Updated: Mar 18, 2019
Having to manage social anxiety when you’re at work can feel pretty awful.
Everyday activities that seem to be no problem for other people can lead to a range of feelings like dread, fear, embarrassment and “less than impressive” work habits such as missing deadlines, avoiding people and situations.
These feelings may lead to physical symptoms including sweating, headaches, migraines, stomach problems, back, neck and shoulder pain.
When it comes to dealing with situations at work that make you anxious, a natural reaction is to try and avoid them.
Obviously, this isn’t always possible when you’re in the workforce, and if you’ve ever looked in to what works and doesn’t work for anxiety, you’ll know that avoidance really doesn’t help.
Good relationships with bosses, managers, co-workers and colleagues can help to minimize the stress and anxiety that comes as a normal and natural part of being at work.
However, for someone struggling with social anxiety, this process is easily high-jacked and the normal socializing that’s there to help as a stress relief only increases it!
Think about how this builds up: when we are affected by social anxiety, the positive factors that come with relationships within the workplace actually turn against you; the stress-relief that comes from a social exchange is thwarted by the fear and anxiety that comes from the very exchange itself!
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4 Ways How Social Anxiety Affects Work
The “Clark and Wells”[i] model of social anxiety looks at four different ways that someone with this type of anxiety finds it a struggle to interact with others in the workplace.
1. In a social situation, the sufferer concerns themselves with attention to detailed monitoring and observations of themselves.
This produces a heightened awareness of the frightening anxiety response as well as producing a self-constructed negative image of the situation.
2. This detailed monitoring distorts situations and doesn’t allow for the anxiety sufferer to correctly process other people’s behavior. This leads to the sufferer doing whatever it takes to reduce the risk of being rejected.
3. The sufferer then overestimates how negatively other people in the situation are evaluating their “performance”.
4. Perceived failures will be brought to mind and negatively distort the current situation. In other words, and for the sake of an example, imagine all of these things happening while trying to do a job, interact with clients, customers or patients, speaking with the boss or co-workers. Normal functions become severely curtailed.
Social anxiety is like a type of gathering and saving up of emotional energy then storing it for later use. The continual reduction of emotional resources in dealing with social anxiety leaves little left for work-related stress management.
Trying to constantly refill the emotional energy that’s been left bare by the hyper-vigilance in social situations, including minutely watching other’s perceived reactions to the sufferer’s actions, is a dangerous mix of anxiety and stress that leads to a burnout.
The reality is that all jobs are likely to include some parts that make us feel uncomfortable, whether we have anxiety or not. So, it’s important to find and practice strategies that help us manage the anxiety in order to get through the day.
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My Nine Strategies To Manage How Social Anxiety Affects Work
1. Self Care
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and engaging in social activities outside of work, then your odds for decreasing workplace anxiety are much greater.
2. Ask For Help
Ask people for help because it’s too easy to say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ or you don’t understand how to do something. Yes, it might feel uncomfortable to begin with but that feeling will pass and it also shows your boss that you genuinely care about doing a good job.
3. Don’t Catastrophize
Use neutral and calming language as this can help bring down everyone’s anxiety at work. Catastrophizing increases anxiety. This is when is when we always predict a negative outcome and then jump to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.
Disagreements are more manageable when you begin a statement with, “Here’s what I’m thinking,” and end it with, “What are you thinking?” This lets people feel like they have input and makes them more likely to hear what you’re saying. Questions like, “What could we each do about this issue?” or “How could we prevent this from coming up in the future?” are also great for problem solving.
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4. Get To Know Everyone’s Name
Get to know everyone’s name because it makes it easier to address problems with the original individual rather than gossiping or venting to others. Photocopier gossip doesn’t work when you suffer from social anxiety.
This starts by knowing people’s names and their responsibilities. If you forget a person’s name, don’t be embarrassed to ask again. It’s never too late to start building stronger relationships at the office.
5. Focus on the Facts - Especially In A Conflict
Your emotions can feel pulled in many different directions when you feel overloaded. The best way to lower anxiety is to control the conversation and what’s communicated. Try to say what specifically is causing your anxiety and ask other people share their views.
For example, “I don’t like the way I’m asked to attend a staff meeting at short notice because I like to be well prepared for all my meetings. Does anyone else have that?” Then give suggestions on how to resolve the problem remembering to Focus on the facts of the situation, and stay in the present.
It will be tempting to pull out your resentments from the past 5 years when you feel reactive, but that won’t help your anxiety and lowering anxiety is not about winning. It’s about resolving.
Try to avoid emotionally charged exaggerations that use words like “always” or “never.” Begin your sentences with “I” statements, because “You” sounds accusing. If you’re concerned about a bad reaction from a colleague, then have that conversation in front of someone else you trust
6. Open Up
Exposing the way you’re feeling can often be one of the most terrifying prospects for people with social anxiety, but the more you do it, the less power you give it.
The more you talk about having social anxiety – albeit with people with whom you feel safe and not judged - the more you might realize that it isn’t as big a deal as you’ve built it up to be in your head.
Sometimes, and I would be cautious about who you talk to, telling people you work with about how your anxiety affects you not only takes power away from the feelings and thoughts, it may also increase confidence. However, it’s vital to talk to people who are not judgmental.
7. Practice Makes Perfect
In the same way, exposing yourself to the parts of your job that cause you the most anxiety is awkward, scary and uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the better you will feel about it.
One of the greatest triggers of my social anxiety at work was my weekly meeting with my boss. Why?
My boss had very high expectation of me and, consequently, I had high expectations of myself, which made my anxiety go sky high each time we had a meeting.
I was worried that she would think I’d messed up and I wouldn’t meet any of her expectations. And then I’d get fired. This thinking was contrary to the facts. Those facts were that I was doing a good job. A great job in fact!
The only way I could decrease my levels of anxiety was to keep showing up to the weekly meeting, week in – week out, until I heard that I was doing OK. This took a year but something told me to keep going and the positive feedback gradually eroded the anxiety that I wasn’t performing as I should.
My confidence in my capabilities grew until it pushed aside enough of the anxiety to allow me to do a good job.
Practice did make perfect.
8. Practice Time Management
Make to-do lists and prioritize your work. Schedule enough time to complete each task or project. Plan and prepare jobs ahead of time and set little deadlines. Anticipating problems and working to prevent them really helps manage the anxiety. Also, spend the extra time at the outset and save yourself a headache later when you have to redo your work.
Sometimes, it can even be advantageous to write a script to help you make challenging phone calls or run difficult meetings. When your anxiety has been so bad that you forget what to say on the phone or with customers etc., following a script can be helpful and create a useful safety valve. By running through the script ahead of time, it helps your confidence.
9. Practice Mindfulness
The way social anxiety affects work is when people wind themselves up about the things that make them anxious to the point that there’s no way they can carry out the tasks!!
To get into a more positive, calm mindset, there are some mindfulness exercises that can help. Deep breathing, focusing the attention on touch or sound and envisioning positive outcomes of the task at hand are some examples.
Here’s a link to a free audio download based on mindful thinking that will help you to manage high anxiety on the job: Emergency Audio For Panic Attacks
Just because there are times when our anxiety will make us feel like we can’t do our job, it doesn’t mean we’re not capable. It just means we need to spend a bit more time to find out how to actually do the things we are anxious about.
These eight strategies helped me slowly become more comfortable and confident with the tasks that make me anxious at work (although I still have a long way to go), and I really hope they help you too.
But, just as with any health issue, if you haven’t talked to anyone about your anxiety yet or feel like it is becoming overwhelming and hard to manage, reach out to a professional for advice on how to manage your own specific anxieties.
Everyone is different.
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***Please remember I am not a doctor. Always get professional help if you suffer from social anxiety.