienced anxiety because of work before, and I had no clue how to manage it other than to mask it with the happy hours that I could now afford to go to because I was working full-time.
By the time I was 32, I had traded in matchmaking for marketing, but the demands of my clients hadn’t changed. I’d gotten better about managing work anxiety, but I still dreamt of angry clients and would wake up feeling overwhelmed. But by this time I had started therapy, so I had a new outlet to work out my anxiety and I started to feel like I was gaining control of it.
Enter a breast cancer diagnosis.
I had just started a new job when I got the call with my biopsy results. The first few days of my new job had gone from trying to shake off that “new girl” vibe to spending every free minute I had scheduling doctor appointments and navigating the muddy waters of an illness. My hour with my therapist shifted from fears about my career to fears about my health and what was going to happen next.
“Next,” as I soon found out, was a year of dealing with my diagnosis and focusing on being well. Whereas my days had been filled with meetings and brainstorming sessions, they shifted to hours on my couch, feeling too weak and tired to move. I was able to work remotely when I felt up to it, and became a freelancer for the company that had hired me.
I noticed a shift in my anxiety after my diagnosis immediately. I no longer worried about client work because my own health took over the space in my brain that had been reserved for my career. I took that time to honor my body and what it was going through — to allow the waves of anxiety about the disease and the future wash over me. When the wave had passed, I’d make a mental note to myself that when I went back to work, I would no longer allow myself to be consumed by my career. No more dreams of upset clients or doubts that I wasn’t doing what I had been hired to do.
Of course, that was easier said than done.
After I had been given the OK by my oncologist to go back to work, my former staff position-turned freelance had turned into unemployment. The company had been unable to hold onto my full-time job, which left me collecting a check from the city until I found a new job. This process took nine months. Nine months of interviewing, writing cover letters and wondering where I’d end up, and my anxiety about the future continued to build with every job rejection — until finally, I got an offer. I exhaled and remembered my internal conversation about managing career-related anxiety.
I re-entered the workforce eager to get back into a routine, but also cognizant of what I had been through the year prior. Were there days where I felt the stress of my job consuming me? Sure, but I allowed those anxious moments to happen rather than stifling them and I learned from each moment. I navigated how to alleviate those feelings the next time a similar situation arose. I noticed that I was no longer consumed over the minutiae of my day. There’s a typo on the website? OK, we’ll fix it. We didn’t post the right picture promoting our hotel’s brunch? OK, just re-post with the correct imagery. I was able to let go of the details that had previously kept me up at night and stop my work anxiety from infiltrating my dreams.
To this day, I employ the same strategy for managing my work anxiety by teaching myself literally how not to sweat the small stuff. I’ve found a work-life balance that is crucial to my post-diagnosis life and allows me to fully enjoy the time that I fought so hard to have.