If you’ve experienced severe anxiety while on the job, know you’re not alone. An estimated 31% of U.S. adults live with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And work is as good a place for it to hang out as any.
The reasons for anxiety can be myriad, and include biological, psychological and social factors. With skills, tools and support, anxiety can be managed so you can thrive. Here are some tips to help.
After taking the first step, which is to give yourself grace, it’s empowering to identify specific symptoms and triggers. Seattle writer and former corporate marketer Michelle Yang, who has dealt with anxiety for two-plus decades, realized that because of childhood experiences, she has trouble with male leaders in positions of authority. Her anxiety can flare up in meetings with more senior members of the team.
“When I feel like they don’t like what I have to say, or don’t respect me — whether real or imagined — I become tongue-tied and unable to present and discuss my work to my expectation,” Yang said.
Katherine Switz experienced her first bad bout of workplace anxiety in 2002 while at McKinsey & Company, and her most recent in August. Switz, founder and executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit The Stability Network, finds that when anxiety hits, it leaves her overwhelmed and with an inability to concentrate and complete even basic tasks. Some of her triggers are having an amorphous reporting structure, a lack of clarity about deliverables and poorly defined tasks. Says Switz, “I worry I am not meeting expectations, particularly if there are competing ones. I freeze … and that then spirals into more anxiety.”
What constitutes a trigger depends on the person and their history with work, says Seattle-area psychotherapist Nathaniel Amos. “To give just one example, many folks whose identities have been historically marginalized due to race, class, gender, etc., can live with a great deal of impostor syndrome. They arrive at a work environment with a fundamental question of ‘Do I even belong here?’ ”
From that starting place, standard activities — interacting with peers, deadlines, performance evaluations, participating in collaborative projects — can potentially trigger anxiety, Amos says.
Yang nurtures on-the-job calm and focus by making a lot of to-do lists and checking off completed tasks.
She’s also a proponent of a practice that’s almost endangered in the 21st century: “No matter how busy I am, I try to step away from my desk and take a lunch break, even if it’s a short one.”
Amos agrees that breaks are a great way to manage anxiety. “Tobacco smokers tend to be less anxious at work precisely because they take breaks to go outside and breathe,” he says. Getting fresh air and other in-the-moment interventions with a physical component — a breathing exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, present-moment awareness — are also helpful, he adds.
Switz says she improved her mental and physical responses to anxiety by doing something called dialectical behavior therapy. “DBT is about feeling your emotion and then taking wise-minded action,” she says. “Understanding an anxiety trigger and choosing how to react is very powerful.”
Outside of work, Yang and Switz name preventive tools such as exercise (including yoga and walks), meditation, quality time with family and friends, regular therapy sessions and medication. “Prioritizing some time each day where I can just relax, and preferably have a good laugh, is extremely important,” Yang says.
The one must-do tip that everyone highlighted? Sleep.
Switz aims for nine hours a night, and Yang says making sure she gets enough is key. “If I’m so anxious that I’m losing sleep or waking up in the middle of the night with worry, it’s the first sign that things need to slow down,” she says.
Amos also stresses the importance of downtime. “Rest is a radical act of self-preservation in late-stage capitalism that overemphasizes the primacy of work at the expense of our psycho-logical resources. As is play,” he says. He calls them the best methods of anxiety prevention, as they build up internal resources to help manage anxiety as it arises.
Anxiety can be utterly debilitating, but it doesn’t have to derail your career hopes and dreams. It might even be a guidepost to a path that’s better for you.