The next time you feel the nausea of workplace anxiety, know that you are not failing to regulate your emotions, nor are you psychologically flawed. Really. Chances are that your anxiety is not even about you. It’s a reaction to an actual problem: your work life.
This may be unexpected, particularly given that some anxiety informs you that you’re going to screw up, you just screwed up, and, P.S., you’re not good enough. All probably untrue. “It’s more likely that there is some problem with the workplace, and not you,” says anthropologist Ed Hagen, who studies mental health from an evolutionary perspective across cultures. He says his research is inspired by the dismal treatment rates of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
Hagen hypothesizes that though a small percentage of patients do indeed have an underlying condition, in most cases, the patient is not the problem. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 3.1% of the U.S. population has generalized anxiety disorder, and 18% experience some significant anxiety each year.
“The mental-illness model of anxiety puts way too little focus on challenges that a person is dealing with — which in many cases might be very legitimate challenges,” Hagen says. He points to “many, many” studies showing that increases in workload, time pressure and long hours spike anxiety, and the fact that most anxiety and depression cases are precipitated by an objectively adverse environment or event — and not the result of an anxious disposition failing to cope.
Research psychologist Julie McCarthy, a professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, concurs: For most people, anxiety is just a messenger that a situation feels (or is) unmanageable. “Anxiety is often triggered by uncertainty, and arises from a sense of loss of control,” she says. For example, a pandemic along with extreme weather and economic meltdown.
As negative emotions go, anxiety is mild, rarely debilitating like its crippling cousins depression and grief, and can be essential on the job. Without a low-level infusion of worry, most people don’t do anything, McCarthy’s research has found. For example, you napping on the couch at 11 a.m., or never finishing that passion project. We all perform best with a little anxiety or fear-of-boss prodding our behinds, which cues us to mitigate that anxiety by … doing our work. Type A people are known to be more anxious — and also wildly productive.
There’s nothing wrong with medicating or getting therapy for anxiety. Physical symptoms, such as pain, sweating, panic attacks or rapid heartbeat, deserve a doctor’s visit, as do cognitive problems like insomnia and difficulty focusing. Constant worrying, procrastination or avoidance are best handled by a therapist.
Part of the cure may be (surprise!) going to work. “Actually being at work is a cure for some level of anxiety, if a job is engaging in a way that is stimulating and positive, then it becomes a distraction from the anxiety,” says psychologist Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
The downside, says Rousseau, is that significant anxiety interferes with cognitive bandwidth, which is how much information your mind can absorb, and your ability to be flexible and adaptable in real time. Simply put, when you’re very worried or apprehensive, you become rigid and less able to respond and adjust to what’s coming at you. That is why anxious people are often tense. It’s hard to switch gears or roll with life when tense. Instead, you flatline into fight-or-flight mode.
The key detail is not whether you’re anxious, but whether you bounce back. “We know that resilient individuals experience anxiety but are able to move past it and not ruminate as much on it. And they’re able to really harness positive emotion,” such as joy and happiness, says McCarthy. Rumination is to be avoided, along with the social withdrawal and emotional suppression that accompany it.
When a workplace problem is beyond your control, McCarthy suggests addressing anxiety through healthy daily habits. “Particularly with the pandemic, nobody knows when it’s going to end, right? So it’s about daily recovery and daily control of the anxiety that we have.”
McCarthy prescribes two lines of defense: self-care, such as sleep, exercise and healthy diet, which equip you to handle a bad day at work without hiding under the covers.
The second line of defense is seizing as much control as possible, which inherently mitigates anxiety. This is particularly true if you can control the matters you’re anxious about. If you’re anxious about COVID-19, wear good masks, wash your hands and practice social distancing.
For workplace anxiety, remember three words: schedules, boundaries and information. Control your time, which, let’s be honest, is easier when working remotely. Staunchly maintain reasonable boundaries where you tend to be lax, such as letting work interfere with your off hours or quality of life. And get as much information and transparency as you can from bosses about worrisome details like job security, hours and workload, says Rousseau. Not all workplaces are equally anxious-making, by the way, so you might take my colleague Wade Tyler Millward’s advice and always be looking for the next and better job.
In short: Be controlling. You’re doing fine. You’ve got this. See, you’re less anxious already. Go get ’em.
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