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On Twitter, Alix Higby masks her anxiety with humour: “That feeling of relief when the guy lurking in the shadows outside your apartment is just taking a leak.” Photo/Supplied.

How to break the anxiety cycle at work

Young, gifted and stressed.

Alix Higby’s Twitter feed reads like a timeline of millennial stress. She is 28 and she is a worrier. She summed up her angst in a tweet on 27 June: “I’ve stopped working late and putting pressure on myself to overachieve and as a result I have actually become more productive. And yet, the fact I’m no longer incredibly stressed all the time makes me feel guilty. It’s bloody annoying.”

Higby is the digital producer for Three’s weeknight current affairs show, The Project, managing its website and social media channels. “I have a habit of overworking,” she told North & South. “Doing stuff I’m not required to do and staying late to go above and beyond. I don’t notice I’m doing it until my body gives up on me.”

In her last job, on the public relations side of an advertising agency, she worked 12-hour days for three or four months before she got so sick she had to take three weeks off. “They liked you to do all these extra hours and no one ever told you to stop.” Things are different in her new job. “They tell you to leave. They’re like, ‘Go home, why are you here?’ My manager will say, ‘Make sure you leave on time tonight’... but I still have bad habits.”

They’re hard to break. “It became the norm to work late and be tired and stressed. So pulling back felt like I was actually slacking off. If I’m happy and relaxed, then clearly I’m not pushing myself enough. Logically, I know that’s very silly and not true. It feels like I’m now trying to rewire my brain so it doesn’t consider reading a book or watching TV to be laziness. It feels like such an unearned privilege to not be ‘doing’ anything.”

Related articles: Working yourself sick? The danger of stress overload

After stress-related insomnia drove her to exhaustion last year, Higby was prescribed escitalopram, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) to treat anxiety. “The doctor said maybe you just need to break the cycle. Now I have, and I sleep perfectly. The pharmacist says every second person in Auckland is on it.”

Work pressures are one of life’s stresses – which include simply surviving, and staying safe as a young woman. Yes, she walks with her car keys between her knuckles and she’s given up catching the bus after work to do her grocery shopping after being harassed by a man. “Not having a car in Auckland reminds me about being a woman here. I finish late and I walk home. It’s not very far, but you have to walk down an alleyway to get to my house and there is no way around it. It’s a reminder every night, that you just don’t know…”

On Twitter, she masks her anxiety with humour. “That feeling of relief when the guy lurking in the shadows outside your apartment is just taking a leak.” And: “I’m walking home, headphones in, with #NeverReallyOver at max volume and if I get murdered I want the record to show that it was neither mine nor Katy Perry’s fault.”

Higby has a Spotify playlist called “Are you stressed?” full of Perry and Taylor Swift. “It takes me straight out of it. I can blast it and have a little dance if I’m not feeling great.” As she tweeted in June: “The world is very complicated and I am grateful for pop music.”

She realises the time she is forced to spend on social media for her job can add to her anxiety. “I love to be knowledgeable about the world but I read a lot of horrible stuff and it does get super stressful.”

There’s a tweet for that, too: “It’s hard to tell if I’m having a bad brain time because of general anxiety or because of the suffocating toxic despair that is the current political climate.”

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South as part of the feature story, Working yourself sick? The danger of stress overload.

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