Before I officially joined last year’s edition of the Great Resignation, all I could focus on was how amazing it was going to feel, for both my chronic anxiety and myself, to take a break from the exhaustion of my full-time job.
Like many of my New York corporate cohorts, I was unbearably burnt out and altogether over the typical 9-to-5 grind (which was more like 8-10, if I’m being honest). Stepping off the hamster wheel—even with all its accompanying stressors, like, say, figuring out how to replenish my bank account or finding affordable health insurance—would be worth it once I could finally sit back and recharge my batteries.
So in October I quit my beauty editor job, signing out of my company email for the last time with a requisite glass of champagne to toast my new life chapter. But the next morning, I woke up sans alarm and was shocked to discover that…I couldn’t actually relax.
On the contrary, my brain hummed and whirred more fervently than it had just 24 hours prior when I rushed to complete the final tasks for my former employer. Where was the relief over not having to find the exact shade of lipstick some random TikTok star was wearing? (Yes, that was actually something that spiked my heart rate on an average day.)
I found myself pacing my apartment, unsure of what to do with myself, wondering why a nagging wave of anxiety was muffling the excitement I felt about finally making the freelance-writing leap. Despite promising myself I would take a break before seeking out assignments—and when all I had been craving was some low-stakes stillness—why did lying on the couch with an inbox near zero and a stacked Netflix queue fill me with such panic?
“When you transition or you leave your job and you’re in this phase of taking the next step, you have that pause,” says psychotherapist Raina Wadhawan, Ed.M, LMHC. “People don’t know what to do with that space because you’ve been go, go, go, and a lot of us were not taught how to be present. That can bring up a lot of anxiety.”
Suspect #1: The Capitalist Machine
Whether or not you work in a major metropolis that reinforces the need for a high-powered, high-stress career (or have you not heard about the NYC housing market lately? ), there is some basic capitalism conditioning that hits us from the time we’re children, says Monica Shah, Psy.D., a psychologist in New York City who specializes in mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive behavioral therapies.
“When we’re young, you’re asked, What are you going to do when you grow up? rather than, What will make you happy?” she says. “It’s this idea that our worth and our value come from our achievements, and it’s a huge part of why it’s hard to sit and do nothing, as if your relaxing activities are considered wrong.”
A full one-fourth of American workers are freelance or independent contractors, and a recent Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that they often face substantially higher levels of economic anxiety than their full-time peers. In addition to saying goodbye to a steady paycheck, disengaging from your identity as a quote-unquote productive member of a corporate team can be equally, if not more, stressful for some people—not a mindset conducive to relaxation.
“We are taught from an early age that work is integral to our life mission, sense of purpose, and how we survive and sustain ourselves,” says David Blustein, Ph.D, professor of counseling psychology at Boston College and author of The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Experience of Work in America. “To pull ourselves away, either voluntarily or not, can create a sense of being untethered or unmoored to work and to the world.”
Despite the discomfort you might feel stepping away from a career that is ultimately detrimental to your mental health, Dr. Blustein believes it is healthy, and welcome, to question our deep entanglement of work and personal identity—and allow for a pause. “As humans, we need vacations and time off and work-life balance,” he says.
Productivity and Value Are Not Synonymous
Ok, ok, so it’s healthy in the long-term to do this mental work. In the moment, though, such a balance shift can trigger a surge of nerves as you adapt to a life that doesn’t revolve around work. You might self-criticize and ruminate more, says Dr. Shah, believing you will fail or that you’re no longer productive (and, therefore, valuable), making it even more difficult to relax.
Here’s where you might typically think,#help #imscared. But promise, you can realign those negative thoughts. Step one: Identify what is most important in your life—by making a list, journaling regularly, or speaking with a therapist—and examine how that compares to what you were doing for work. “People are realizing, Oh, I’m not happy with what I’m doing or I’m burnt out, and [so they’re] making these big shifts to follow goals or paths that they might have put aside but are more in alignment with their values,” says Dr. Shah.
For me, that meant slowing down and not worrying about someone else’s bottom line if it’s going to crater my mental health. And if I find myself ruminating that I won’t be able to hack it on my own, a few minutes of journaling, a quick call to a friend, or an extra weekly session with my therapist is enough for me to course-correct and remember all the reasons why I made the jump in the first place.
General Anxiety, Freelance Anxiety, and Burnout, Oh Oy!
Whammies haven’t been quite so prevalent since the mid-’80s, when the trivia gameshow Press Your Luck had contestants avoiding the show’s mascot, a turn-stealer called the Whammy (google it, Z’ers!). In 2023, the double whammy of the moment is this: simultaneously dealing with leftover burnout from your job, as I was earlier this year, and generalized anxiety, which I have—a combo that can make the period after stepping away from full-time work feel particularly daunting.
“It’s kind of a cycle,” says Dr. Shah, referencing the link between anxiety and burnout. “To do something about your anxiety, it takes energy, and if you’re burnt out, it can be hard to find that energy.” Lingering angst, in turn, can make it feel impossible to relax and recharge, which is exactly what your burnout requires. (Oh, the complexity!)
So how does someone like me, who is already dealing with anxiety, *finally* relax and enjoy pivoting from a career that wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped? First, address the immediate physical symptoms if your anxiety progresses to a panic attack, which can leave you dysregulated. Try these two techniques to help you return to the present:
- Get cold. “I tell my clients to use exposure to cold,” Wadhawan says. “Go to the bathroom and run your hands under cold water, or grab an ice cube and run it over your hands. Focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels. That exposure helps you feel calm, lowers the heart rate, and increases endorphins.”
- Stroll mindfully. Go for a short walk and notice the rhythm of your footsteps. “These are grounding tools that help your body feel relaxed,” says Wadhawan.
On the daily, when you feel anxiety bubbling up, engage your senses, even if it’s something as simple as brushing your teeth. Putting your focus elsewhere, in the case on your body, can help minimize cycling thought patterns of negativity, says Dr. Shah.
A Corporate Breakup and A New Relationship…With Yourself
It starts with that old Boy Scout adage: Be prepared. So many of us can grow anxious if we feel we’re languishing without any direction. Having a plan, even a tentative one six months down the line, provides a newly unemployed person a sense of structure, says Dr. Blustein, who also suggests exploring activities like yoga, meditation, therapy, exercise, or learning a new skill. “Something I’ve recommended is to take these [big life] pauses and use them as an opportunity to grow as a person,” he says.
Do a little reframe: Think of this break away from work as a chance to find out what else brings you happiness, rather than only defining the time by a lack of productivity (if you’re listening to all that ingrained capitalism). To anyone who has recently stepped back from their career, “Be curious,” recommends Dr. Shah. “Find what else makes you up as a person.”
It may sound simple, yet it’s a concept many of us are just now realizing the importance of. The mental health pros I spoke with are all seeing more clients committed to balancing their careers with their personal wellbeing, a phenomenon that has increased since the start of the pandemic, when many people were forced to slow down or faced drastic career changes (according to a 2022 Prudential survey, a third of people who changed jobs during the pandemic took a pay cut for better work-life balance). This, they say, is a good thing.
If a tricky one. “There’s a difference between a highly structured life to one that is totally stripped away,” Dr. Blustein says. For anyone who is unpacking what their life and identity means in this new phase, “It’s important to get used to that discomfort and to sit in the sense of not knowing what the future holds. Accepting the uncertainties of life is a big part of therapy and of life.”
Sitting in that discomfort on your Ikea couch isn’t the easiest task. This is best accomplished, Dr. Shah emphasizes, by getting out of your head and into your body. “One way is to tune into the physical sensations you’re feeling rather than labeling it as an emotion,” she explains. “Observe, like, Oh, my face is feeling hot or My heart rate has increased, then put a descriptor on it using a non-judgmental label.”
As the saying goes, the only way out is through, so give yourself a little pat-pat for acknowledging that you are moving through uncomfortable emotions, says Valerie Oula, a certified Kundalini yoga, meditation, and reiki master teacher and director of vibrational energy at The Well, with wellness retreats across the country. “Notice what you are feeling, and notice how it shows up in your body so [you] can start to process,” she says. “Put one hand at the heart and the other at the belly or solar plexus, and let your body and nervous system know that it is supported, grounded, centered, and safe to slowly feel.”
Add to that a big dose of compassion. No one is going to master this practice right away, says Dr. Shah. But once you allow yourself that space to feel those things—and realize that they won’t last forever—you can finally start to enjoy the time you now have to relax. And, you know, maybe even discover something new that brings you joy (for me, that means a weekly ceramics class and taking an edible before a long walk).
Now, a few months removed from my initial break with corporate life, I’m still figuring out how to balance my new freelance career with the necessary space for prioritizing my mental health. I practice mindfulness on a daily basis by engaging my senses in otherwise mundane activities. For instance, when I shower, I try not to ruminate on my to-do list and instead pay attention to how the water feels (my sense of touch), the scent of my favorite soap (my sense of smell), and how the water looks on my skin (my sense of sight).
Do I sometimes fail to check my anxious brain at the bathroom door? Of course—I have a mental health disorder, remember? But incorporating more mindful practices into my life (and remembering to take my daily dose of Lexapro) has allowed me to disengage from some of that uncertainty, which makes me feel better overall.
And since I’m gradually feeling calmer and less anxious, I am able to kick back and actually relax most days. As with anything that requires practice, I’m taking it one step—and one Netflix show—at a time.
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