Managing Stress and Anxiety in the Workplace
October 25, 2017
Everyone experiences job-related stress. Whether it's communicating with multiple people, juggling responsibilities or adhering to deadlines, workplace stressors are common. Short-term stressful moments are typical, but experiencing constant or long-term stress can affect your physical and emotional health. What begins as job-related stress can extend to other situations and impact your life outside of work as well. For people who are at risk of developing an anxiety disorder, stress in the workplace can trigger anxiety symptoms and lead to chronic illness.
Understanding the difference between work-related stress and anxiety is the first step toward feeling better. Then, discover healthy ways to manage stress in the workplace and options for treating and managing an anxiety disorder so that you can achieve your career goals and enjoy your life outside of work.
Table of Contents
Stress Vs. Anxiety
Do you know the difference between stress and anxiety? We often use the words interchangeably as we describe how we feel about work, relationships, and moving around in the world. Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can help you take appropriate steps to feel better and live healthy.
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a challenge. Stress is linked to a specific situation, threat, or change in the environment and is usually temporary. You generally feel stress about something happening in the present or very near future – an upcoming presentation, a deadline, or interaction with a coworker.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic mental health disorder. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health diagnoses in the U.S.
Stress — like job-related stress — can contribute to anxiety. But while stress is in response to a specific and usually temporary situation, anxiety continues after the situation is resolved. Anxiety is a broader feeling of concern, worry or panic that is not necessarily linked to a specific threat. People with anxiety may experience a general fear of the future and feel powerless to influence or change it.
If the stress you feel in the workplace becomes more generalized and begins to affect your relationships, social activities and other areas of your life, consider talking to a mental health professional. You may need medications and/or counseling to help you address an anxiety disorder.
Residential and Day Treatment for Anxiety
If you can link your stress and frustration to specific situations at work, think through your options. Are there opportunities to change your environment? Could you reframe the way you think about a situation that you cannot influence? Is your behavior making a situation worse and could you choose to react differently?
Managing Stressful Situations in the Workplace
Workplaces offer many “flavors” of stress. From shifting deadlines to difficult coworkers to the dreaded PUBLIC SPEAKING, there’s a frustration for everyone. Here are a few common scenarios that generate stress at work, and tips for how to handle them.
Remember that for people with an anxiety disorder, strategies for handling specific kinds of stress on the job should be matched with professional counseling to address the broader diagnosis.
- Work-life balance — Competing responsibilities at work and at home can certainly create conflict and tension. We often talk about work-life balance in terms of balancing time spent with your family versus time spent at work. But you can also view work-life balance as a healthy mix of time spent doing activities you enjoy and find fulfilling (solo or with others) with time and energy spent meeting work objectives. The key to maintaining work-life balance is to set boundaries. Try to keep work and home life separate. If possible, establish dedicated hours for working and dedicated hours for family, friends, and self-care. And within those hours be in the present. Try not to think about the laundry waiting for you at home while you’re at work. When you’re eating dinner with friends, redirect your mind from the presentation you have at work tomorrow and concentrate on the conversation and the meal.
- Dealing with authority figures — Having a fear of or aversion to interacting with authority figures is a common cause of stress at work. If you have a history of negative or traumatic interactions with authority figures, you may want to consider counseling to work on this specific challenge. Generally, you may feel more confident if you have a clear understanding of your supervisor’s expectations. Have a conversation and ask her to outline what she expects in terms of job performance, deliverables and reporting, communication, and scheduling. Removing as much uncertainty from the relationship as possible may help you feel more at ease.
- Time management — Shifting deadlines, and multiple projects or responsibilities require constant decision making about how to allocate your time and what to tackle first. Should you finish up a big project, or get through some smaller ones first? Some people have trouble concentrating on the task at hand because they're worried about the other duties they have to complete that day. Having an understanding of what is most important to your supervisor or team may help guide your decision making. Having a system to help you keep track of your calendar and to-do list also is important. Whether it’s an app, a paper planner, or an elaborate system of sticky notes, find a method that helps you stay calm and organized.
- Public speaking and presentations — Speaking in front of others or giving a presentation can trigger stress. Practice may be key. Practice your key talking points while you’re taking a shower, driving to work, or washing the dishes. Ask friends to be a test audience, and, if you can, practice delivering your presentation in the meeting room using the equipment.
- Traveling — If your job requires travel, try to plan trips that allow you to keep your bed time and wake up time consistent. Sleep disruption can make stress worse and contribute to symptoms of anxiety. Again, remove as much uncertainty as possible by creating a travel itinerary and organizing all of your documents. If air travel makes you uncomfortable, make sure you have something to distract your attention like a good book, or a movie downloaded to your phone. Bring a bottle of water and something soothing like mints or hard candies. Consider mindfulness techniques that may help you stay calm while on a plane.
- Managing employees — Giving feedback and constructive criticism to employees can be stressful. Remember that if employees aren’t receiving feedback, they can’t improve or grow. When giving feedback, try to lead with “I” statements or statements that assert the values or goals of your team or employer. Instead of “you are always late and clearly don’t care about our team,” try opening the conversation with, “our team has multiple deadlines this month, and we need everyone here on time to get it all done.” And target feedback to a specific behavior instead of to the person. If tardiness is the issue, instead of describing your coworker as lazy or disorganized, focus on one behavior – for example, arriving on time. “We really value your contributions here, and we want to help you grow. For me to help you succeed here, it is important that you arrive by 8:30 AM.”
- Social Participation — Work often requires participation: meetings, team-building exercises, or company socials. If these activities feel uncomfortable to you, try breaking the situation down into smaller parts. You don’t have to talk to everyone. Make a goal of speaking with a smaller group of coworkers, or even just a couple of individuals. Remember that many of your coworkers probably feel awkward too. Introduce conversation topics that feel safe to you like books, movies, TV or sports.
- Perfectionism — Everyone wants to do their best work and bring value to the company. People with an anxiety diagnosis often worry about making minor mistakes and believe if something isn’t completely perfect, they’ve somehow failed. Try to give yourself grace. Imagine if a coworker made a similar mistake. Would you judge them as harshly? Or would you view the mistake in context with his other contributions and strengths? Try to give yourself the same credit. Another technique is to remember other instances when you made a mistake. What were the consequences? Could you handle those consequences? Maybe, similarly, you will be able to handle the fallout from this mistake as well, and use it as an opportunity to learn something new.
- Conflict Resolution — Handling conflict is always challenging. The goal in these situations is to avoid impulsive reactions. Instead of making assumptions, gather as much data about the situation as you can and weigh your options before taking action. If interpersonal skills and assertive communication are a challenge for you overall, consider seeing a counselor with specialized expertise in these areas. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers many skill-based techniques to improve interpersonal skills and communication, particularly for someone with an anxiety disorder.
CBT Treatment for Anxiety
Physical Reactions to Stress at Work
Because stress is the body’s response to challenges, many people have physical reactions to uncomfortable situations or frustration at work. Here are some physical symptoms of anxiety at work and how you can address them:
- Startled reactions — If a coworker wants a word and taps someone you on the shoulder or peaks into your office, your reaction might seem extreme. Your body is ready for “fight or flight.” If you work in an office, try to position your chair and computer so that you have a clear line of sight to the doorway. Remember that being startled is your body’s natural and protective reaction – you don’t have to apologize or feel embarrassed about being startled.
- Shaking/jittering — Stress can make you feel restless or agitated. You may feel shaky, jittery, or unable to be still. Try to find outlets for your restless energy: go for a morning run before work, take a walk around your office at lunchtime or squeeze a stress ball at your desk. There are many breathing exercises that you can practice at your desk or while taking a short walk to help your body and mind feel more grounded. Finally, avoid coffee, soda and other caffeinated or sugary beverages and consider something more soothing like herbal tea or water.
- Dry mouth/lump in throat —A dry mouth or a lump in the throat might be enough to dissuade someone with stress from communicating because they don’t want the extra attention if they have to repeat themselves or clear their throat. Make sure you have a bottle of water on hand during meetings or presentations. Try a breathing exercise before the meeting. Or during the meeting, before you have to speak, try counting ceiling tiles or carpet squares to stay calm and ordered.
- Sweating — At the times when you most desire to stay cool and collected, stress triggers reactions from your apocrine glands, which produce a more intense kind of sweat than you’d experience from heat or exercise. Stress sweat also has a stronger odor, and it can start a vicious cycle, because trying not to sweat or being embarrassed by sweat can lead to more stress and more sweat. Instead of giving yourself another reason for agitation, try addressing the cause of the sweat before it occurs. If you stress at work, for example, practice regular deep breathing to regulate your heart rate and stay calm.
- Muscle Tension and Headaches — Muscle tension and headaches can be the result of stress as well as just sitting at a desk or standing at a counter all day. Try to take breaks, including short walks and stretches. Exercise and stretching before or after work can help.
- Insomnia — Establishing a healthy sleep routine can help prevent insomnia when stress levels rise. Keeping a regular sleep schedule – going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time – trains our brains and bodies and may make it easier to fall asleep, wake up on time, and feel rested. The bed should be reserved for sleep and sex. Don’t read, watch TV, or look at your phone in bed. Train your body and mind to know that when you get in bed, it’s time for sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, get out of bed and go sit on the couch or a chair and read for a bit, then get back in bed and try again.
Remove anything that glows from your bedroom, particularly blue LED lights found in electronic alarm clocks, appliances with LED clocks or buttons and similar devices. Stop looking at screens – particularly LED screens – about 30 minutes before bedtime. Research suggests that the blue light emitted by LED screens can stimulate eyes and brain and make it difficult to fall asleep. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and high-fat foods before bed.
Try incorporating a simple meditation before bed. A sitting meditation focusing on your breathing may help calm your mind. Muscle relaxation and imagery exercises may also be helpful.
Take sleep medications as directed. Try to take prescribed slipping pills one hour before bedtime. Don’t take over-the-counter sleep medications without consulting your doctor. They can have serious side effects and many people develop tolerance rapidly.
If you continue to have sleep problems, not falling asleep, or trouble staying asleep, consider seeing a doctor or scheduling a sleep study to see if a medical diagnosis – more than just stress – may be the culprit. Sleep is important to physical and mental health and ongoing sleep problems could indicate an issue that requires professional help or support.
Physical Symptoms of Chronic Anxiety
While stress is situational and affects everyone from time to time, chronic anxiety is a mental health disorder that can have a serious impact on all aspects of your life. The physical symptoms of chronic anxiety are more intense and continue to invade your mind and body even after a stressful situation has passed. Here are a few manifestations of chronic anxiety and advice on how to manage these symptoms.
Heart Palpitations or Chest Pain
Chronic anxiety can frequently cause panic that leads to a racing heart, uneven heartbeat and chest pain. This can feel like an instinctive reaction to stress — if you are suddenly startled, for example — but it will continue for much longer periods of time, with your heartbeat unable to naturally slow or regulate. Sometimes, these symptoms become so severe you might feel like your body is out of control and your life is in danger.e
Remember, symptoms of anxiety generally subside with time, and panicking more will only worsen your physical reaction. When you feel your heart racing uncontrollably, stop and focus on deep breathing techniques. Try inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for seven counts, and exhaling as you count to eight. This will help your heart rate naturally slow down.
Nausea and Stomach Cramps
Roughly 10 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from the most common digestive disorders, and these can be linked to or worsened by anxiety. Chronic anxiety can cause serious gastrointestinal symptoms. Many people with anxiety feel a persistent urge to use the bathroom, and they can develop constant digestive issues such as:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
If anxiety is affecting your digestion, consider implementing regular exercise to soothe your symptoms. Drop by the gym after work, sign up for an aerobics class, take an early-morning jog or walk off your tension whenever you have time. Exercises release endorphins, eases muscle cramps and soothes physical anxiety, including nerves and digestive issues. Sweating it out can help ease your stomach pains and your mind.
Wellness Clinic: Manage the Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness
Low Appetite and Binge Eating
Just as anxiety can lead to stomach issues, it can also impact your food-related habits in other ways. You may lose your appetite, a consequence of your body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. One side effect is suppressing the appetite.
Another side effect of chronic anxiety can be binge eating. Binging, or eating until you are well past full, can release dopamine, which soothes anxiety. However, the after-effects of binging, such as regret and shame, can spark even more anxiety.
Often therapy to treat co-existing disorders, such as anxiety and eating disorders, can assist with both low appetite and binge eating. Other strategies include waiting out the low appetite, if you suffer no other ill effects, and taking prescription medications that discourage binge eating.
Nutritional Counseling: Integrated with Residential and Day Treatment
Like stress, anxiety can cause difficulty sleeping, which leads to ongoing weakness, fatigue and inability to properly function. To fight insomnia, try:
- Deep breathing
- Sleep medication
- Avoiding screens around bedtime
If you continue to experience insomnia and other physical symptoms of anxiety, it’s time to speak to a professional about diagnosis and medication. Often, the best way to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety is to treat the condition itself.
Trouble Breathing or Choking Sensation
Along with heart palpitations, anxiety can cause trouble breathing, gagging sensations and hyperventilation. Instead of allowing the panic to overcome you, focus on calming your mind. Concentrate on a specific point in your sight or visualize a calming setting, and try to shut out every other thought and distraction until your breathing becomes more regular.
General Guidelines for Managing Workplace Stress
While there are specific strategies you can practice to manage each challenging situation, consider some of these overarching ideas to reduce your overall stress levels at work.
- Keep things in perspective — Will it matter in 10 years? Mistakes happen. Injustices transpire. Try to take the long view and not dwell too long on every disappointment or missed opportunity.
- Your job is not who you are — Participating in groups can help add something meaningful and stress-free in someone's life. It could be a hobby, sport or worship community.
- Manage your budget — Avoid impulsive spending and match your budget to your income and what you have defined as important to you. Student loans and rent payments are one thing, but you don’t want to have to work extra shifts to pay off a credit card bill full of stuff you don’t really value.
- Prioritize self-care — Hydrating, eating nutritious foods, exercising and taking breaks are essential to maintaining your well-being.
Disclosing an Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis to Your Employer
While at work, people should take care to not over-disclose personal information. They can inform their employer because they need accommodations or want to provide education about their illness. However, think about boundaries and how much information is too much.
You may want to start by discussing your diagnosis or special needs with your employer’s HR representative. He or she may be able to direct to you existing programs or workplace accommodations that will help. Many employers have employee assistance programs as part of their benefits package. Employee assistance programs often offer referrals to mental health professionals and sometimes cover the costs of several visits. They also may offer a mental health or counseling hotline.
If your company does not have an HR department, or if you feel you need to take it further, consider talking to your supervisor. Be as specific as you can in describing the accommodations you are requesting, like an adjusted schedule or quieter space to work.
People with anxiety disorders have laws protecting their rights in areas like work and education. The laws that give people equal opportunities to those who don’t have a disability are stated in the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA.
What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?
The ADA states employers cannot discriminate against employees with a disability. It protects qualified individuals with disabilities and states they can have reasonable accommodations at their job.
The accommodations in place to help them include:
- Modified equipment
- Modified work schedules
- Providing readers or interpreters
- Having an alternative role in the company
- Making the workplace accessible to people with disabilities
ADA accommodations should be reasonable for the company. If someone wanted an alternative role, this could work for a bigger company with different positions. However, it might not work as well with a smaller company that only has a few positions.
Work with your employer to determine what accommodations you need. Some common accommodations employers make for employees with anxiety disorders could be a quieter work space, permission to use a white noise machine, shorter shifts or a modified schedule.
Note that under the law, employers can request an independent medical exam to confirm a reported diagnosis or disability. And be aware that, while it is illegal, discrimination still does occur. Be informed of your rights and be thoughtful about how and when you disclose a mental health diagnosis.
Finding Treatment for an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders can affect the quality of your life and are more than ordinary feelings of stress or worry. Fear and repetition of unwanted thoughts influence behavior and can manifest in physical symptoms like nausea, trembling and sweating, to name a few. The American Psychiatric Association says approximately 33 percent of people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
What Are Some Common Anxiety Disorders?
Some of the most prevalent anxiety disorders include general anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.
General Anxiety Disorder
About 6.8 million adults have general anxiety disorder (GAD). Women are twice as likely to have GAD as men. People with GAD have excessive and constant worry that can stem from different stressors and is hard to manage. People with this disorder often expect the worst, even if there is no reason to worry. They get the diagnosis when they cannot control this worry or exhibit at least three symptoms for around six months.
- Feeling on-edge or irritable
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Inadequate sleep
There does not have to be a trigger to give a person anxiety. Facing a new day can stir up severe anxiety. People suffering with GAD often feel they have no control, or that they don’t know how to stop worrying.
People with panic disorder experience panic attacks out of nowhere and worry about having panic attacks. These are unexpected and intense, and can occur when the person is awake or asleep.
Of the approximately 6 million people a year that experience panic disorder, women are twice as likely as men to have it.
Panic attacks usually take around 10 minutes to get to the most intense symptoms and then start to calm down. People often think they have a life-threatening problem because panic disorder symptoms are so severe.
- Heart palpitations or racing heartbeat
- Trembling or shaking
- Unable to catch breath, feelings of being smothered or choking
- Chest pain, nausea or abdominal pain
- Chills or hot flashes
- Numbness or tingling sensation called paresthesia
- Feeling detached from oneself or that one's surroundings are not real
People with panic disorders often share two common issues:
- They don't know they have a real disorder and that treatment can help immensely.
- They could be too embarrassed to tell anyone because they're afraid someone like a doctor or family member will say they're making it up or exaggerating, which causes many people to stay silent.
Panic attacks are intense, scary and often leave negative impressions of the place where the person experienced it. This can be quite damaging because the person might feel like they need to avoid these places.
Some people with panic disorders also suffer from agoraphobia, or the fear of public spaces. These people often stop going to locations where they've experienced a panic attack because they are afraid it will happen again. They can also avoid public places because they feel trapped and can't escape quickly. When people construct their safety zones, they have trouble leaving them without experiencing intense anxiety.
Agoraphobia can make it extremely difficult for anxiety sufferers to enjoy their daily life. Going out to a restaurant, seeing a movie or shopping could trigger anxiety. As the person struggles with this anxiety, they might feel like they're disappointing their friends or family if they don't go out, which could lead to more anxiety and stress.
Going out in public spaces is difficult for people with another type of anxiety disorder, too. Their anxiety comes from being in those spaces in general.
Social Anxiety Disorder
People who have social anxiety disorder are afraid of other people judging them in social situations. They’re worried about embarrassing themselves in front of others. Social anxiety at work can throw off a team dynamic, affect interpersonal relationships with coworkers and cause sufferers to become detached or angry.
While 15 million American adults have this disorder, about 36 percent of people seek help after nearly a decade of experiencing the intense symptoms. This long wait could be because others have told them they’re just shy.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Sweating heavily
- Upset stomach
- Fast heartbeat
- Can’t catch one’s breath
- Lightheadedness or headaches
- Feeling detached or not in control
This disorder is selective for most people. While one specific situation could cause a panic attack, similar situations might not have this effect. Everyday activities like speaking to someone at work, participating in classes or having to talk to a stranger could make a person with panic disorder very anxious.
Take Control of Your Life
Skyland Trail is a mental health treatment organization based in Atlanta. We follow a holistic program to help people with mental disorders learn to lead a healthy and meaningful life. Caring professionals offer the best, personalized care to the individual. We also work with clients and local businesses to achieve ADA accommodations.
Don’t let anxiety compounded by workplace stress hurt your quality of life. If your workplace stress has become a more serious problem that’s affecting your daily life, learn more about the nationally recognized Anxiety Program at Skyland Trail. Give us a call for a free consultation and start your path to recovery today.