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13 July 2022

Mental wellbeing: Keeping the container from overflowing

Nick Stewart

Nick Stewart
Partner, Financial Services

Nick StewartNick Stewart is a partner and leads Baringa’s CFO team and our work in climate change for Financial Services

I’ve always thought of myself as pretty good on the emotional intelligence (EQ) front - having had a knack for understanding people and aspiring to lead with empathy. Yet, I never fully grasped the issues around mental health and wellbeing until I’d experienced them myself. Now I’ve been through it first-hand, I’m much more in tune with stress and anxiety – in myself and others – and hopefully I’m a more compassionate leader for it.

A tender and tough upbringing

I was raised in Scotland by my mother who was very nurturing and encouraged us to be in touch with our emotions. But with my father – a somewhat ‘dour’ Scot – I was instilled with a sense of ‘toughness.’ To a degree, this has continued throughout my life. The consulting world is traditionally very output driven, where showing up and forging ahead is considered a sign of success. And, generally speaking, as a man, it can be harder to talk about the touchy-feely stuff.

Feeling out of control

So, when I started to struggle with seemingly simple tasks because something ‘in my head’ didn’t feel right, the thought of admitting it to others was pretty scary. In the corporate world there’s still stigma associated with mental health.

I’d be overcome with anxiety in small team meetings and a feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ would creep in. Being a seasoned public speaker, this had never bothered me in the past. I also wasn’t sleeping well. I’d regularly have 2am wakeups where my mind would whir into motion with uncontrollable thoughts. And at its most extreme, I’d have surges of adrenalin running through me from top to toe. I felt just like the character Whiplash in Iron Man! It was unsettling to feel so out of control.

An overflowing container

The trigger was several big life events that coincided. Work was frenetic, things were going on with my kids, then the thing that really tipped the balance was that my dad became very unwell with dementia. Seeing him become what he wasn’t, was particularly hard to bear. As psychologists refer to it, my ‘container’ was overflowing. I was overwhelmed, and my normal high level of resilience was weakened.

Thankfully, my wife, who herself had experienced postnatal depression, saw I wasn’t my usual self and urged me to get help.

Unmasking the serene swan

I went to the GP and was referred for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and prescribed medication. Being able to speak with a psychologist lifted such a weight. I learnt how I could use resources at my disposal to help improve my mental health, like meditation, breathing techniques and getting out into nature. This was central to my recovery and is now a mainstay of my everyday life. I use a meditation app daily, take walks with the dog to get a bit of ‘soothe’ and I’m fanatical about the Wim Hof breathing technique when I’m facing a challenging situation.

But the real turning point in my recovery was talking to others – Adrian (our Managing Partner), my close colleagues and my friends. At first people were a bit shocked – I’ve always been thought of as ‘swan-like’; unphased by things. But it became clear that this serene image was disguising much frantic paddling beneath the waters.

Once I opened up, I felt a huge amount of what’s known as ‘psychological safety’ and was able to see that I needed some time out. I took about two months off work to reset, recover and spend time with my dad and family. Initially, I felt very guilty thinking I’d let myself and others down. But with support, I started to treat my time off as a ‘get myself better’ project. So that on my return, I’d be stronger both physically and mentally.

Learning real empathy

Although it was very uncomfortable to go through at the time, I’ve learnt so many things. I’ve learnt I’m not superhuman and that we all have needs that must be met before reaching overwhelm. I’ve learnt how to take care of myself and boost my resilience with my inner resources. And I’ve learnt that anyone can be affected by mental health and wellbeing issues – there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

But above all, I’ve learnt the true meaning of empathy. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook once said: “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be ok but acknowledging that it is not.” With this in mind, I encourage everyone to extend empathy towards themselves and others. Because, most likely, everyone will face a time when something just doesn’t feel right.


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