How to Manage Anxiety, Fear, and Stress in the Workplace
Each has its own unique challenges and opportunities.
Posted April 8, 2018
Anxiety, fear and stress. These words are often used interchangeably, but in my experience working with clients in leadership roles they are three distinct experiences, each with their own challenges and opportunities.
In this article, I highlight the differences between anxiety, fear and stress, showing how to manage each so you can perform at your best.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is neither an emotion nor a thought, but rather an experience that impacts one’s entire being.
It is an existential threat, where your identity is under attack. This could be a surface identity (‘I am competent’), or a deep identity (‘I am alive’).
Anxiety has a disorienting, overwhelming quality, a sense of being out of control and paralyzed at the same time.
The experience of anxiety is almost unavoidable in today’s world, with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) presenting new threats to one’s identity on an almost daily basis. While we cannot avoid these threats, we do have some control over how we respond to them.
Many people’s default strategy is to escape anxiety as quickly as possible, often through drugs and alcohol. But ultimately this just makes things worse, cutting us off from real solutions to the threats surrounding us.
Far better to move toward rather than away from anxiety, using meditation, journaling, or other insight practices to get to know our anxieties better. This in turn enables us to make sense of the very real threats we face so we can develop creative solutions that serve us well over the long term.
What is Fear?
If anxiety is a disorienting experience in the face of nameless, faceless threats to our identity that we do not fully understand and are barely even aware of, fear is an emotional response to a threat that we are aware of and do understand.
Public speaking is the paradigm example of a fear-inducing activity. In preparing to speak in public, I am aware of impending threats – the audience may find me boring, silly or stupid, and may laugh at me, instead of with me. These fears may become crippling if I spend too much time thinking about them, but they are not inherently destabilizing. For each one I can take productive action. I can hire a coach to work on my presentation skills, I can practice my jokes in advance. The solutions to the threats envisioned are available to me, with very little creativity. All I really need to stave off these threats is awareness of the possible dangers, and a strategy for addressing them.
Fear is thus easier to overcome than anxiety, as it depends more on will than on creativity. I have to want to do a good job, and I have to do what is necessary to do a good job. But the problems I am looking to solve have available solutions. I just need to access them.
What is Stress?
If fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat, stress is an instinctual response to an imminent danger. We fear public speaking; we are stressed when we speak in public.
Our ancestors were far more likely to survive if they could perceive imminent threats and respond quickly and effectively to them. We modern humans have consequently inherited a highly developed stress response, even though we don’t face imminent physical threats nearly as often as our ancestors.
Often our stress response kicks in when it’s not really needed. The sweaty palms of a nervous public speaker cause more problems than they solve. But our sympathetic nervous system has evolved, over millennia, to do just that.
Although we can’t fight our bodies’ instinctual responses to threatening situations, we can interpret those experiences differently. If we hate our sweaty palms, interpreting them as a sign of weakness, we will likely become more stressed. If, on the other hand, we accept sweaty palms as natural and inevitable, we will likely become less stressed. We may even come to interpret sweaty palms as evidence of excitement, more than stress, as the same bodily symptoms can be attributed to different emotional prompts.
Anxiety, fear and stress are all inevitable in the modern-day workplace. Finding healthy ways of responding to each is key to furthering your career and the success of the organization as a whole.
In an ideal world, anxiety leads to creative solutions that result in a plan. The fear aroused at the prospect of executing a plan is overcome by will, leading to action. And the stress that accompanies action is mitigated by body awareness, resulting in high performance.
In all three cases, daily calming exercises, including meditation, journaling, reflection and connected conversation, are key.