When Ken, a 40-year-old marketing VP, was first promoted, he was elated. The climb up the corporate ladder had been less than easy, particularly in his field and in his particular organization, so it was a thrilling moment when he was given the elite position of vice president.
But only hours into his new duties, anxiety struck.
“I hadn’t realized how much went on at the top,” admits Ken, a father of three boys and an avid golfer. “I had (employee) grievances, complaints, daily 6:30 a.m. phone calls with the CEO. I had customers to talk to, competitors to deal with, a mountain of paperwork on my desk. It was like I hadn’t been at the company for 13 years – it felt all brand new.
“I started losing my breath that first day and thought to myself, ‘How the (expletive) did I ever get hired?’”
For Karen, a 52-year-old administrative assistant, her workplace anxiety was due to literally starting over – from the bottom. She’d been laid off from an organization that had downsized significantly, a company she had been with since she was 21 years old. With little education and no other work experience, she struggled to find a job elsewhere, and when she did, it was a position alongside folks who were the same age as her children, and some younger.
“Talk about feeling insignificant and small,” says Karen. “Everything made me nervous. These kids next to me are fast, tech-savvy, and talk in a language that makes my head spin. My boss is barely in her 30s. I don’t feel good coming to work because I just feel like a grandma.
“I’ve wanted to quit so often, but I need this job to get by. I have anxiety when I get up in the morning and just driving in to the office. I feel a bit of relief when I get home, but when I start getting ready for bed I know I won’t be able to sleep because when I get up, it’s just going to start all over again.”
You might recognize yourself in Ken’s story, or in Karen’s, or your situation may be entirely different. The truth is that anxiety in the workplace is more commonplace than you’d think. If you have anxiety about going to work, you’re not alone.
A 2006 study by the Anxiety Disorders Association of American revealed the following:
-- 72 % of people who experience stress and anxiety on a daily basis report that their lives are moderately affected by their anxiety symptoms
-- 40% of employees in the United States experience extreme or excessive stress and anxiety on a daily basis
-- 30% of employees experiencing some level of daily stress have or are taking prescription medication to manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety, including nervousness, insomnia or other disruptive, negative emotions
-- 28% of employees have experienced a panic or anxiety attack
-- 9% have been officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (It is estimated that there is a larger number of unreported, undiagnosed cases.)
Symptoms of anxiety at work include sleepless at night, unrealistic worries, jitteriness, fatigue or exhaustion, exaggerated reactions to small disturbances, stomach problems or headaches. You may feel sweaty, tremble often, or feel a pounding heart.
When your anxiety interferes with work, here are five strategies for managing stress in the workplace.
1. Go for a walk.
Physical exercise is one of the most positive, exhilarating and beneficial things you can do for yourself when experiencing anxiety (and even when you’re not!) To break up a long, monotonous or stressful day, it’s a good idea to go for a walk – anywhere, and for any acceptable period of time. Walking is the easiest form of exercise for most, because it doesn’t take any special equipment, it’s free, and it can be done anywhere.
a) Every hour, make it a point to get up from your desk and take a walk around the office or your workspace for a few minutes. Being purposely physically active for an hour a day (whether it’s an hour in one shot, or ten minutes every hour for six hours) will help you stretch your legs, improves your overall health and wellbeing, and according to the Journal of the American Heart Association, cuts your mortality risk in half!
b) Start a walking club. Find a colleague who can meet you on your lunch break, and take a walk around the block or a nearby park. It doesn’t have to be extremely brisk walking – it can be leisurely and slow. It’s a good time to decompress, talk through any issues you might be having at work, and gets you relaxed and pumped up at the same time for the rest of the day.
c) Park further away. Everyone always seems to compete for those super-close parking spots on the street or in the garage anyway. Park as high as you can if you park in a multi-tiered parking garage, or a few blocks away from your office.
d) Unplug while you walk. Whether you choose to walk at your lunch your break or just to take a breather at a random time throughout the day, don’t look at your phone and get away from your computer as far as you can. Be mindful of your surroundings and breathe in fresh air if you can.
Here's how exercise relieves anxiety.
2. Communication is key.
There is a reason talk therapy is so helpful. It’s because talking works.
Whether or not you are already seeing a helpful therapist, it’s always a good idea to build rapport with one or two trusted colleagues at work. Talk to your peers and strike up good, healthy conversations that you enjoy. This ensures that you build and create a positive atmosphere in the workplace.
While you can certainly confide in a trusted co-worker about your anxiety, you’re under no obligation to talk about your anxiety or stress with anyone at work. You can, however, share about the things you enjoy doing, what you have planned for the weekend, or anything positive you can think of. It’s also a great idea to get to know your colleagues this way; asking them about themselves and what they enjoy is kind, friendly and pleasant. Getting to know your coworkers on this level opens you up to possible new friendships, which will make going to work easier – and which will win you new confidantes to talk to should anxiety erupt at work.
When Karen started opening up at work, she was surprised to connect with people who she would never have guessed she would ever befriend.
“I was so caught up in their age and stage of life that I guess I just assumed they were either judging me or not noticing me,” says Karen with a laugh. “I guess I was the one being ageist!”
One of Karen’s co-workers, a 28-year-old mother named Ashley, shared a recipe with Karen one morning – and it was then that the two realized they shared a love for the kitchen. From their conversations about spices and quality beef cuts came deeper talks about marriage, children and life.
“I feel less isolated having one person to talk to,” says Karen. “I still have small panic attacks about where I am in my life, but at least when I’m at work, with Ashley’s friendship, it’s a little easier.”
3. Water is your friend.
You’ve probably heard it all before: water is the magic beverage. The benefits of water include:
-- Flushes your body of toxins
-- Boosts your immune system
-- Keeps your bowels regular
-- Improves your complexion
-- Increases your brain power
-- Gives you energy
-- Prevents or alleviates headaches
-- Prevents cramping
In addition to all of the above, water has also been called the “anxiety quencher.”
While many people turn to caffeinated beverages, like coffee, soda and certain teas, if you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, you should consider hiking up your water intake. Beverages that contain caffeine are known to actually increase anxiety. Drinks with high sugar levels cause dehydration, which causes your body to need even more water – and again, increases your anxiety.
When your body is hydrated, your symptoms of anxiety, stress and nervousness actually decrease. Dehydration causes our cells to feel it at the molecular level and the body considers it a threat to survival, which increases anxiety. By drinking at least eight glasses of water a day, the nerves are calmed and symptoms of stress and anxiety decrease.
Water isn’t a cure all for anxiety disorders, but it’s certainly helpful. You can keep a 32oz (4 cup) bottle of water at your desk, or an 8oz (1 cup) glass – but no matter the size, make sure you get up, get moving and refill it.
Here are some more dietary tips that will help to control your anxiety.
4. Practice deep breathing.
Did you know that we take about 20,000 breaths a day? When we’re first born, we take about 30 to 60 breaths a minute, but as we get older, that number reduces to about 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
When we breath correctly, we’re supplying our bodies with the right amount of oxygen. This means our brains and other vital organs are getting the nutrients they need to function properly and well.
When we’re babies, we breathe from the belly. When we get older, and start experiencing stress, we take on the “fight or flight” instinct, which makes us take short, shallow breaths – a primitive way of preparing for danger. Breathing this way for a prolonged period of time means we reduce our productivity and generally don’t function very well. And for some of us, that means our stress and anxiety levels go skyrocketing.
Fortunately, like walking, breathing is an easy, free and powerful way to decrease symptoms of stress at work.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a sleep expert and holistic health specialist, developed a breathing method called 4-7-8, which calms the mind while also relaxing the muscles.
1. Breathe in through the nose and count to four. Feel your belly rising up and down as your breathe.
2. Hold that breath for seven seconds.
3. Blow out through the mouth, slowly counting to eight. Try putting your tongue behind your bottom teeth, and make a whooshing sound as you breathe out.
Any time you start to feel symptoms of anxiety at work, practice this deep breathing exercise at your desk or your work station. This will slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, which will help your stress symptoms decrease.
Ken says that out of all the strategies introduced to him to decrease his anxiety, meditation has been the most helpful.
“I can close my door for a few minutes and re-center myself when I get really anxious,” says Ken. “It’s a way for me to get back my focus and feel more composed.”
Meditation at work is growing in popularity because it can be practiced anywhere, discreetly and effectively. When you’re starting to feel symptoms of anxiety at work, there are a few things you can do to practice mindfulness and meditation to help you feel calmer and refreshed.
a. Count your breaths. Similar to breathing exercises, counting your breaths helps you make more conscious of how you’re breathing. Count your breaths to 10 and then start over.
b. Be conscious of where you are and what’s around you. Sit in a chair, back straight, feet planted firmly on the ground. Be aware of the feeling beneath your feet, the backs of your thighs on the chair, your back against the seat. Pretend as if a scanner is going up and down your body, paying close attention to the places where you feel tension. In those areas, let yourself relax and notice how each body part is starting to feel relief.
c. Select a mantra that makes you feel good. It can be something as simple as “I am ready.” Repeat it over and over, synchronizing each breath with a word (i.e. Breathe in when you say “I,” out when you say “am,” and breathe in when you say “ready.”)
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety at work and need more guidance, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.