How to I stop being so anxious at work?

I have a good job maybe considered high stress. But I get so anxious I avoid work. I feel overwhelmed but can’t pinpoint why literally cried before due to this
Asked by Em

Dear Em,


I’m glad you reached out. I can’t tell from your question if this is an ongoing problem you have had throughout your career, or if it more recent. I am going to assume that these intense feelings of anxiety are relatively new, or that maybe mild work anxiety has suddenly escalated for no particular reason you can think of. In this scenario, your overall confidence in your ability to do your job is likely not the issue so much as that some aspect of your work life has triggered an anxiety response. Have there been any major changes in your workplace recently, such as a new manager, reorganization, downsizing, negative morale among your co-workers, new expectations, or additional responsibilities being put on your plate? That is the first question you should ask yourself as you try to root out the source of your anxiety and overwhelm. Even a change that you don’t think of as stressful could be triggering some underlying feeling of anxiety.


In regard to coping with work anxiety in general, here are some things to consider:


Imposter syndrome – Imposter syndrome refers to a persistent pattern of doubting your competence despite evidence to the contrary. It is insidious and agonizing. People who experience it may perform exceptionally at their jobs. They may be highly regarded, may have received promotions, raises, and accolades. But despite all of this, they feel deep down that they do not belong where they are, and fear that it is just a matter of time before they make a terrible mistake and are exposed for what they are – someone who rose to their position due to luck or help from others, but actually have no business occupying the role or position they have achieved.


This state of mind is made up of a collection of “cognitive distortions.” In the field of cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive distortions are defined as habitual ways of thinking that are extremely negative and usually inaccurate. They tend to fall in about ten different categories; here are several examples:


Polarized thinking. Also known as all-or-nothing thinking or black and white thinking, I find this to be the most common distortion I see clients deal with in therapy. It seems to be human nature for everyone to get stuck at times in an “either/or” mentality, despite the fact that we live in a complex world where “both/and” is applicable to a far greater range of situations. People who suffer with imposter syndrome do this regularly, to an extreme degree. An example would be: I am either competent or incompetent. I made a mistake, therefore I am incompetent and unqualified.


Catastrophizing. Also known as assuming the worst, this is a tendency to see ambiguous situations from the most negative perspective. Your boss was a bit short with you when you passed in the hallway? He must be mad at you. A client hasn’t returned your call? They must no longer want to work with you. More logical explanations, such as your boss had a terrible commute this morning, or your client is out sick with the flu, fade into the background, eclipsed by a sense that the most negative explanation must be true.


Mental filtering. This is related to polarized thinking – remember when you allowed one mistake to make you feel incompetent? Well, in focusing on that mistake, you mentally filtered out the numerous times your work has been accurate.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the premise that our feelings are based on our thoughts and our thoughts are based on our beliefs. But sometimes beliefs are so much a long-standing part of us, that we don't even think of them as something we believe - something that may or may not be true. Instead, they just seem like reality to us, and we never think to question them. In the example above, the underlying belief might be, "I need to be perfect in order to be competent." Is that really true? If you believe it is, then every imperfection will cause you to question whether you should be doing this job at all. Another distorted belief might be, "I need to accomplish things with no help from others or it doesn't count." This belief could cause most people to discount many of their accomplishments.


Questioning underlying beliefs is a lot of work, but the time and energy spent is well worth it if it allows you to see yourself and your work through a more realistic lens rather than a harshly negative one.


Look at the facts – when self-doubt arises at work, make sure you are considering all factors, including the feedback you get from others, positive performance reviews, etc. If you find yourself doubting many positives, there is good reason to question the basis of your self-judgment.


Filling the gap – Perhaps when you look at yourself from a more realistic perspective, you find that others perceive you as more competent and valuable than you do. If that is the case, dig a little deeper – is there one aspect of your job where you are less confident about your abilities than others? If that is the case, how can you improve in that area? Maybe everyone else thinks that, on balance, you are good enough just as you are. But if you have a weak point that is dragging you down and causing you to question your abilities in general, try focusing on that area and making the improvements you want to see.


Communication – anxiety in the workplace can often be based on poor communication. If something is making you uneasy in an interaction with a manager or co-worker, is there a way to talk to them to gain clarity? Are there questions you are reluctant to ask because you believe you should know the answers already? Putting this aside, and openly expressing what you want to say, or voicing curiosity about something that is not entirely clear to you, is the quickest way to put your mind at ease, and to improve your work relationships as well.


I hope this has been helpful, and wish you the best of luck.