Anxiety disorders are common, affecting an estimated 40 million adults in the United States every year, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. But, the sheer volume of people who deal with symptoms of anxiety on a regular basis and in any number of life situations—including at work—doesn't necessarily make the reality of it any more comforting. But, in being aware of the common stressors or triggers that might manifest an episode of anxiety, coping can potentially become easier.
Performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, works with athletes as well as fitness experts to help them move through mental blocks, and says seven specific work-related anxiety triggers tend come up time and time again that bar people from being effective at any given task at hand.
- Haley Perlus, PhD, Haley Perlus, PhD, is a performance psychologist who works with athletes and fitness experts to help them move through mental blocks.
“There are types of stress that put people beyond their capacity to perform daily tasks,” says Dr. Perlus. “It's really important to understand what type of stress you're dealing with in the workplace, so that you know how to be resilient.”
Read on to learn what those seven work-related stressors are as well as Dr. Perlus’s advice for dealing with each.
These are the ‘Big 7’ work-related anxiety triggers, according to a psychologist
1. Having a fear-based boss
“Fear-based bosses aren’t leaders. They are energy drainers,” says Dr. Perlus. “They have quick tempers, focus on problems, complain, and threaten.” Knowing that, it’s not hard to see why this might induce anxiety at work. “Being spoken to harshly every day is no way to live. It’s abusive and causes anxiety,” she adds.
What to do about it: Her advice? If it’s not a job that you’re totally committed to, consider filing a complaint with human resources and putting in your resignation. If it’s a job that you need or really want to continue doing (or maybe it’s a less-extreme situation), Dr. Perlus suggests finding an avenue to highlight your strengths in a leadership role. Perhaps you can’t be your own boss, but you might be able to spearhead a project and count that among your wins—which might help bring your anxiety down to a manageable level.
2. Noticing coworker cliques
When you walk into the office and notice a workplace version of a Mean Girls vibe, it can make for an uncomfortable environment. “Some work cultures include gossip, passive-aggressiveness, undercutting, sabotage, and verbal jabs that would rival any high-school clique,” says Dr. Perlus.
What to do about it: If you’re being targeted or left out, it’s easy to see how that might make you feel anxious. If you’re not the target but still notice the cliques, that may also raise feelings of anxiety related to feeling like you’re working in a toxic environment. Either way, Dr. Perlus suggests remembering that work is just, well, work. “If your work is solid, align with others who are focused, and keep your eye on the prize,” she says. “When you hear a group of coworkers gossiping, politely excuse yourself.”
3. Experiencing technology issues
When your job relies heavily on technology, any mishaps can create work delays—which may make you anxious about being able to complete work on time. It’s true that you can’t exactly do anything to prevent the glitches themselves, but you can still do things to bring yourself back inside your body and outside of your mind.
What to do about it: “Centering yourself is a great technique that helps delay reaction time to stressors,” says Dr. Perlus. “Before pounding on the copy machine, step back, count to five, breathe, and pivot to fixing whatever may be wrong or finding someone who can assist.”
4. Giving presentations
“You can be the most articulate, outgoing person and still have anxiety when it comes to presenting to a group,” says Dr. Perlus. “Presenting is stressful in and of itself.” The good news is that a little bit of practice, perspective change, and preparation can go a long way.
“You can be the most articulate, outgoing person and still have anxiety when it comes to presenting to a group. Presenting is stressful in and of itself.” —Haley Perlus, PhD, performance psychologist
“You can either approach a presentation as a threat or as a challenge,” Dr. Perlus says. “When you perceive it as a threat, you’re going to feel some anxiety. But when you see it as a challenge, you start to think about how you can do the best that you can do.”
What to do about it: Some tips as far as preparation and practice go: “Allow ample time to gather key points. You could also mentally rehearse your presentation while doing other unrelated activities,” Dr. Perlus says. Or you could even record yourself to see what you’d like to change when you deliver the presentation.
5. Having a long commute
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a higher commute time is linked with lowered sleep duration and regularity. Considering that sleep is crucial to well-being, it’s not surprising that having long commutes is among Dr. Perlus’s list of work-related anxiety triggers.
What to do about it: If you’re unable to work from home to reduce commuting for some or all workdays, Dr. Perlus suggests using your commute time as an opportunity to learn, which might make you feel more autonomous and less anxious. “If you drive to work, turn off the negative news talk radio, and opt for interesting podcasts or audiobooks,” she says. “If you ride a bus or train to work, you could read a book or watch a show on the iPad.”
6. Going on work trips
A lot of people look to travel as an opportunity to disconnect from work and spend time doing what they enjoy. When you have to do something for work, however, Dr. Perlus says there might be anxiety surrounding packing, making the flight, and weather delays. And though you can’t control the weather, a perspective shift might be helpful here, too.
What to do about it: “It’d be good to see it as recovery time from [people in your personal life]—and I don't say that badly; we all need recovery time,” says Dr. Perlus. “Then, when you get [back], you've already recovered because you were just by yourself. So enjoy that work travel time. Embrace that for what it is.”
7. Having to meet quotas
When you’re working as hard as you can to meet company goals and come up shy, it can not only crush your spirit, but it might also make you feel anxious about job security. Again, this is one of those work-related anxiety triggers that's mostly out of your control—but there’s still, as always, something you can do.
What to do about it: “Setting easier targets can be helpful. When you set a goal that is just below what you think you are capable of, you still need to exert high energy and you also have a high perception of control,” says Dr. Perlus. This way, Dr. Perlus adds, you’re more likely to feel accomplished and not anxious. However, she caveats, you want to make sure that you’re not setting goals that are too easy as you might inadvertently create boredom.
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