Dealing With Anxiety at Work: Tips, Resources, and Coping Strategies
Everyday stress is to be expected at work. Perhaps you’ve got deadlines looming, a long to-do list, and your manager just asked you to shift your priorities on a project. Stress is almost inevitable within the office.
In some ways, stress might manifest into anxiety. What if the client is unhappy with your proposal for a project? What if your manager fires you because you missed a meeting? These sorts of thoughts can certainly throw you off your groove, and can be detrimental to your work.
However, if you deal with a legitimate anxiety disorder, these racing thoughts and worries can be more than detrimental: they can even manifest into a fully debilitating condition that affects you both at home and in the office. Consistent negative thoughts, worry, and stress can cause serious harm to the body physically, and can certainly get in the way of you being a more productive worker.
If you believe you have an anxiety disorder, what should you do to cope while in the office? What protections do you have, and should you notify your manager or direct supervisor of your condition?
It can be intimidating and unnerving to bring attention to a mental health condition, but that doesn’t mean your health condition is any less legitimate. Let’s look at what an anxiety disorder entails, how you can manage it in the workplace, and what rights you have as an employee in America.
How to Deal With Anxiety at Work
Anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways, and every person who struggles with anxious thoughts will have different experiences or treatments that work. Sometimes anxiety is more situational, and simply getting through a specific scenario — like public speaking, or even interviewing — is your biggest hurdle. However, there are some tried-and-true methods for dealing with anxiety at work that can help you cope.
If you feel that work is your main source of anxiety or stress, consider these options to help you manage your anxiety disorder while in the office:
- Discover what triggers your anxiety: Anxiety can come in many forms, but often times there is an activity or thought process that will activate the anxious thoughts. You will want to figure out what that activity is so you can either avoid it, or use alternative methods to make the impact of that event less severe. It could be that meetings get you nervous, and so you need to spend extra time preparing for them so you can enter the meeting more relaxed. Perhaps you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone, but can practice breathing exercises to help you stay calm. Maybe working with different personalities is difficult for you, but you can find ways to work better with those you have trouble relating to. It could even be a low salary that triggers your anxiety, like many people might experience working for minimum wage. This important first step in dealing with anxiety in the office was offered by Muse contributor Melody Wilding, and she suggests: “Keep a journal to document your observations and look for patterns. When you know what makes you the most uneasy, you can better anticipate challenges and create a plan to deal with triggers.”
- Practice or improve your time management: Time (or lack of it) are common triggers in the office. Feeling rushed or feeling behind can escalate your anxiety, making you more irritable, less focused, and panicked. However, if you work on improving your time management skills, you might be able to help manage some of your work anxiety. Try creating to-do lists that help you manage your daily tasks. Prioritize your work, and be conscious of how much time it might take to complete a task. If you can give yourself extra time, you might find that you’re better able to complete projects and won’t feel as stressed when you’re done.
- Plan and prepare your work: Similar to practicing better time management skills, planning out your work in advance can sometimes help you better manage your anxiety. If you can get started on a project as early as possible — or just avoid procrastination in general — you might find that your anxiety is less severe than if you had waiting to get started. Additionally, setting micro-goals (small, achievable tasks) can help you feel less overwhelmed by big projects. Again, the more time you grant yourself to do your work, the less anxious you’ll be.
- Discover a grounding technique that works for you: Grounding techniques are activities that help you calm your nerves and refocus on your work if you’re overwhelmed and anxious. Some common grounding techniques include: breathing exercises, taking a walk, stretching / yoga, or speaking with a friend that can help you calm down and have a laugh. If you find that certain activities at work make you more anxious (such as meetings, phone calls with clients, or presentations), try practicing a grounding technique before and after that activity to help calm your nerves.
- Stay organized: Organizing your desk or clearing it of unnecessary clutter can help some people better manage their anxiety. If you’re the sort of person that functions best with “organized chaos,” then try throwing away trash and cleaning up your space just a little to see if it helps.
- Take breaks and plan a vacation: Throughout your day, take advantage of regular breaks. Go for a walk. Do some stretches. Grab some water or a snack in the cafeteria. Sometimes just small breaks throughout the day can make a big difference in how you handle your stress or anxiety. It gives you the opportunity to focus on something less stressful, and invites opportunities for self-care. Additionally, do your best to take advantage of a vacation. Your mind and body will appreciate the chance to really relax away from the office.
- Be conscious of your food and liquid intake: Healthy eating and drinking habits can help your body better manage anxious thoughts. Research has led many professionals to believe that your body’s gut bacteria can have a major effect on your brain chemistry, and treating your gut bacteria to healthy food can in turn balance out your mind. It can be intimidating to start if this requires a major lifestyle change, but treating your body well is important for overall health and happiness. Unfortunately, coffee might be fuel for your morning, but it can also be fuel for your anxiety. Try cutting back on coffee and alcohol, drinking more water, and avoiding foods or drinks that make you feel bloated, tired, or unhappy.
- Ask for help and communicate your needs: Deciding to disclose your condition to a boss, coworker, or manager is a personal decision. If you feel that they will be supportive of you, then feel free to fill them in and let them know what you need to help you better manage your anxiety. Perhaps your anxiety is activated by getting last-minute assignments; you can ask your manager to be more considerate of your anxiety by planning ahead or notifying your of projects earlier so you have more time to prepare. However, if you feel that your office culture is not accepting of mental health struggles, then feel free to manage your anxiety by yourself. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and disclosing your condition can be harmful if you are not surrounded by supportive and understanding individuals. However, if you need reasonable accommodation from your employer to help manage your condition, then you will first need to disclose your condition to human resources (HR) or your manager. There is more information on your rights as an employee in the next section.
- Seek out professional help: Again, if you find your anxiety is far too overwhelming to combat by yourself, do not hesitate to seek out aid from a physician, therapist, or psychiatrist. They can help you identify your triggers, find healthy ways to cope, and even prescribe medications that help rebalance your brain chemistry, if needed. Since every brain and body is different, finding a medication that works for you can be difficult. There are some medical analysis tests you can take — such as the GeneSight cheek-swab DNA test — that can help you narrow down your medication options. Chronic anxiety, just like any other physical ailment, can benefit greatly from medicinal treatment. If you’re unable to obtain health insurance coverage for professional help, try searching for low-cost or free mental health clinics in your area.
Workplace Anxiety Disorder
Although stress might be expected in the workplace, having a legitimate anxiety disorder can be difficult when you’re a full-time employee.
Anxiety disorders are often categorized as having severe and recurrent irrational thoughts that are overwhelming and might even get in the way of your daily activities. In the workplace, this can mean you have a difficult time making deadlines, might avoid social outings with your coworkers, and it may even hinder your participation in meetings or when giving presentations.
If you find that any of this related to you, your first step should be to meet with a doctor or a mental health counselor to discuss your condition and possibly receive an official diagnosis. You can also take some online tests to determine your level of anxiety (from mild to severe), but it is always best to speak with a physician to determine your condition. Here are some free online tests you can take to better understand your level of anxiety:
- Psychology Today — Anxiety Test
- Anxiety Centre — Anxiety, Stress, and Related Conditions Tests
- Calm Clinic — Anxiety Test
- ADAA — Screening for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Anxiety disorders should not be ignored, as that can often make the irrational thoughts more severe, which can inturn devolve into a full panic attack. Additionally, trying to force yourself to not be anxious can backfire. Invalidating your condition, ignoring it, or fighting it (without the guided help of a professional) can all lead to more severe mental and physical symptoms and potentially more interference with your day-to-day life.
Instead, you should try to take active measures to decrease your worrying thoughts and strong emotions. Learning more about anxiety conditions can help, but if you find that you have a hard time controlling your emotions, then you should seek out more permanent treatment options.
These options traditionally include:
- Medication (as guided by a physician or psychiatrist)
- Alternative forms of treatment:
- Breathing exercises
- New Age therapy, etc.
For further reading about anxiety disorders, check out these websites and resources, and speak with a physician about your concerns:
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
- Psychology Today
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- Mental Health America — Anxiety Screening (also available in Spanish)
- Medline Plus (a health information website created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Workplace Accommodations for Anxiety and Depression
According to the ADAA, nearly 18.1 percent (about 40 million) of all adults in the United States experience anxiety disorders at some point in their lives. It is also very common for many sufferers of anxiety to also experience depression, or vice-versa.
Unfortunately, many Americans also do not seek out treatment for anxiety or depression — only about 36.9 percent of those who suffer seek out medical help. Luckily, much of that is changing due to the shifting cultural stigmas around mental illness. Slowly but surely, this all-too-common condition is being taken more seriously in our culture, which in turn can improve access to health services and can eventually bleed into how these conditions are handled in the office.
In our modern day, many offices are starting to take mental health more seriously than in the past. These offices are now increasing certain perks, such as onsite yoga classes, improved snack and beverage options, and encouraging employees to seek out a better work-life balance. This not only benefits employees that suffer from mental illness, but can also help all employees improve and better their personal lifestyle.
Chronic anxiety and diagnosed depression can both get in the way of your daily activities and your productivity as a worker. Because of this, severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can be categorized as a disability by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This means that you have rights to reasonable accommodation as an employee that are laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You are also protected against discrimination based on any medical conditions or disabilities, including mental illness, depression, or anxiety disorders.
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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth
This post was updated November 12, 2019. It was originally published April 27, 2018.