Wouldn’t it be great if work was a place of calm and rationality all the time? Somewhere where you didn’t have to deal with messy feelings – yours or anyone else’s. In the not too distant future, when we’ve mostly been replaced by robots, that’ll probably be the case, but until then emotions will remain an integral part of work. They’re part of what makes us human. On the other hand, the regulation, and appropriate expression, of those emotions is what makes us mature humans. So with that in mind, I thought I’d do a short series on feelings at work, starting with that all-too-common workplace emotion – anxiety.
Obviously if you are chronically anxious, you might want to consider getting professional help for that. I’m thinking of those everyday work situations that cause anxiety – presentations, difficult conversations, rumours of job losses and so on. Whether you’re the anxious person or you’re working with someone who’s feeling anxious, here are some tips on managing it.
4 tips for managing your own anxiety
1. Stop hoping it’ll go away
Many people try to deal with difficult situations using the trusty old ‘Try not to think about it’ method, which is rarely successful. Distracting yourself does have its place – when the situation is outside your control, such as waiting for the outcome of a job interview, you may as well focus on something else if you can. But if you’re putting off facing something that you know you’ll have to deal with eventually, then all you’re really doing is prolonging the agony. It also robs you of valuable preparation time. It’s better to feel anxious while imagining yourself giving a presentation and rehearsing than to freeze on the day because you haven’t prepared properly.
2. Try and work out what’s really bothering you
Often we turn our anxieties about something specific into a more generic fear without realising it. For example, it’s not uncommon to feel nervous if asked to speak at a board meeting. But for one person this may be based on a fear of not being taken seriously and coming across as junior, whereas another person may be concerned that someone will be aggressive and give them a hard time. Getting clearer about the root of your of your anxiety, either by exploring it on your own or talking to someone else, enables you to develop strategies to deal with those particular concerns, so you’re better prepared.
3. Pay attention to your body
A key thing to recognise about anxiety is that it is largely a physical response to a perceived threat. When we’re anxious, we often spend a lot of time trying to quell or ignore physical sensations, such as sweaty palms or butterflies in the tummy. Or we notice them and panic, making it all worse. A more effective way to handle anxiety, which takes a bit of practice, is to be mindful: notice these sensations and let them be, without judging. So instead of “Oh no, I feel anxious. I hate feeling like this. How do I make it stop?”, see if you can replace it with “I notice there’s a fluttery feeling in my abdomen”, “I notice my breathing is shallow”. There’s no right or wrong in observing; you’re just seeing what’s there. It might also give you clues as to where you are tense so that you can start to relax.
4. Take a deep breath
In a situation where everything feels out of control, including your physical sensations, the one thing you may be able to control is your breath. Slowing your breathing down will almost certainly help. Psychotherapist Alec Stansfield, who specialises in treating trauma survivors, recommends a technique called 7-11 breathing, though I have to say that if you can manage to breathe in for 7 seconds and out for 11 then I have to admire your lung capacity. In for 3 seconds and out for 5 may be an easier starting point.
4 tips for supporting an anxious person
1. Don’t dismiss their feelings
If you’re not prone to worry, it can be hard to understand people who get worked up over things which seem trivial to you. But that doesn’t make the feelings any less real to them. I once met a woman who was afraid of buttons. I didn’t understand it and neither did she, but it wouldn’t have helped to say “Oh calm down, it’s just a bit of plastic”. Anything which trivialises people’s feelings – “You’re making a fuss over nothing”, “Get a grip” – just makes it worse because now they have to worry about how they’re being perceived on top of whatever caused the original anxiety.
2. Be careful about reassurance
If you have some salient facts that you know will be reassuring, then go ahead. The knowledge that the really scary director won’t be on their interview panel may be all someone needs to feel better. But be wary of things you can’t guarantee – “Oh I’m sure there won’t be job losses” – and also be careful with emotional reassurance. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine” might sound supportive but how do you know? Rather than reassuring, this can come across as another way to dismiss someone’s feelings. If you can give real, specific feedback that puts a positive perspective – “that presentation you did last month was really professional” – then fine. But blanket reassurance is less helpful.
3. Don’t rescue them
If someone is really struggling, it can be tempting to rescue them – give the presentation to someone else, have the difficult conversation on their behalf. Occasionally, this may be appropriate – if they’re likely to screw up an important pitch to a client, for example. But people don’t develop unless they master things that make them anxious. Better to support them to overcome the anxiety than to take the source of it away.
4. Help them to prepare and explore
Tread carefully here, particularly if you don’t have any official role, like being the person’s manager or mentor. Asking questions is more helpful than giving advice. “You seem a bit anxious, would it help to talk about it?” is a good start. If the answer is no, back off. If they’re happy to talk then, aim to help them figure out for themselves how to handle the situation. Useful questions include:
- What are you most concerned about?
- What would make you feel more in control of the situation?
- What’s worked for you in the past in these situations – and what hasn’t?
- How can I help?
If you have advice you think might be useful, ask whether they’d find it helpful if you shared what you did/would do in similar circumstances, rather than just handing it to them.
So there you go, a 4 x 4 on managing anxiety. Next time that big scary emotion – anger!
If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat: email@example.com