Updated: Jun 6
Telling yourself to stop being anxious at work when you're feeling anxious at work is a bit like telling yourself to fall asleep when you have insomnia — it doesn't work. So what does?
Here I share some practical advice about what to expect when you suffer from anxiety in the workplace and one technique to stop anxious thoughts ruining your day.
What Are Your Rights If You Suffer From Anxiety At Work?
What you feel is real.
If you have an anxiety attack at work, you may wait until you get physically ill before you ask to go home.
Sometimes anxiety doesn’t seem like a real mental health issue not like a physical one.
Feeling physically ill seems to be less embarrassing and makes you feel less guilty about admitting that you needed some form of help.
Thinking that mental health problems are, in some way, not as real as physical ones is not uncommon. But anxiety disorders are real, serious medical conditions — just as real and serious as physical disorders like cancer or diabetes.
You may worry was that your employer would think you are trying to skive your duties. It may help you to know that you're not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental issue in the United States with one in five of us affected.
When you're at work, a place where you're expected to perform and be at your best, it can be difficult to admit to vulnerabilities and cut yourself some slack.
Anxiety is real, just as real as the most painful migraine or a really bad stomach and you deserve to take care of yourself, just as you would if you had those physical conditions.
Your employer won't fire you.
A major part of having an anxiety attack in the workplace can be the fear that you'll get fired. However, you probably won't.
The fear of getting sacked is often part of the catastrophizing that’s part of workplace anxiety. But should your worst "what if" scenario come true, the law is on your side.
Your employer cannot fire you, or refuse to hire you, if you're qualified for the job and your anxiety stops you from performing tasks that are "not essential" to the job.
There’s lots of advice about employment law and anxiety online. Please check it out and reassure yourself you are protected.
How To Actually Fight Anxiety When You're At Work
Coping with anxiety when you're at work and expecting to perform at your best can be particularly challenging.
So, you're at work, minding your own business, when anxiety starts to creep in.
Whether you're worrying about something specific, like an imminent deadline, or you just have feelings of dread, you might be telling yourself something along the lines of:
"You've got to get back to work, stop worrying, stop obsessing, get your head back in the game and just focus!"
If you're prone to catastrophizing— which anxious people often are — and that fails the next thing you'll worry about is that you'll get fired.
So, then, you'll worry about worrying. Soon enough, your mind will seem to have spiraled out of control, and you may even find yourself in the middle of a full-blown panic attack.
The mystery of getting anxious over getting anxious can seem inescapable, especially when the things you're obsessing about are work-related.
During such dark times, the temptation to break this vicious circle by smothering your anxiety and shouting at your mind to just shut up can be overwhelming. But, by now, you probably know that simply doesn't work — in fact, it can make things ten times worse.
Instead, there are gentler, kinder ways to talk to yourself, settle into yourself and soothe your mind.
Here’s the advice I’d give you, from one person - me - who’s in recovery from a panic attack disorder – to you.
WORK WITH ANXIETY, NOT AGAINST IT
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you will probably be looking at the anxiety as your enemy.
And then thinking think that if you can just get the anxiety to go down, go away, not occur, or not occur with such intensity, or at least not occur here or there. then things would be much better.
In fact, all of that is not the solution to the problem - It is the problem!
Let me say that again, all of that is not the solution to the problem - it is the problem!
Seeing anxiety as your enemy, that you have to bring it down, make it go away and never happen again is a sort of self undermining that will get you even more entangled with the anxiety.
If you see your anxiety as your enemy, then you see your feelings, thoughts and sensations as your enemy.
The harshness of thinking about anxiety is always there because when you think about it, you only think negatively about it which in turn makes the anxiety worse.
For example, you might think that you need to be vigilant because it’s the only way to stay safe. That thought in itself creates anxiety.
How To Stop Anxious Thoughts Ruining Your Day
Take a moment to try to isolate a single thought that contributes to your anxiety at work. And then take a moment to count how many times you’ve had this thought in the last week whilst working.
Next, try as hard as you can not to think about that thought the next five minutes....then answer these questions:
How many times did you have that thought while trying not to think about it?
So as you tried to suppress that thought what did you experience?
Did it become less powerful and more gentle?
Or did it become more important and frequent and tangle with you up in the anxiety?
I suspect it was the latter and this mini exercise might help you see that it can be useless to try and get rid of those thoughts you don’t like. This same process applies to emotions. If you try not to have a bad feeling like anxiety, you tend to feel it more intensely.
It’s likely you been using a verbal fix its to find a solution for your anxiety and that it has not worked.
Another reason this backfires is that using a verbal fix reminds you all the Time it’s not worked. For example if you’re at work and you have to give a presentation you may think think 'I hope I don’t feel anxious or I will completely fail.' Thinking about failing can start anxiety and because anxiety is a normal response to poor performance or humiliation, you almost invite these consequences into your work situation.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with thinking but the problem arises when you look at the world from the shape of your thoughts rather than stand back and to look AT your thoughts. A tiny difference but can it can cost you dearly in terms of emotional pain.
The Labelling Technique
So I’d like to teach you one of my techniques to help breakthrough this thinking about anxiety and creating more anxiety.
As an example of how this works, imagine you put your hands over your face and I ask you what do your hands look like? You might reply they are all dark.
But if you hold your hands out a few centimetres away you might say they have fingers and lines in them.
This technique works in a similar way by getting some distance from your thoughts allowing you to see them for what they are.
It’s to help you catch your thoughts as they pass by and label them for what they are.
Begin this exercise as soon as you are on your way to work….through the day ….and on your way home.
Catch the first anxious thought as you are on your way to work.
For example if you thought I’m anxious about seeing my boss, give that thought they label by saying ‘I am having the thought about being anxious about seeing my boss.’ Another thought you may have is, I am afraid I’ll get fired. Label that thought with I am having the thought– ‘I’m afraid I’ll get fired.’
If you feel anxious and your anxiety starts to pick up and you’re thinking about it, your label might be 'I am having a thought that I am anxious' or 'I’m having a thought that my anxiety is increasing.'
This exercise allows you to shift yourself from believing you are the thoughts to understanding you are having a thought but you are not the thought. There is a big difference between first sentences I am anxious and I am having the feeling or thought that I’m anxious.
As you start find that a gap appears between you and the thought. This is what is supposed to happen and in that gap you will discover a stillness, which will help balance out the anxiety.
This is all about practice. Imagine how many months or years you have been suffering from anxiety. It’s not going to disappear overnight. It’s a small change every day that will lead up to lasting change.
Be vigilant. This will help you become less tangled up with your thoughts and you will gain some distance from them. In turn, you will gain some perspective and lessen your anxiety at work.