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A psychotherapist shares 3 ‘surprising’ signs that anxiety is holding you back at work

Many of us know the symptoms of anxiety: nervousness, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, hyperventilating, and an impending sense of doom. But these symptoms can ricochet and cause subtle shifts in how you show up at work.

As a psychotherapist, I help patients tackle communication, performance issues and motivation issues that are often triggered by anxiety.

It can be difficult to make the connection between anxiety and work struggles. But combating anxiety starts with identifying it. Here are three surprising signs anxiety might be holding you back at work:

1. You struggle with collaborations.

Anxiety can cause you to be irritable, tense or fearful of how you are perceived, which may make it difficult to collaborate and create positive relationships.

2. You’re unable to complete tasks on time.

Do you spend a lot of time worrying? Or do you dread turning in deliverables for fear that your boss will point out a mistake? Anxiety can distract you or cause you to procrastinate, making it harder to meet deadlines.

3. You’re tired and lack focus.

Anxiety can make it difficult to sleep at night, especially if you spend late night hours reviewing everything you could’ve done wrong. This may cause fatigue and distractibility at work.

How to work through your anxiety

The good news is that anxious feelings can be managed with simple techniques. Here are three ways to calm anxiety at work:

1. Thought stopping

Stop your anxious thoughts before they become a runaway train by saying “Stop!” out loud to yourself or by lightly snapping a rubber band on your wrist. Then replace your thoughts with evidence that you can observe in the real world.

For example, you might be thinking: “My boss scheduled a 15-minute meeting with me. That’s never happened before. I obviously messed up with the last assignment. I’m getting fired.”

To use thought stopping, you could say: “Stop! Maybe I there make a mistake, but that’s why I have a boss to give me feedback so I can correct it next time. Fifteen minutes would not be long enough to tell me that I ruined everything and am getting fired. And she didn’t invite HR.”

2. Box breathing

This technique has four steps:

  1. Take a slow inhale counting to four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth counting to four seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel calm and centered again.

As you’re breathing, use your eyes to trace a square or rectangle shape anywhere in your line of sight.

This might look like sitting at your desk and tracing your eyes across the top of your computer monitor for four counts, down the right side for four counts, across the bottom for four counts, and up the left side for four counts.

Like a shorter version of meditation, box breathing forces your brain to focus on one repetitive thing and slow your breathing, which leads to a more relaxed nervous system.

3. Physical grounding

Stress can lead to feelings of disconnection with the body, which can intensify panic.

To combat this, pay attention to your senses. Sit up tall and straight in your chair, put your feet on the ground and your hands on the armrest.

Notice little things around you that you might not always notice, like the color of the flecks in the carpet or the hum of your computer.

By using external sources to bring your body back to stasis, you are reminding your body that its experience of stress is temporary and can be altered with your intervention.

Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EdM, is a psychotherapist and founder of Forward in Heels, an intersectional feminist group therapy practice in New York City that empowers all women to stand tall and own their worth so they can light up the world. She recently launched Do the FIREwork, an evidence-based program for workplace wellness.

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