Mental Health in the Workplace: How to Deal with Anxiety
It’s a known fact that life these days is incredibly hectic, filled with a multitude of complex stressors which can weigh heavily on one’s mind. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that in 2010, neuropsychiatric disorders (which include mental, behavioral and neurological disorders) were the leading cause of disability, followed by cardiovascular and circulatory diseases in the United States.
If you are someone suffering from a lot of stress and anxiety in your life, hopefully these tips will provide some assistance on how to deal with it. Although the tips outlined are to help you cope while at work, they are applicable to all areas of life.
Tip 1: Develop self-awareness
Stress is a normal part of life because it occurs when our systems experience any sort of change from “the norm.” Some experiences barely ruffle our feathers, while others might send us totally off-kilter. And what might bother one person, has little-to-no effect on another.
With that being said, it is important for you to develop an understanding of what makes you tick (in both the good and bad way), so that you can begin to put measures in place to help when you encounter things that challenge you. Simply making a note the next time you feel stressed and what is causing it is a great place to start. Over time, patterns will develop, allowing you to better understand yourself, your needs and what causes you to worry.
Tip 2: Develop some good relaxation techniques
The stress response is run by our bodies through a very complex system of neural and hormonal pathways, orchestrated by a part of the brain called the limbic system. This same area also controls the relaxation response. The interesting part is that when your body is firing “fight or flight” stress signals, it is impossible to become relaxed, and vice versa. The brain can’t do both at once.
So, if you’re able to induce a feeling of calm, you naturally take yourself out of stress mode. The following couple of tips are some suggestions of how you can trigger the relaxation response. Practice makes perfect, so don’t give up if they don’t work instantaneously. There are also MANY free online relaxation resources which can guide you through the different tips listed if you need some assistance getting into it.
Tip 2a: Deep, slow, breathing
This one is most important because you can do it anywhere, anytime, and it’s pretty much the most effective tool in your repertoire. When you are feeling anxious, you might notice that your breathing is shallow and quick. It makes sense because your body believes you’re in imminent danger (even if you’re just stressed because of an email that you got).
When you focus on taking deep breaths, to the count of 4-in, 4-hold, 4-exhale, and 4-pause (throwing a “Mississippi” in there to stay honest), you engage your diaphragm.
This is a huge muscle connected to the bottom of your rib cage which separates your lung cavity from the other organs in your lower torso. When you breathe like this, the diaphragm contracts and stimulates the vagus nerve (which runs throughout your body). This stimulation signals the limbic system in your brain to switch over into relaxation mode. Practice this type of breathing when you’re about to face a situation you know makes you anxious, or whenever you’re feeling stressed in general.
Tip 2b: Practice visualization (a.k.a. going to your “happy place”)
We might assume that “playing pretend” is just for children, but letting your imagination run wild in a constructive manner can do wonders. When you’re feeling anxious you can get stuck in your thoughts, worrying about what might happen or wishing you could change the past. While doing this, you are engaging your imagination in a negative way, which fires the stress response, since your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and your what-if’s.
But this can also work for you when you immerse yourself in positive, comforting thoughts. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, allow your mind to take you away to your favorite place (a beach, your hammock, or your Grandma’s couch), getting specific detail-wise. The more you engage your senses (visualizing smells, sounds, and textures), the better it will be for engaging the relaxation response. You can also use these techniques to visualize yourself feeling calm, centered, and at peace.
When starting this practice, it is recommended that you take yourself out of highly stimulating environments so your senses can be more readily engaged in what you’re trying to accomplish.
Tip 2c: Throw on some tunes
This one might be challenging depending on your location (and office policies), but if you’re able, throw in your earbuds and tune out for a couple of minutes. If you have music you know relaxes you, create a playlist for moments of stress. As a tip, it has been proven that music with 60 beats per minute naturally relaxes us. On the other hand, some people find heavy metal does the trick. To each their own!
Tip 2d: Do some desk stretches
When we sit at our computers all hours of the day, our bodies become hunched, creating a lot of stress, and strain in our musculature. When you’re feeling anxious, all of this gets magnified. So, give yourself a quick break and do some stretches at your desk. This will help lessen tension in your body and promote an all-over feeling of calm.
Tip 3: Take a break…
…and get out of there. When we feel anxious, part of our natural response is to flee the situation. And since it’s frowned upon to get up and run away from your boss during a challenging conversation, the nervous energy gets stuck, causing a whole host of issues (headaches, upset stomachs, sore muscles, etc.). When you have a moment get up from your desk and get moving.
Your body will thank you for the increased circulation. Your brain will give you a high-five for the change of scenery and perspective. 5-10 minutes is all you need, but the longer you move, the greater the opportunity your body will have to release feel-good chemicals like serotonin, which will give you a positive shift in mood.
Tip 4: Check your thoughts
This goes hand-in-hand with Tip 1: once you become more aware of what stresses you, you can get better-acquainted with what (and how) you think. Every day your brain spins through thousands (!!!) of thoughts, most which you are entirely unaware of – but they power your moods, your reactions, and, most of all, your health (there’s a whole field called psychoneuroimmunology studying this connection).
To get more familiar with your thoughts, write down all the things you are worried about the next time you’re feeling anxious. Next, go through each item and ask yourself if this worry is something you know 100% is going to happen, or if it’s just something you’re concerned might happen.
For those things you know are imminent, ask yourself if you actually have any control over the outcome. If the answer is “no” or “very little” take a mental step back, because in these scenarios you make things feel infinitely worse by fixating on changing an outcome where you have no influence. Where you do have a chance to help yourself is where you can practice self-care. Lots of self-imposed TLC is a brilliant (and essential!) way to provide the resources your body needs during challenging times.
Tip 5: Avoid workplace gossip
Anthropologists believe that gossiping is a natural way humans sort out who is or isn’t, part of our “tribe”, and ultimately who we can trust. Although this could be true at work (we all know how cathartic it feels to vent about our boss), continuously contributing to these types of conversations, and the feelings of negativity they provoke, is hard on our mental well being.
It is also dangerous to get stuck in the gossip mill because often what gets spread around is a whole lot of fiction and very little fact. Plus, if management finds out you’re a contributor, you will have a whole host of things to worry about that you didn’t see coming. Avoid this type of behavior whenever you can, or if you can’t avoid it, throw a positive comment into the ring to see if you can shift the flow of the conversation.
Tip 6: Set strong boundaries
As mentioned previously, a lot of our feelings of anxiety stem from a perception that we aren’t in control. For many of us, that stems from lack of time, possible financial troubles, issues with our health, or relationship challenges. At work (and in your personal life), if you demonstrate to others — via the boundaries you set — that you don’t feel you are worthy of respect, some people will take advantage of you. The feelings of stress and frustration will quickly follow.
The easiest way to show others to believe you and what you contribute are of value, is through the simple act of saying “no” to tasks, actions, or behaviors you don’t agree or feel comfortable with. Obviously, there are times when “yes” is needed because you want to stay employed, but others, like when your coworkers try once again to pass off their extra tasks, are the perfect occasions to show that kind of stuff isn’t going to fly.
Tip 7: Ask for help
When you do feel overwhelmed and none of the above seems to help, it is time to reach out for assistance. If you feel like you’re drowning in your work, you can get your boss to help prioritize your duties and/or ask for an extension on a deadline. Or, you could reach out to the aforementioned coworkers to see if they can help lighten your workload (with a promise to return the favour).
Your work also might have free, confidential resources such as an Employee Assistance Program which can provide you with free materials and tools to help enhance your coping skills. The key thing is to remember that it’s OK that you can’t “do it all” or feel like you don’t have all the answers. Because none of us really can or do.
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.