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Four Ways to Reframe Your Anxiety, in the Workplace and Beyond
So many of us are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and some of us are just accepting that that’s the way it is now. We sit around our kitchen tables talking about how bad everything is in the world, our notifications ping for every crisis or opportunity to compare and the cost of living and working longer hours are all provoking our nervous systems to think – “just survive, my god just keep moving forward.”
Now of course, there is a difference between feeling anxiety (the body’s natural response to being in a new situation or experiencing perceived threat) and an anxiety condition such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder where you may need therapy, medication or additional professional support. For many of us these days, however, anxiety is showing up more as an indication that our lifestyle isn’t supportive of good mental health and our stress factors both in reality and through the media are simply affecting us in more profound ways.
As a psychotherapist, mental health consultant and someone who has experienced extreme anxiety myself, I’d like to offer a reframe on anxiety so that you, like me, can take responsibility for your own mental health and move into a space that is relaxed and focused, as you tackle the change and challenges around you. Think of anxiety as a continuum, a long line where on one side you have small physical symptoms only you are aware of and, on the extreme end, a diagnosis that is harder to manage, affects your daily life and is perhaps noticeable by others.
In a remote world of work, many people can hide these symptoms much longer, which often means they wait longer before accessing resources and support - as the human condition is to wait until something is officially ‘a problem’ before doing the hard thing of asking for help. Anxiety at work can show up in so many ways. Here are a few, and of course there are many more: fidgeting under the screen where no one can see your hands, heart palpitations which you cover up by talking faster, shutting down any personal thoughts which could be seen as thoughtful listening, having trouble sleeping, feeling constantly worried about money or circumstances in the world, feeling dizzy or irritable which could be taken out on the people you love the most.
While I would encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out to their workplace resources and helplines to access support, here are four thoughts to consider when managing your own anxiety.
1. Everything starts with radical honesty with yourself
You know yourself better than anyone - even professionals. Of course, there are some principles for health that apply to all, but you know your life story, whether you’ve had trauma in your past that has affected your nervous system, whether you’re in a volatile relationship or experiencing a toxic workplace or other stressful factors in your life. For many of us, we are simply out of the habit of engaging in the world and we feel anxiety symptoms when we do. This doesn’t mean we’re on a fast track to clinical anxiety, but what it means is that it may be worthwhile to practice being brave over time and watch our anxiety symptoms reduce as our confidence grows.
2. Listen to your body (but sometimes your body tricks you)
Now I’m all for listening to your body and giving yourself what you need - this could mean some chill time, extra sleep or staying in when others are going out. But sometimes, your anxiety is simply there to trick you and can shrink your world and make everything feel hard over time. You are essentially safe, but your nervous system is reacting to the news or the fear that comes through in daily conversations with people – it’s reacting to perceived threat rather than real danger.
Sometimes our body tells us to take the easy route because, in the short term, well it’s just easy. Watching Netflix and eating ice cream is easier in the short term than getting up for that walk, calling a friend, taking that leap in business or having a hard conversation with a colleague or partner. So sometimes we actually need to override how we feel and have a little chat with ourselves about healthy habits and the building blocks that enable us to manage anxiety in a healthy way.
Moving our body, talking to friends who can help challenge our thinking and standing up to our thoughts is sometimes the best way to listen to what our body really needs.
3. Check your influences
Now, I grew up in a religious cult, so I know the extremes of groupthink and persuasion and I’m seeing so many of those same red flags in the world today. Fake news or fear-based media, constant dopamine hits from social media affecting our nervous system and advertising that is embedded into the very culture of our thinking.
Comparing ourselves to others and staring at screens all day can feed unhealthy habits into our lifestyles. This is normalized now, especially if everyone around us is also doing the same. Yet, we still feel confused about our anxiety - as if it is only a chemical imbalance or brought on as a deficiency within ourselves.
So, my challenge to you is to check your influences and manage them so that they don’t manage you. This means friendships, screen time, who you follow or listen to etc. and rather than just saying no to more things, why not say yes to things you know will help such as movement, nature, real and honest connection and ensure the people around you can hold you accountable rather than say ”go on have one more drink, you deserve to relax, you can invest in yourself tomorrow”.
Even the world of wellbeing can be an influence that makes us feel inferior. We can feel the pressure to wake up at 5 a.m., journal, have that cold shower, workout and meditate all before we start work and if we’re not keeping up with all these things that ‘successful people’ are telling us to do, then we can still feel like we’re not enough. So also check your influences around lifestyle gurus and coaches and learn to listen to yourself and what you truly need at this phase of your life.
4. Focus on what’s in your control
There is a whole lot that is not in our control. The cost-of-living crisis, political unrest, economic difficulties and the evolving world of work can feel like a big challenge thrown at us, making us accept anxiety as a permanent part of life.
A great mindset tool that I’ve used to build my life up from rock-bottom addiction and trauma into a place of expertise and confidence is focusing on what’s in my control, what’s right in front of me and possible right now. This could be as simple as managing my reactions, listening to a three-minute guided meditation, taking a short walk or writing all of my worries down.
So, when it comes to anxiety, here’s a challenge: rather than do everything in your power to stop anxiety symptoms from occurring, listen to them. What is your anxiety telling you about your lifestyle and what you need, in order to invest in your mental health and take radical action to live a life that you love and enjoy?
Yes, that could include speaking to a doctor, therapist or coach to get some backup in listening to your body and doing what it needs. We all need space to hear our own thoughts out loud and learn about ways to manage how we’re feeling, but when it comes to prevention and managing early signs of anxiety, it really does bring us back to the basics.
The Five Ways to Wellbeing, as researched by the New Economics Foundation, give us insight into how to get started with radical honesty. The foundation for a healthy life includes Connect, Be Active, Take Notice and Give. Ask yourself if you could dial up any of these in your life so that you can focus on the elements that are in your control today.