13 MIN READ
Dealing With Anxiety
Coping With Stress and Worry
Imagine that you've been asked to give a presentation to your organization's board.
Although the meeting is a week away, you're already filled with a profound feeling of dread. All you can think about is how you'll make a mistake and ruin your career.
Because of your anxiety, you're having trouble sleeping, you feel nauseous, and you think you had a mild panic attack a couple of days ago. You're not sure how you're going to get through your presentation without crumbling.
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The World Health Organization estimates that 3.6 percent of the world's population suffers from an anxiety disorder every year.
If you suffer from occasional or severe anxiety, you'll know how hard it can be to work productively with this condition. In this article, we'll look at what anxiety is and we'll explore how you can cope with it.
Anxiety can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these anxiety management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing anxiety, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over anxiety-related illnesses or if anxiety is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
What Is Anxiety?
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines anxiety as a “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.” While everyone experiences anxiety occasionally, it becomes a disorder when the problem occurs regularly and begins to interfere with your life, your work, and your relationships.
Symptoms of Anxiety
The feeling of anxiety is directly related to your fight-or-flight response. That is, you experience anxiety and its effects when you believe that you're in danger. Your body may go through many sudden changes during an anxiety attack, because it's preparing to survive a perceived threat.
While each person experiences anxiety differently, several common changes often occur. For example, your heart rate might increase, giving your muscles fresh blood to run or fight. Your breathing may become rapid, so that your heart has enough oxygen to pump at this faster rate. Your increased heart rate may cause you to feel hot, and you may then sweat to cool off.
Your muscles are now flooded with energy, so they're tensed and ready for whatever is coming. However, the blood that normally supplies your stomach is now redirected to your muscles – which means that you feel as if your stomach is churning. And the reduced flow of blood to your brain leaves you feeling light-headed and dizzy.
By the time the “threat” has passed, chances are you're hot, sweaty, exhausted, and trembling.
Anxiety and Performance
Scientists have long studied the relationship between anxiety and performance, and the results are mixed.
One study examined the effects of anxiety on musical performance, and found no difference in the quality of the performance of high-anxiety individuals, compared with those who experienced less anxiety. Another study, which looked at how anxiety affected the performance of swimmers, found that some types of anxiety enhanced performance, while other types diminished it.
The Inverted-U Model shows how mild pressure, up to a certain point, can enhance performance. You can use your awareness of its principles to manage your own pressure at work.
However, it's important to remember that there's a significant difference between occasional anxiety and anxiety disorder. The former is normal and can be healthy, while the latter is damaging.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety is an umbrella term – there are many different types of anxiety disorders, all with different definitions and symptoms. Some of these include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – If you've experienced anxiety regularly for six months or more, you may have generalized anxiety disorder. You consistently expect the worst to happen, even when there is little or no reason for your concern. You might also be worried about money, family, work, or health.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – If you have obsessive thoughts that you can't let go, you may suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. These thoughts compel you to perform certain behaviors or routines, sometimes lasting for hours, to ease your anxiety. These routines might include hand washing, counting, or checking and double-checking things (such as locks).
Panic Disorder – You might have a panic disorder if you experience panic attacks (also called anxiety attacks) that seem to come from nowhere, and can last for several minutes.
Panic attacks involve at least four of the following symptoms: a sense of doom or danger or a feeling that you can't escape; sweating; shakiness; a fear of death or dying; chest pain; shortness of breath; heart palpitations; a feeling of choking, losing control, or “going crazy”; tingling sensations; dizziness or light-headedness; nausea.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – PTSD is a serious condition that commonly occurs when you've witnessed or experienced a disaster or traumatic event, or you've been in a situation where your life or health was threatened. There are many symptoms and side effects of PTSD, and, if left untreated, this condition can be life-threatening.
Social Anxiety Disorder – Social anxiety is an extreme fear or concern of being judged by others, of performing, or of embarrassing yourself. Many people suffering from social anxiety disorder have few, if any, close relationships, and feel powerless to stop their anxiety in social situations.
Social anxiety is not the same as extreme shyness – rather, it's a disabling condition that affects a small minority of individuals.
- Specific Phobias – Suffering from a phobia is also a form of anxiety disorder. You have a phobia when you're excessively frightened or anxious about a specific object, place or situation, and you go out of your way to avoid it. For example, you might be extremely afraid of heights, germs, enclosed spaces, animals, flying, driving, or public spaces.
Anxiety has also been linked to many other conditions, such as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, headaches, depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse, adult ADHD, and chronic pain, to name a few.
Anxiety is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It's a treatable condition that anyone can experience.
Coping With Anxiety
From this point onward, this article discusses approaches for dealing with mild anxiety in the workplace. For PTSD, for more intense anxiety, or if you're experiencing serious or persistent unhappiness, please consult an appropriately qualified medical practitioner.
You can do several things to manage workplace anxiety successfully.
The exact causes of anxiety disorders are unknown. Genes do play a part in developing an anxiety disorder, but stress, especially if long-term, is thought to be a common cause. This is why it's so useful to learn how to manage stress to prevent or combat these conditions.
First, explore the long-term stress you're experiencing with the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. This interactive quiz can give you important insights into the sources of stress in your life.
If you're not sure what's causing your anxiety, start keeping a stress diary. Every day, write down the stresses that you experience, and record any anxious thoughts that you have. After a few days, analyze your diary and explore possible causes and triggers. Once you've identified these, you can take action to deal with them.
Studies show that regular exercise can help reduce anxiety and build your tolerance for stress. Exercise also offers many other benefits, such as better health, a greater sense of well-being and happiness, increased focus and productivity, better sleep, and weight loss.
You can fit exercise into your day in many ways, and even small amounts of exercise will lessen feelings of stress. Wake up earlier in the morning to go to the gym, or take a walk during your lunch break. Standing is also a form of exercise; consider switching to a standing desk, or standing while you're on the phone.
Yoga can be especially beneficial for helping reduce the occurrence of anxiety, since it helps to slow and focus your breathing, and works your entire body.
You can use deep breathing exercises to control your stress and anxiety when at work.
Deep breathing is especially effective for managing short-term anxiety. For example, if you begin to feel anxious, take 10 or 20 slow, deep breaths to calm down. Breathe in as deeply as you can, hold the air in your lungs for several seconds, and let each breath out slowly.
Watch What You Eat
You can lessen the number of anxiety attacks, or the severity of your symptoms, by avoiding certain foods and drinks. For example, reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate.
It's also important to avoid certain over-the-counter medications; some products contain chemicals that can worsen anxiety. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out more about which products you should avoid, and which products you should use instead (if any).
Watching what you eat also means eating a healthy, balanced diet and not skipping meals. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and keep several healthy snacks with you at work.
Often, anxious episodes are preceded by self-sabotaging thoughts or behaviors. This is why learning how to think positively is so important – by doing this you can begin to combat your negative thoughts.
For example, imagine that you're feeling particularly anxious about speaking in front of your team in a meeting. You're thinking, “Everyone is going to think that I'm ridiculous, and that my ideas are worthless.” This is what self-sabotage looks like; unless you act to overcome this negative thinking, your anxiety could worsen into a full-blown panic attack.
As soon as you start to notice that you're thinking negatively, write down all of your negative thoughts. Then, note down the exact opposites of these negative thoughts. Continuing the example above, you could write, “My ideas are valuable, and the team will be excited to hear what I have to say.”
As you write out these positive affirmations, start to visualize how these thoughts or scenes will play out. "See" yourself being excited about your ideas, and feeling good about sharing them with the group. "Notice" the interested faces of your team members. The more that you can visualize these positive images, the more your body will relax and respond.
You can also use meditation to relax and start thinking positively. Meditation can increase your self-awareness and give you insights into why you're experiencing anxiety. It's also incredibly effective for combating stress.
Improve Time Management Skills
Poor time management can be a serious source of stress and anxiety for some people. If this is the case with you, then you'll benefit from learning good time management skills.
Make sure that you manage your daily tasks and responsibilities effectively. Consider using a simple time management technique, such as use of To-Do Lists, or explore using more in-depth tools, such as Action Programs. Both of these can help you to stay on top of your tasks.
Next, make sure that you schedule tasks according to your best time of day. It's easy to waste time by working on difficult tasks when your energy is lowest. You'll be far more productive if you work on your most challenging tasks when you're feeling focused and energetic.
For more on managing anxiety, visit The Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.
Anxiety is the persistent, unreasonable worry about everyday things. While some anxiety is healthy and can actually improve performance, severe anxiety can damage your health and wellbeing.
You can do several things to cope with low-level anxiety in the workplace: learn how to manage stress, get more exercise, eat a healthy diet, think positively, and improve your time management skills.
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