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The Link Between Expectations and Workplace Anxiety

We live in a world where a large number of people would say that they feel anxious due to something happening at work. This has a huge impact on individuals and a ripple effect on their friends and families. Expectations are incredibly powerful things. They greatly impact the brain and one of the most challenging things about them is that they are often operating under the conscious awareness radar.

What are expectations in the workplace?

Your brain is a prediction machine. It is continually trying to make predictions about what might happen in your future based on what has happened in the past. This means that your thinking isn’t absolute. It is relative and based on your past experiences and memories stored in your brain.

These allow you to build up a picture of a possible future event or experience which in turn creates expectations in your mind. This means that your judgements and evaluations of a situation you come across are not just determined by that precise experience, but also by the expectations that you generated inside your head in the run-up to that moment. But, although some of these predictions are well thought out in your mind, many of them get formed without you even realizing it.

What are some of your expectations in the workplace? Perhaps you expect to keep the kitchen at work a certain level of cleanliness, or you expect to be treated in particular ways - often labelled as “professional courtesy”. Occasionally, workplace teams have shared expectations, such as honesty.

Expectations are so vital to how we work that doctors, especially GPs, are trained to ‘ ICE’ patients, to ask them what their ideas, concerns and expectations are in relation to their consult. If the doctor doesn’t know what the expectations are, then it can be harder to help the patient feel like the consultation was a successful one. Even if their expectations are not met, they are provided with information which should help them understand why. The same applies to workplaces.

The relationship between expectations and anxiety

What actually happens when we have an expectation? And how does it relate to anxiety? When we expect something, we are typically setting up a gap between the current reality and the future reality. Expectations can be positive or negative, in that we can expect things that will make us feel good or feel bad (and a whole range of other emotions).

This can trigger anxiety in two main ways. The first scenario is that we have a positive expectation which isn’t met. This will likely cause a big dip in dopamine levels, which correlates with us feeling lousy. That heart-sink moment when what you hoped would happen just hasn’t. Or more subtly; you just feel let down by someone – even if nothing was explicitly discussed or agreed upon.

The second scenario is that we have a negative expectation and holding that itself is what triggers anxiety. When waiting for something that we perceive as “bad” to happen, our brains and bodies can’t help but respond. The exciting thing to remember here, however, is that it is our perception that is influential.

A key component of both scenarios is our internal dialogue. As the brain responds to what we perceive, one of the places we can intervene to reduce an anxiety response is by addressing our perception. Personally, I’ve deviated from my normal positive processing default to negatively framing more things. It doesn’t feel good.

How to manage expectations

How do we routinely manage our expectations to reduce anxiety? It is important to remember that the brain is plastic. It essentially gets better at what we intentionally repeat. Therefore, you’ll want to build any practice into your regular repertoire of self-development.

Start by thinking about something specific at work that could make you feel stressed out. One of my classics has been when I get emails from people who want to talk to me, but I already have a full week – so I’m looking at my diary and feeling the anxiety rise!

The next step is to step into the shoes of a detective. Who do you feel an affinity with, in the detective world? Is it Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Jessica Fletcher or Nancy Drew? Imagine stepping into their body, thinking as they think, questioning as they question.

Now it’s time to start asking questions. The goal is to uncover what our expectations are in relation to the topic. Sometimes they will be obvious; other times they will be more hidden. For me, I am considering what the expectations are in relation to receiving emails from people who want to talk to me and having a full diary already.

A clear ‘lightbulb’ moment for me was realizing that I expected myself to make other people’s wishes come true. If they wanted to speak, I felt that I needed to find a way for them to speak - quickly. However, I realized that was actually a hidden expectation I had of myself, rather than an absolute truth.

There are likely to be clear ‘penny dropping’ or ‘lightbulb’ moments with this exploration. People often realize that the goals and intentions they may or may not be consciously aware of come from outside influences and haven’t been properly critiqued.

What we frequently find with expectations is that they haven’t been placed in the wider context of other expectations or priorities. For example, whilst I expect myself to be responsive and available, I also expect myself to schedule and respect deep work time when our brains can submerge into topics and produce fresh thinking. I also expect myself to spend quality time with my daughter and husband. Trying to live up to each of these expectations caused negative internal dialogue and stress.

In conclusion, I want you to know that changing how we engage with expectations will change our mental states. Realistic expectations are important. But the advantage is to see the world through eyes that frame your experiences in a positive way.

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