How to Cope With Anxiety in a High-Stress Work Environment

a woman feeling anxious at work

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Lee Koles166
Founder, Career Strategist at CareerSequel
April 17, 2024 at 6:27PM UTC

“Work is supposed to be fulfilling…why do I feel so anxious?”

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.

According to Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report, almost 83% of respondents felt emotionally drained from their work. 85% said that their job stress affected their mental health. 

Research from the American Psychological Association (APA) supports these findings. Its annual Stress in America survey consistently cites work as a significant source of stress. 

Stress at work is normal. Managing relationships, performing well, developing new skills and problem solving are sources of discomfort all present an element of workplace stress that is healthy; stress is an essential component of intellectual and emotional growth. 

Stress becomes harmful, however, when it interferes with your functioning and affects your physical and mental health. Warning signs of harmful work stress include:

  • Anger and irritability.

  • Fatigue.

  • Digestive troubles.

  • Disrupted sleep.

Anxiety is a person’s specific reaction to stress. It’s defined by persistent, excessive worries. Symptoms of workplace anxiety include: 

  • Feeling physically ill when thinking about work.

  • Procrastinating on work-related tasks.

  • Avoiding meetings, new projects or work events.

  • Poor productivity and work performance.

  • Constant worrying.

Triggers such as an excessive workload, lack of support, lack of control over job-related decisions and challenging relationships can lead to anxiety in the workplace. Here are 4 ways to cope with anxiety in a high stress work environment: 

1. Reassure your brain.

“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important.”  - Natalie Goldberg

Our brain follows the rules of the motivational triad; its job is to (1) seek pleasure, (2) avoid pain and (3) be efficient. 

Anxiety flares when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. 

In the workplace, “trouble” can manifest in situations that challenge us, like preparing an important presentation or receiving performance feedback. When the amygdala perceives a threat, real or imagined, it releases cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline to make the body stronger, faster and more powerful. 

The amygdala is considered the “emotional” part of the brain. Neuroscientists explain that we feel anxiety when signals from the emotional brain overpower our cognitive brain - our prefrontal cortex - where our higher-level thinking occurs. 

The first step to managing anxiety is recognizing its symptoms and understanding that our brain is only trying to help us stay safe. Pausing to acknowledge this triggers the rational, cognitive portion of our brain. This can be as simple as saying:

“Thanks, brain. I’ve got this.” 

Or - 

“I see what you’re doing, brain, and appreciate that you’re trying to protect me. Everything is under control.”

Consciously calling upon rational thought can rein in feelings of anxiety as you face challenges at work.

2. Identify your thoughts.

“If you listen to any thought long enough, it becomes part of your personal playlist.” - Jon Acuff

Anxiety stems from thoughts playing on “repeat” in our heads. In his book, “Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking”, Jon Acuff stresses the importance of documenting the thoughts that create feelings of distress. He then suggests examining each thought and asking:

  • Is it true?

  • Is it helpful?

  • Is it kind?

This exercise puts the rational, analytical portion of your brain in control. It helps “dial down” the negative thoughts that trigger anxiety. 

Tracking your negative thoughts - writing them down - helps remove the emotional component so you can treat them as data and examine them with curiosity. 

3. Set boundaries.

“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” - Dolly Parton

Job-related anxiety won’t dissipate if you work around the clock. The solution: don’t bring work home with you. This may be easier said than done in today’s current work environment where  boundaries between home and office blur in hybrid and remote office scenarios.

Try these boundary-setting strategies:

  • Determine your “off the clock” time and do not check or respond to voicemail or email past this time.

  • Do not work on your days off.

  • Use your vacation time.

Establishing clear boundaries creates room for fulfilling experiences outside the workplace and diffuses the pressure of work obligations.

4. Call in your support system.

“Ask for help not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.” - Les Brown

You don’t have to face anxiety alone. Talk to your close friends and family about what you’re experiencing. They may be able to give you the support you need. If you’ve determined the origin of your work stress, meet with your supervisor to discuss potential solutions. Your organization may also have resources to help you cope with your stress. 

Career strategists are often able to identify and rectify sources of career stress, particularly if your role is in conflict with your strengths or core values. 

Seek the support of a therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional if your anxiety is crippling your physical and emotional health.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Dr. Lee Koles is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Career Strategist and the founder of CareerSequel, where she helps professionals leverage their strengths to uplevel their careers. She is host of the CareerSequel podcast. Connect with Dr. Koles on LinkedIn or apply to speak with her directly at https://www.careersequel.com. 

How do you deal with work-inducing anxiety? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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