Workplace Stress Caused My Stroke-Like Migraine – Now It's My Mission To Tell People It's Okay To Ask For Help

Stress is a universal issue, and workplace wellbeing is by almost all accounts on the decline – if someone had just really seen me and the signs I wasn’t well, they could have prevented me hitting rock bottom
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While at work a few years ago, I suffered what I thought was a stroke. I was 32 years old.

I remember the day like yesterday – it was unusually sunny, I was relaxed and not anxious at all which was, then, a rarity. At this time in my life, things were tough. I was going through a particularly traumatic life event and each day was a challenge just to get through and survive.

Daily, my anxiety meant I couldn’t escape the constant tightness in my chest; my neck and shoulders had become tight and painful and there was a continuous haziness in my head. Looking back now, and still quite shockingly, I had no awareness of it and, vitally, no awareness to change any of it. I just carried on.

At work, I didn’t share a lot of what I was going through, not in any detail anyway. I put on a mask that I felt kept the shame of my personal failure away from my professional achievements. I was a high performer, there were expectations of me and there was this background of unspoken pressure that I needed to keep myself together. So, for all intents and purposes, I looked like I was. Little did they know...

The daily pretence was exhausting. To pretend I had things all figured out when my world was actually crumbling around me left me broken. But the fear of unwelcome judgement or, god forbid, showing actual vulnerability overrode this and was just too shameful to comprehend. I was at burnout from trying to succeed and mentally unwell from the combination of this and the trauma of the life event I was facing.

What was hardest though was my internal voice: it was unforgiving, gradually chipping away at my being, reminding me I was worthless, day after day until the last remaining parts of my self-esteem were gone. I was a mess.

I had broken down a few times with my parents in the evenings and at weekends. I’ll never forget my dad just holding me on the floor as I fell to my knees, sobbing. That must have been heartbreaking for him to witness especially when he was powerless to reverse it. I seemed to be too far down the rabbit hole to even understand it, let alone try and deal with it – whatever ‘it’ was.

In hindsight, all the signs were there through my appearance. I wasn’t sleeping, I woke at 3am every night having just been able to fall asleep a couple of hours earlier and that was me – awake, overthinking and anxious until my alarm sounded at 6am.

I’d also lost a stone in weight. Every part of me was being eroded by my life’s circumstances, internally and externally. Looking back, my mental health had hit an all-time low, yet I didn’t give it any attention. I functioned; I kept going; I kept working – what else was I going to do?

On the day I mentioned, myself and my colleague decided to take a more scenic route home from our client meeting. My near euphoric (probably hysterical) mood had meant I wanted to appreciate more and enjoy the beauty of the day. The scenery was utterly stunning and life that day seemed to mirror my surroundings; it was calm and I was calm for the first time I could remember, or so I thought.

The first indication of what was to come felt like I had something in my eye but no amount of blinking or rubbing fixed it. I laughed. I even joked. But something serious was happening to my vision and I couldn’t work out what it was.

I immediately pulled over, abandoning the car precariously on the side of the verge. Whatever it was had now moved on from my vision and I was starting to feel very unwell. In retrospect, I think the ascending panic compounded the situation, but I was powerless to stop it.

I stumbled out of the car. I remember not being able to feel the ground properly beneath my feet. I just wasn’t fully there. I suffer from tinnitus and it felt like the volume had been put up to maximum – so loud, almost unbearable. My head pounded and there was a synchronicity between the two sensations. It was utterly terrifying.

I returned to the car, fumbling around for the seatbelt and trying to work out what my next words were going to be. Now my speech was going and I was slurring my words.

I hysterically pleaded to my colleague to take me to hospital. As we drove, desperately trying to escape the rural isolation of the countryside that wasn’t beautiful anymore, I seemed to lapse into a world of conscious confusion. I knew I wasn’t making sense, but I kept talking or at least trying to in order to try to reach some resolution. I was so confused, frightened and just didn’t know what was happening to me.

Then, my right hand then started to tingle. At this, my heart raced even more, I could feel it thumping through my chest and before long, my right side was numb.

Luckily the A&E department was quiet. I stumbled in. My walking was uncoordinated (ataxic, in medical terms) and my colleague was supporting me on one side, a look of profound concern across her face.

My CT scan was normal. There had been no damage done to my brain, thankfully, and after four hours or so, my symptoms started to resolve. The consultant had seen this before and despite its rarity, he knew what this was that was happening to me.

The consultant’s insight and knowledge were so invaluable to me as it saved me from the great unknown: tests, prodding and poking and guessing the worst.

The diagnosis was I’d had a hemiplegic migraine. The cause? Profound and extreme stress, from work and from the trauma in my life.

A hemiplegic migraine is a rare type of migraine headache. Its symptoms mimic that of a stroke (which I thought at the time I was having). Triggers can include stress, lack of sleep and intense emotional fragility, all of which I was experiencing at the time. I had no awareness that I’d pushed my body and mind to the limit that it reacted in this way and neither did anyone around me.

Aware of my situation, my line manager was compassionate and encouraged me to take some time. I went to my GP and returned to work two days later with my ‘everything’s fine’ mask affixed.

At this time, I remember feeling so alone. There was no check-in, support or after care offered to me and, yes, my colleagues that knew were sympathetic, when what I really needed was the company to signpost me to the further support that would have been available to me such as the company’s employee assistance programme (EAP) or even a discussion with occupational health.

I’m really happy to say that since this incident I have left the rat race, started my own business and have never felt genuinely happier and free to be me. But what I am committed to is sharing the awareness of what happened to me as there will be other people in the same situation right now, sat at work pretending that everything is ‘normal’. They feel pressure to be ‘normal’ when the truth is it’s really okay not to be okay, and for those people that aren’t, ensuring they have the space and the support to get the help they need.

Stress continues to be a universal issue and workplace wellbeing is by almost all accounts on the decline. Many wellbeing programmes are generic and are offered through a tick box mentality from the board room which is just not good enough. Staff mental wellbeing and stress management need to be at the top of every company’s list, as if someone had just really seen me and the signs that I really wasn’t well, they could have prevented me hitting rock bottom.

In retrospect, I know what could have helped me. I know what could have prevented my sharp decline in productivity, my overwhelm, and my deflated engagement. And that is being allowed to be honest, vulnerable and struggling and that it being ok to ask for help.

Telling our true stories and showing when we are broken and are vulnerable helps others know they are not alone which is why I’m dedicated to sharing my story. As the writer and speaker Philip McKernan said in a recent podcast, “our truth gives others permission to be vulnerable, to accept the challenges we face.”

In this day an age of social media perfection and overly aspirational and unrealistic goals, there is an unrealistic pressure to spin the plates, manage turmoil and show up as the best version of you constantly.

But, as the antidote to this, there is, thankfully, a craving for realness, authenticity and the truth. I recently shared my story on LinkedIn. It reached 287,000 people, which was astounding – but what was so humbling and worrying were the amount of people who resonated with my story and were, sadly, experiencing similar things to me and feeling very alone.

I think by sharing my story, I’ve been able to offer a sense of community around a relatively unknown subject. Loneliness is something that is fast becoming an epidemic in our society, particularly in mental health. Awareness is the key to unlocking this.

Telling my story has allowed me to finally show up as me – a little lighter, more valuable and to be able to face the past with a sense of purpose that enables me to bring myself to the meaning of my ‘now’, my ‘why’ and my passion and drive to help change workplace wellbeing cultures for the better

I am dedicated to helping change workplace wellbeing culture as I genuinely believe there is an onus of responsibility to all staff and to make sure they can speak up when needed and have the people around them to make sure they are really okay.

How It Feels is a recurring blog series which aims to shine a light on people’s stories, covering subjects where voices are rarely heard. If you want to get involved, please email