6 Ways to Deal with Anxiety as a Professional

Written by: Janesse Leung

You are probably reading this article because you see signs of anxiety in your own behaviour at work or in your personal life. Maybe you notice them in both. Many of us are looking for straightforward, effective ways of dealing with anxiety without medication. If you feel tired and heavy-hearted or find yourself losing interest in things you used to enjoy, consider whether you’re dealing with anxiety and depression. In addition to the pressures of daily life, holiday parties and dinners, presentations, important meetings may have you asking questions about how to deal with social anxiety in the context of your work.

This article will share suggestions that have made a difference for other professionals dealing with workplace anxiety. Admitting you are having problems with anxiety takes honesty and critical thinking. You can view this stage as an accomplishment instead of a weakness. The first step toward adopting tools and changes that will make things better is realizing that anxiety gets in your way. You can reduce anxiety’s negative impacts in your work, social and personal spheres and improve your quality of life with effort and patience.

Why Does Work Make Us Anxious?

The mental and physical effects of anxiety play a role in human survival. Although anxiety can be an unpleasant experience, its effects can be useful in an emergency. A rapidly pounding heart sends more blood to the muscles to help you fight or flee from a threat. Sweating keeps us from overheating, and faster breathing delivers more oxygen. These signs of anxiety give us a useful edge when facing a physical threat requiring strength, speed and the ability to focus on danger. Unfortunately, sweatiness and a pounding heart are much less useful in a meeting or interview.

Work is an important part of our identity and finances, and anything that feels important can trigger an anxiety response. Because we often think being “professional” means not feeling anxiety, we can start to view the physical signs of anxiety as a new threat—which only makes us more anxious!

Rest assured that anxiety is normal when the stakes feel high, and other professionals do feel it.  Strategies for dealing with workplace anxiety include ways to prevent stress, ways to address some of the existing causes and tactics for managing you stress response when it arises.

1. Head off Anxiety by Being Prepared

Time crunches fuel anxiety and makes it difficult to think clearly. If you have the capacity to control some of your workload, set some time aside when you’re not under a deadline to set priorities. Review timelines to make sure you have time and resources to complete upcoming work. Plan so that you can communicate potential time pressures to managers in advance.

Within your daily workflow, start major projects as early as possible. Setting mini-deadlines for yourself can also help you accomplish larger tasks without feeling overwhelmed.

If you find planning difficult, ask your coworkers to share their strategies. Consider discussing your work plan with a manager who will appreciate your proactive efforts to make sure your work is organized in advance.   

2. Communicate the Issues

Some of the most common causes of stress include pressure to produce results, unsupportive managers and workplace violence and harassment. Communicating strategically means taking a step back to look at these and other causes of stress and planning what you can say to individuals with the ability to help address each issue. Even if your job has multiple sources of stress, reducing one will help lessen your overall burden of anxiety.

If time pressure is a factor, take a proactive, realistic look at your workload and the time available. Addressing time pressures well in advance is most effective. Explain your calculations of how much time each task will take, pointing out possible issues that will affect your team’s results. If you are subject to urgent, last-minute requests, you may suggest that flexible tasks which can be set aside in emergencies be built into the schedule. Approach the discussion, keeping in mind that you are providing a service by heading off potential problems in advance.

3. Protect Yourself by Setting Boundariesprofessional-anxiety

Be realistic. Don’t agree to take on projects if you don’t realistically have enough time. Stay organized. Filing and clearing disorganized areas such as your desk, email inbox or files may rank low on your priority list, but they can save time in the long run and may prevent a crisis later. Set boundaries. Try not to bring work home with you. Don’t check your work e-mail or voice mail after hours.

4. Get Physical

If you have limited ability to change stressful work conditions, you can strengthen your ability to deal with the stress of work by forming habits to take care of your body. Take your scheduled breaks, using the time to eat or exercise. If possible, add a 20-30 minute brisk walk to your daily routine, even if this habit initially feels unfamiliar or difficult. The combination of light exercise, sunlight and deep breathing gives your system its best chance to release stress and recharge. You may also find your sleep improves.

Eat regularly and make healthy choices. Limit caffeine and alcohol. Challenging work situations place ongoing demands on your body. Taking care of your health is a way to place yourself in the best state to manage anxiety.

Make an honest assessment of risky ways of dealing with stress, such as smoking or drinking too much. These coping mechanisms may negatively impact your immediate health and increase your risk of illness.

5. Ask For and Accept Help

You may make the decision to tell your employer you are dealing with an anxiety disorder. Notifying your employer may allow you to access accommodations you may not receive without specifying the reason.

Whether or not you disclose your anxiety, look into employer resources and benefits that may help. Your workplace may offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or fitness benefits. Skill-building training in planning or time management might help you manage your workload. Learn what resources are available and take advantage.

If you decide not to disclose your anxiety to your employer, you may still want to confide in a trusted coworker that you experience anxiety at work. If people in similar roles face the same kinds of pressures, you could examine potential solutions as a group. Just knowing that someone is aware that you are struggling can also be comforting. 

Moving Forward with Work Anxiety

Here’s a brief exercise you can repeat when anxiety threatens to overwhelm you at work:

Take a long, slow breath. Pause. Breathe out slowly. Pause. Repeat. Slow breaths help reduce the shaky feelings that come with anxiety. Deep breaths tell your nervous system it’s okay to slow down.

Next, narrow your focus to what’s right in front of you—the feeling of your breath, the pencil on the desk in front of you, the feeling of your feet in your shoes, the air on your face. Taking stock of the experience of your senses is a way to guide a fearful, racing mind back to the present.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, keep in mind that you don’t have to face the challenges of work anxiety alone. A therapist, psychologist or medical doctor can offer skilled professional help. Talk to a professional especially if anxiety causes you difficulties eating, sleeping or functioning in daily life. Rest assured that other professionals also face anxiety and that work anxiety can be resolved in ways that leave you more able to manage your job and your life.

Edited by: Mayte Parada, Ph.D. Psychology. Montreal Therapy Centre.