Anxiety disorders are common, affecting about 40 million adults in the United States each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, the sheer number of people who deal with anxiety symptoms on a regular basis and in a variety of life situations, including at work, doesn’t necessarily make reality any more comforting. But by being aware of common stressors or triggers that can manifest an episode of anxiety, coping can potentially be made easier.
Performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, works with athletes and fitness experts to help them overcome mental blocks, and says that seven specific work-related anxiety triggers tend to show up over and over again that keep people from being effective in any given task at hand.
“There are types of stress that put people beyond their ability to perform daily tasks,” says Dr. Perlus. “It’s really important to understand what kind of stress you’re dealing with in the workplace, so you know how to be resilient.”
Read on to learn what those seven work-related stressors are, as well as Dr. Perlus’ tips for dealing with each one.
These are the ‘big 7’ triggers of work-related anxiety, according to a psychologist
1. Have a boss based on fear
“Fear-based bosses are not leaders. They are energy consumers,” says Dr. Perlus. “They have a bad temper, they focus on problems, they complain and threaten.” Knowing that, it’s not hard to see why this could induce anxiety at work. “Being spoken harshly to you every day is no way to live. It’s abusive and anxiety-causing,” he adds.
What to do about it: His advice? If it’s not a job you’re fully committed to, consider filing a complaint with human resources and handing in your resignation. If it’s a job you need or really want to keep doing (or maybe it’s a less extreme situation), Dr. Perlus suggests finding a way to highlight your strengths in a leadership role. Maybe he can’t be his own boss, but he could spearhead a project and count it among his wins, which might help reduce his anxiety to a manageable level.
2. Be aware of co-worker cliques
When you walk into the office and notice a workplace version of a Bad Girls environment, it can create an uncomfortable environment. “Some work cultures include gossiping, passive aggressiveness, undermining, sabotage, and verbal jabs that would rival any high school clique,” says Dr. Perlus.
What to do about it: If you’re being attacked or left out, it’s easy to see how that could make you feel anxious. If you’re not the target but still notice gangs, that can also lead to feelings of anxiety related to feeling like you’re working in a toxic environment. Either way, Dr. Perlus suggests remembering that work is just, well, work. “If your work is solid, align yourself with others who are focused and don’t lose sight of the prize,” she says. “When you hear gossip from a group of co-workers, politely apologize.”
3. Experiencing technological problems
When your work relies heavily on technology, any mishap can lead to work delays, which can leave you feeling anxious about getting the job done on time. It’s true that you can’t exactly do anything to prevent the glitches themselves, but you can still do things to get back into your body and out of your mind.
What to do about it: “Centering is a great technique that helps slow down your reaction time to stressors,” says Dr. Perlus. “Before you hit the copier, step back, count to five, take a breath and turn around to fix whatever might be wrong or find someone who can help.”
4. Give presentations
“You can be the most articulate and outgoing person and still have anxiety when it comes to presenting to a group,” says Dr. Perlus. “Showing up is stressful in itself.” The good news is that a little practice, perspective shifting, and preparation can go a long way.
“You can be the most articulate and outgoing person and still have anxiety when it comes to presenting yourself to a group. Presenting is stressful in itself.” —Haley Perlus, PhD, performance psychologist
“You can approach a presentation as a threat or as a challenge,” says Dr. Perlus. “When you perceive it as a threat, you’re going to feel some anxiety. But when you see it as a challenge, you start thinking about how you can do the best you can do.”
What to do about it: Some tips for preparation and practice are: “Allow enough time to collect the key points. You can also mentally rehearse your presentation while doing other unrelated activities,” says Dr. Perlus. Or you could even record yourself to see what you’d like to change when you deliver the presentation.
5. Have a long trip
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that longer travel time is related to shorter sleep duration and regularity. Considering sleep is crucial to well-being, it’s no surprise that having long commutes to work is among Dr. Perlus’s list of work-related anxiety triggers.
What to do about it: If you can’t work from home to cut down on commuting for some or all of your workdays, Dr. Perlus suggests using your commute time as an opportunity to learn, which may make you feel more autonomous and less anxious. “If you’re driving to work, turn off the negative news radio and opt for interesting podcasts or audiobooks,” she says. “If you take the bus or train to work, you can read a book or watch a show on the iPad.”
6. Go on a business trip
Many people see travel as an opportunity to disconnect from work and spend time doing what they enjoy. However, when he has to get something done at work, Dr. Perlus says there can be anxiety around packing, flying, and weather delays. And while he can’t control the weather, a change in perspective could come in handy here, too.
What to do about it: “It would be nice to see it as a recovery time from [people in your personal life]—and I don’t say it so badly; we all need recovery time,” says Dr. Perlus. So when you get [back], you already recovered because you were alone. So enjoy that work commute time. Accept that for what it is.”
7. Having to meet quotas
When you work as hard as you can to meet company goals and come across as shy, it can not only crush your spirit, it can also make you feel anxious about job security. Again, this is one of those work-related anxiety triggers that are mostly out of your control, but there are still, as always, something you can do.
What to do about it: “Setting easier goals can be helpful. When you set a goal that is just below what you think you are capable of, you still need to exert a lot of energy and you also have a high perception of control,” says Dr. Perlus. That way, Dr. Perlus adds, you’re more likely to feel accomplished and not anxious. However, he cautions, you must make sure you don’t set goals that are also as easy as it could inadvertently create boredom.
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