This post is a followup to my previous post about Emotions at Work, and focuses on a common emotional experience for many: anxiety. Do you feel like you have two people living inside your head? One is logical and calm and the other is dramatic and noisy—an irrational, uncontrollable voice of doom? You might just be dealing with anxiety.
Anxiety wears a lot of masks: it can appear as outright fear and panic (including debilitating panic attacks), obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, a ruminating mind that seems to wake up just when you want to sleep, the social phobia that keeps you from entering a roomful of strangers, the pounding of your heart when called on to speak, etc.
Like all our emotions, anxiety is a normal human experience and has its good points. “Anxiety is energy,” a doctor once told me. Your anxiety can keep you focused, and inspire you to keep moving, take action, and handle things you would otherwise neglect. It also keeps you aware and observant of your surroundings. This, obviously, has survival benefits. However, like any emotion, anxiety can cross that line from helpful to limiting to downright destructive depending how far you go on the spectrum.
You can think of anxiety as an ongoing fight in your brain: a fight between the more reactive “lizard” brain and the more rational prefrontal cortex part of your brain that handles logic and your executive functioning skills: the ability to remember, focus your attention, organize, and plan. A professional musician friend of mine said that when people recognized him and came up for an autograph, their IQ’s automatically dropped 20 points. That’s anxiety at work. So let’s think about this at your workplace. If anxiety is one of your go-to emotions—perhaps it’s stronger for you than others—how might it be affecting your performance at work?
Here are some possibilities:
Any of this sound familiar? How do you deal with this at work? Some might say this is why "Happy Hour" was invented. And there’s some truth in that: alcohol can calm the nervous system. But it’s a poor long-term solution and the ultimate effects of medicating oneself with alcohol or illegal drugs aren’t worth it.
1. Start by simply recognizing it. Identify the source if you can, and the symptoms. How do you experience anxiety?
2. Normalize it: everyone experiences some level of anxiety. You’re not unusual. (This is a good place, though, to place the caveat that if your anxiety is extreme, causing you pain, creating panic attacks or otherwise severely limiting your life, see a professional. You may respond well to therapy and/or medications. When we’re caught up in anxiety spirals, it can be hard to pull ourselves out without the help of others.)
3. Take a breath. Seriously. Just take a breath. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to calm your overactive system—it will help lower your blood pressure and bring down the feelings of panic. Focusing on the sound of breathing in and out (even counting breaths—as in 4 on the inhale, 7 to hold, and 8 to exhale) helps to distract the ruminating mind. You can’t focus on all the chatter in your brain when you’re counting and holding breaths.
Victor Frankl once famously said, “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Breathing helps you create that space. It gives you a moment to pause and detach from whatever the source of stress is. You can then choose your response.
4. Try some bibliotherapy. That’s a fancy word for “read a book.” There are some excellent books which tackle anxiety from a variety of angles and will provide you with a depth of information this post cannot. Your local library is a great resource for checking them out.
Here are my current top 3 books for coping with anxiety:
1. Hardcore SelfHelp: F**k Anxiety by Robert Duff, Ph.D. As the author himself warns, the book is not for everyone—it contains language which is definitely for mature audiences. But, caveats aside, it is, in my opinion, a quick read and an extremely valuable guide to coping with anxiety. It made me laugh. And laughter is a great antidote for anxiety. I like Dr. Duff’s style: he doesn’t coat his advice in formal language or academic jargon. Since I can’t use his exact language in this post, I will paraphrase him by saying that he starts out by announcing that, in general, your brain is not always your friend. In fact, your brain is kind of a jerk at times. And so is your body. They tend to gang up against you when you experience anxiety. He goes on to provide lots of creative ideas and guidance for helping you cope with your anxiety. His advice is wonderful: one of my favorite lines from the book is, “Never WebMD yourself.” He’s got a point—in an effort to learn more on the Internet, we often learn too much and end up feeling worse.
2. Anxiety FREE: Unravel Your Fears Before They Unravel You by Dr. Robert Leary. Dr. Leary is clear that understanding anxiety will lead to overcoming it by reducing the symptoms, but not eliminating it. He breaks anxiety down into different types (PTSD, Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, etc.) and then provides specific remedies for each condition. One of his interesting insights is for chronic worriers. He asks, “What are you avoiding?” Quite often the source of our worries are either tasks or important conversations we have put off. He also points out the connection between anxiety and responsibility—so if you’re one of the “responsible” ones in your workplace, you might be more susceptible to anxiety.
3. When Panic Attacks by Dr. David Burns. A classic book which has been around for a while, When Panic Attacks provides a comprehensive explanation of cognitive behavioral therapy and its application to anxiety. While excellent for all types of anxiety, this book is particularly helpful for individuals who experience panic attacks or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Dr. Burns presents a practical system for working through your anxiety and identifying the thoughts which might be exacerbating it.
If none of this helps, definitely check with your Human Resources office at work. They often offer Employee Assistance Programs where you can meet with a counselor or therapist for free or a reduced cost.