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Adopting best practices in managing workplace anxiety, stress

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The workplace is one of the leading locations where people experience stress and anxiety. Employees will encounter it sometime during their career. Everyone should be aware of the signs of anxiety and the tools needed to cope and deal with it.

It is normal to have some fear or feel out of place at work sometimes, but when the anxiety begins to control you and keep you from performing your normal activities it becomes a serious problem. For many workers that suffer from some sort of workplace anxiety, their productivity decreases and they fail to contribute to the job, which can make them more anxious. While there are many forms of workplace anxiety, we can all learn to overcome them by identifying the key problem and finding a way to manage them, before they manage you.

Anxiety cannot be defined as one, isolated condition. It has many faces and can have hundreds of different symptoms. Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is a type of anxiety where a person fears crowds or public situations because they feel it will lead to public scrutiny or embarrassment. This can range from simply eating in public to being among a large crowd in a store. Sometimes this person can be mistaken for having a shy demeanor, but these people have serious trouble socialising at work or even participating in meetings. This can keep them from being a team player since they frequently withdraw from the group. Characteristics include extremely fearful of unfamiliar situations and people, feeling overwhelmed with anxiety when in social situations, fearful of being judged or watched by other people, or unable to face social situations on your own.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common type of anxiety and is usually defined as a constant state of tension and panic. People who suffer from GAD generally do not have anything particular that they are worrying or obsessing about. They cannot identify the source of the anxiety, and therefore cannot find a way to resolve the problem. So they continue to feel anxiety every day with either no apparent reason, or will find a number of problems to fret about without knowing why. Common symptoms of GAD include difficulty focusing, sleeping or concentrating; constant restlessness, irritation or edginess; feeling tired or having low energy levels; and Tense or clenched muscles.
Panic disorder is characterized by a constant state of confusion and fear, which normally occur in sporadic episodes, or panic attacks. While it is normal to have some fear or confusion in our work, these feelings should not cause physical symptoms or interfere with our productivity. These panic attacks can cause sudden, debilitating symptoms, such as shallow breathing, sweating, increased heart rate, and physical pain. Often times many people do not realize they have a panic disorder since they may not recognize the symptoms of a panic attack, which can make this disorder hard to diagnose. Characteristics include feelings of doom or losing control, stomach pains, dizziness or even fainting, overwhelming sense of fear, usually irrational, sudden heart palpitations or excessive sweating.

Phobias are more common types of anxiety and generally focus on one thing or situation, such as a fear of spiders or a fear of public speaking. People who suffer from certain phobias begin to have an overwhelming feeling of fear and anxiety when they are faced with their phobia and can usually return to a normal state once the item or situation has been taken care of. Generally these phobias don’t interfere with our everyday lives since we may not actually have to encounter our fears on a regular basis (such as snakes, spiders, heights, fires, etc.). But phobias that can occur at work, such as a phobia of public speaking or a fear of crowded rooms, should be addressed right away since they can hinder our ability to function normally on the job. Characteristics include fear that is focused on one thing, fear that is usually instantaneous, inability to control fears and feelings that subsides when phobia has passed or avoided.

Once we have identified what type of anxiety problems we may be facing, we can focus on how to cope with them and keep them from controlling our everyday life. Since anxiety can affect everyone differently, not everyone reacts or displays symptoms in the same way. Therefore, they also cannot be handled in exactly the same way. Luckily, there are many treatments, therapies and self-help strategies available to the public that can be customized to our needs.

Keeping some sort of diary or journal is a great way to cope with episodes of anxiety or distress. Writing in a journal allows a person to write freely and openly without having fear of being judged or criticized, as it will not be seen by anyone. This can provide an outlet for our pent up feelings and allows us to express them in ways we may not be able to do in front of others.

A journal is also a great place to document things such as goals, thoughts, wants and desires that we may not share very often. Some people choose to keep their journal in one spot, such as at home or in a desk drawer, while others opt to carry it with them wherever they go. Whichever you choose, be sure to write in it often and don’t let feelings of anxiety build up before you can write them all down again.

Sometimes our anxieties can get the best of us simply because we let them by welcoming in the negative thoughts they bring with them. But when we use positive thinking and words of encouragement, we can change how our anxieties grab us. Phrases such as “I’m going to faint!” and “I can’t do it!” can negatively affect how we handle a certain situation or problem and can make anxieties worse. But to counteract these thoughts, we can focus on calming and soothing positive thoughts that can make us feel better about ourselves and whatever situation we have to face. By putting a stop to thoughts that can lead to anxiety or stress and replacing them with positive and encouraging thoughts, we are conditioning ourselves to permanently adapt our brain to this type of behavior and improving the way we handle difficult situations.

Sample positive thinking phrases include “I can do this,” “These feelings may be uncomfortable, but they won’t last,” “I will not fail and others will see my success” and “My anxiety cannot make me lose control.”

When we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it is important that we have a place we can go to that is just for us or a ‘me’ place. Whether you are at home or work, find a spot where you can go to be alone and take a few minutes to think to yourself. Sometimes this can include your desk or office, if in a private spot, or maybe you have a secluded table in the break room you can retreat to.

At the end of the day you might go home to a cozy chair in the living room or retreat to a couch in the den where you can relax.

Having a ‘me’ place helps us feel better about our anxieties because not only do we know that this place is meant only for us, but we can be ourselves in this special place and release any pent up feelings (this also makes a great place to keep that journal we started!). So next time you walk into your office or go home at the end of the day, take a few minutes to find your ‘me’ place and designate it as such. Set it up with a couple of relaxing books, music or aromatherapy candles. It is your space, so customize it with things that will help you the most.

Setting goals for ourselves is always a good practice and it is especially true when coping with our anxiety. But we want to ensure that our goals are not so large and daunting that we scare ourselves away from trying to accomplish them. Focus on goals that you can realistically achieve and set attainable expectations for yourself.

Start with small steps, such as changing the way we view a situation or how we react to something, and then make later goals to go from there. Keep in mind that some things you cannot change (like how you have to give a weekly presentation in front of the whole office), but you can make goals to change how you handle them (such as being well prepared and taking deep breaths).

Tips for setting attainable goals include starting small – you can work up to the big stuff later, decide what you want to change or obtain now and determine what is in your power to change or control.
*Dr. Akindotun Merino Africa Mental Health Alliance (AMHA) Jars Education Group


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