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How to Deal If Anxiety at Work Is Making It Hard to Do Your Job

Here’s exactly what to say to your boss if your worry spirals are causing problems.

Unless you’re director of panic attacks at Spiraling & Associates, your anxiety probably isn’t a welcome visitor when it shows up in the workplace. Whether it’s ruining a job you otherwise love or the result of one you loathe, anxiety can do more than make work difficult—it can also have very real consequences.

Just consider the most common symptoms: It’s not exactly easy to focus with a racing heart or the shakes, and fending off negative thought spirals can feel like a full-time job in and of itself. Add in potential complications like irritability, difficulty concentrating, and indecision that impact how you show up as an employee and coworker, and your productivity and interpersonal relationships can easily take a hit.

So what are you supposed to do when your anxiety interferes with your performance? Here are a few tips to have in your back pocket, whether you have an anxiety disorder or a job that makes you anxious as hell.

1. Keep an anxiety log.

“Tracking when you’re feeling anxious can give you some clue as to what's causing that reaction and help you notice patterns,” Marlynn Wei, MD, a psychiatrist based in New York City who specializes in anxiety and career issues, tells SELF. For example, maybe you get the Sunday scaries like clockwork or notice that your stress goes up with each successive Slack ping. In turn, you can start to zero in on more effective and specific solutions for your unique needs (like a Sunday night routine or a focus extension that mutes notifications, perhaps).

While there are apps and workbooks dedicated to anxiety-tracking, a regular ol’ notebook (or the notes app on your phone) is more than enough. What’s important is that you can access your log quickly and easily at work. No need to get super detailed or immediately play investigator either—just record the time, your level of anxiety (a simple 1 to 10 scale works great), and a short note about what was happening when the feeling came up.

If you’re a ruminator, you might also want to include specific anxious thoughts (say, “I’m going to lose my job!”). That way, again, you can notice common sources of stress—as well as negative thought patterns you fall into. Speaking of…

2. Interrupt worry spirals ASAP.

A fun thing about anxious thoughts is that they can quickly run wild—they don’t call it “spiraling” for nothing! What starts as “Ugh, I really bombed that presentation” can soon turn into “Everyone must think I’m incompetent. Maybe I am. I suck at this job. I’m going to get fired. I suck at everything. I’m a total impostor. I’m a failure. I’m never going to be good enough. Ahhh!!!”

A lot of the time, we’ll find our deep-rooted insecurities and vulnerabilities at the bottom of a thought spiral, even if whatever triggered it was NBD, Dr. Wei explains. “The goal is to start reframing your initial negative thinking, before you wind up at some of those core beliefs,” she says. (She also points out that those underlying beliefs often come from messages we received in childhood and take more time and awareness to work through, which is where working with a therapist can be helpful.)

There are tons of ways to reframe thoughts—that’s a huge part of cognitive behavioral therapy—but a good place to start is fact-checking yourself. Sure, your anxious mind might be convinced your firing is imminent, but “if we step back and look at the evidence, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve been at this job awhile, I’ve gotten good feedback overall. Nobody is telling me my job is at risk. This is recoverable,’” Dr. Wei says. Or if you’re cycling through possible worst-case scenarios, recall past experiences that turned out differently than what you fear, whether that’s “I’m always nervous before presentations, but I usually do just fine” or “When I’ve messed up in the past, I’ve been able to recover.”

3. Tell your manager what’s going on—sort of.

Disclosing anxiety at work can be tricky business for a few reasons—including, unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental illness. But if it’s gotten to the point that it’s interfering with your job performance and you’re getting negative feedback from your manager, it might be relevant to bring to the discussion.

That said, you don’t actually have to name anxiety to acknowledge their concerns and take accountability. “In general, I recommend phrasing it as a ‘medical issue,’ which it is, since ‘medical’ covers mental health too,” Alison Green, the advice columnist behind the blog Ask a Manager, tells SELF. “You really don’t owe your boss specific details, nor will a good manager need them.”

So for example, Green recommends something like, “I know my performance has been slipping lately, and I want you to know I’m aware of it. I’ve been dealing with a medical issue, but I’m taking steps to address it, and I’m hoping it will be resolved soon.” That’s not to say you can’t be specific. Depending on your relationship with your manager and your company’s culture, you might decide it’s likely safe for anxiety to enter the chat. Just be aware that you should never have to specify. In fact, your employer can’t legally require you to disclose a mental health condition, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

4. Brainstorm potential accommodations and ask for them.

Another reason you might want to discuss your anxiety (slash “medical issue”) with your boss is to request specific ways to help manage it in the workplace. In most cases, if you have an anxiety disorder that’s limiting your ability to do your job, your employer is required by law to work with you to find “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. The Job Accommodation Network has a whole list of potential options for anxiety disorders, including products like under-desk pedal exercisers (hey, restless energy!) and strategies for managing issues with focus, time management, and memory. (Again, you don’t have to go into detail if you make an accommodation request—you can just say that it’s something to help you manage a medical condition so can you perform your role.)

By the way, you can also have this conversation with HR instead, or loop them in afterward if your boss isn’t amenable. “If you feel weird about seeming like you’re going over your boss’s head after she said no, you can frame it to her as, ‘Because I think this is likely covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m going to check with HR about how to navigate it from here,’” Green suggests.

Even if you do work something out directly with your manager, Green says it may still make sense to document the accommodation and get it on file with HR, just in case anything changes in the future (like if your boss leaves or doesn’t stick to what you agreed on).

5. Practice deep breathing.

Though it’s hardly the flashiest tool in the belt, deep breathing is an MVP on the anti-anxiety roster for a reason. For one, you can do it pretty much anywhere, making it especially useful on the job, where you might not have the time, space, or privacy for other soothing strategies, like plugging into a guided meditation or journaling. More importantly, it’s reliably effective.

“You’re putting your body into a state of calm, which sends feedback to the brain that you are calm. It’s a relaxation response,” Dr. Wei explains. In other words? You can trick your brain into thinking you’re not actually anxious. Or at least, not as anxious as you felt at first.

You can also use this tool proactively, ahead of a specific trigger (see why we suggested tracking your patterns above?). Dr. Wei recommends practicing deep breathing exercises leading up to something you know makes you anxious, like 10 minutes before a big meeting or in the morning before a stressful day.

6. Let out restless energy.

On the flip side, sometimes the best way to settle anxious energy is to get it out of your system. If you notice that you’re bouncing your leg, switching positions, or fidgeting, that might be a good sign to take a lap around the office, run in place, or do whatever is realistic for your work environment, Ryan Howes, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Southern California and the author of the Mental Health Journal for Men, tells SELF.

“If you move your body in a way that honors that extra energy and lets it run its course, you may find that your head clears and you’re able to focus a little better too,” Dr. Howes says. Even shaking out your arms or stretching as you work can get some blood pumping if you can’t step away.

7. Embrace a little distraction.

It may seem counterintuitive—especially if you’re worried about productivity and job performance—but even without anxiety, you’re a human, not a worker bot. Breaks are healthy and needed. Dr. Howes recommends distracting yourself by listening to music, playing a level on a mindless mobile game, or something else that takes your mind off your anxious thoughts. “For people who get locked into rumination, sometimes you have to pick up the train and move it onto another track for a couple of minutes before you can break out of it,” he says.

Even something as small as pausing to text a friend can ease the burden, especially if someone you know can relate. “Oftentimes anxiety makes us turn inward and isolate ourselves from other people,” Dr. Howes says. “It’s good to remind ourselves we’re not alone, and reaching out can help us realize, ‘Oh, wow, I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way.’”

The original article can be found on SELF US.

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