Like a lot of young people, I grew up with pretty intense social anxiety. Then that anxiety became general-purpose anxiety, and suddenly I was one of those kids who was afraid to play outside, talk to new people, or even ask for a refill at a restaurant. I stayed awake worrying pretty much every night.
Of course, you can imagine what kind of an effect that sort of stress has on a kid — I was a great student but terrible at self-care. As I got older, I grew out of a lot of that. In college I was still a good student, but much more laid-back. Even the all-dreaded finals weeks couldn’t phase me. Then I started my first full-time job. I worked hard and wanted to excel, and I was surrounded by supportive coworkers. But every day, I thought to myself, “I’m going to get fired. I’m not smart/assertive/experienced enough to work here.” That stress motivated me to work even harder. But because I hadn’t experienced stress like that for many years, I found it crippling in some ways.
I later learned that there’s a term for these feelings. One day I was talking to a trusted coworker about what I felt and she said, “Oh, that’s imposter syndrome. Pretty much everyone feels like that sometimes.” I was shocked. I thought I was this stressed island, but in reality, most people around me felt the same way. That validation was a huge relief, but it didn’t change the fact that I still sometimes felt like what I was putting out wasn’t quite good enough. I needed to find a way to be a productive employee without getting caught up in feelings of self-doubt.
Strategies for Managing Anxiety at Work
Unmanaged workplace anxiety can have long-lasting, damaging impacts on even highly motivated employees. With this in mind, I’ve implemented some strategies to help manage and utilize my workplace stress.
Here are a few tactics I use every day:
1. Talk It Out
Social anxiety in the workplace can prevent you from making meaningful relationships with the people you work with. However, finding a few trusted coworkers to help you talk through your struggles will build a support network and prevent the isolation that can come with going through it alone. In addition, you may find that other people are feeling the same things you are; like my coworker who educated me about imposter syndrome, a welcoming ear and the willingness to be upfront about what you’re feeling can help you find others who feel like you do and work through solutions together.
2. Create Quiet Moments in Your Day
Most people take breaks periodically throughout their workdays. It’s normal to step away from the keyboard for a few minutes sometimes, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Take the time to find tactics that work for you. For me, a walk outside or a few minutes of a podcast can help me breathe for a bit and allows me to refocus my energies on my work without getting caught up in stress. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting away from your desk.
Claire Goodwin, office manager for Joseph Farzam Law Firm, says, “Taking time out, stepping out of the office, and re-directing my attention to tasks of lower consequence can also help to pull me back from the edge when things start to get bad.”
3. Find the Root of Your Anxiety
Some anxieties come from an internal source, often deep-rooted, and can take a lot of effort to overcome. However, some of our anxieties come from tangible external sources.
When I’m starting to feel stress coming on, I try to take a step back and identify what’s feeding into those negative feelings. Maybe there’s a deadline coming up soon, or maybe I’m taking on too many projects at once. Being in-tune with those triggers and facing them head-on can help resolve the problems you’re having and nip that anxiety in the bud.
Goodwin describes it like this: “A huge part of anxiety is the unknown. I now make a point of eliminating as many variables and anticipating as many outcomes as possible. Having a contingency plan keeps me in control even when things are not going as planned. The act of implementing boundaries and maintaining control helps to keep my anxiety at bay.”
4. Turn Your Stress into a Weapon of Success
Although stress is something most of us experience at work, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Courtenay Stevens, a writer at HowtoWatch.com, says, “My anxiety often propels me to push myself harder and farther. I think it's fueled a lot by the fact that I'm a woman and a working mom. I constantly feel anxious that my peers don't think I belong. That anxiety makes me eager to prove that I deserve a place at the table. Some of my best work has been the result of anxiety.”
Stress as a Motivator
Using your stress as a motivator can keep you constantly on your toes. Today, I still struggle with a lot of workplace-related anxiety. But I find that now I can use it as a motivator instead of as a roadblock, and it has made me not only a better employee but a happier person.