Dan Holloway, Expert by experience and entrepreneur

The hidden costs of stress and anxiety

I have bipolar disorder. I had my first major depressive episode when I was 15 and my first manic high when I was 18. I’m now 46 and my history since then has followed the standard path, with two more major highs and about twice that many major lows, and a similar ratio of more minor episodes. But although my bipolar is episodic, I live with stress and anxiety every day.

While the highs and lows bring very damaging financial problems, stress and anxiety have brought me their own problems – less dramatic but in many ways more harmful to my quality of life.

I want to highlight a devastating cost – to individuals, and to society – we hear too little about. I want to talk about underachievement and underemployment, about the closing off of the avenues to fulfilment and reward (personal and financial) that many people take for granted.

It's like a busy motorway...

The best way I can think of to describe living with chronic stress and anxiety is living with half of your brain almost permanently closed for maintenance, and the result is what you would expect – every day is like being a busy motorway with only one lane in operation. My experience of stress and anxiety is an experience of constant low level (and sometimes all-encompassing) rumination and catastrophisation. Everything I contemplate doing will make me think of the disastrous consequences it could produce, or I will obsess about the thousand ways life could go catastrophically wrong for me that year, that week, that day, any moment now.

What is so frustrating is that there are things I do that can enable me to escape – albeit only sometimes and momentarily – into a state of flow where I can be fully present in a task. They tend to be things that are both interesting and challenging, at the edge of my ability.

But the effect of stress is that my ability to perform my day to day job is greatly diminished. I make mistakes, I forget to do things, I miss appointments and deadlines because my mind is too full, my concentration too often absent. And the worse I do my job, the less I am able to progress at work, or to find a way out and into a job where I can achieve flow, where I would perform better, where the spiral would take me up.

Finding my flow

One of the few things that gives me flow is creativity. For the past two years I have been Creative Thinking World Champion, so by at least some measure I’m OK at it. And it is supposed to be a skill we increasingly value. But my mental ill health has meant I have never had the CV that would convince someone to give me a job doing it.

And then last year at work I happened upon the Oxford Humanities Innovation Challenge. It was meant for our university’s academics but there was nothing in the rules to stop me, as an administrator, entering. So I did. I put together a proposal for a creative thinking training technique. And I won – in the process beating 14 academic teams.

That has opened amazing doors to me. I received a minimal amount of funding to turn my idea into a game that will be sold in stores, and a training programme I will deliver to companies working to make the world a better place who need to be more innovative. I still have the same day job. And I still struggle through it, stress and anxiety eating away at my performance. But at 5pm I am able to switch to something that sometimes gives me flow, to something that at some point may offer me a way out.

The problem and the solution can come at a cost

My experience has made me realise two things about how much our lives are affected by stress and anxiety, and how much as a result society loses out on what we can offer. First, stress is so all-consuming we just do not have the mental resources to flourish. We end up in jobs that don’t suit us and do them poorly and as a result are less able to get jobs we could do well. And second, there is often a way out, by becoming our own bosses. But that requires a level of financial support our mental ill health often means we lack, so we rely on outside investment, which is also cut off because it is given according to what it says on our underachieving CV.

So whereas many not living with stress and anxiety find that the only barrier to flourishing is hard work and talent, we can find the only way through the barriers is a massive slice of luck. And as a result we all lose out.

Dan Holloway has been campaigning on debt and mental health for over a decade. He was shortlisted in two categories for the inaugural Oxford Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards for his work on mental health in the workplace. And after winning the 2017 Oxford Humanities Innovation Challenge he is the founder of Mycelium, helping companies and individuals make the world better through creativity.