Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Workplace Anxiety Disorder Impacts Employees at All Levels

The world moves at such a fast pace these days that sometimes we make snap judgments just in order to keep pace.

So, say someone refuses to return your phone calls. The reason? Well, obviously, she's not professional. What about the guy in the cubicle next to yours refusing to take off his headphones so you can ask him a question? What a moron.

The boss who refuses to have a one-on-one meeting with you to discuss a project's progress, and instead bombards you with e-mails night and day? Well, obviously fodder for Bob Sutton's next "asshole boss" book, you think. Jerk.

OK, now take a deep breath. Clear your mind of your judgments and read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday.com. Because it sure opened up my mind to the fact that maybe there are lots of people out there who are terrified to talk to me. Maybe they e-mail me constantly because they're afraid I'm judging them and will find them lacking.

And, maybe, this person who is so afraid and anxious is you...

Amy Lemley says she spent most of her life feeling "like a fraud."

While she portrayed an outgoing and confident persona as a writer and editor, inside she was filled with anxiety — always afraid others would find out what she believed to be a lack of abilities.

Her desire for perfectionism created an "internal critical script" that was "a nagging voice saying that 'If you mess up, everyone will think you're a fraud,' " she says.

Lemley's not alone in her anxiety surrounding work. In a new book with Jonathan Berentcalled "Work Makes Me Nervous," (Wiley, $24.95), Lemley and Berent explore how some people suffer from anxiety in their professional lives.

This goes beyond feeling butterflies when giving a presentation, they explain. Those afflicted with workplace anxiety can be nearly paralyzed at the thought of giving a speech or even attending a meeting with people they know.

Much of the time they will do anything they can to avoid such activities — such as only using e-mail to communicate.

"Millions of people suffer from workplace anxiety disorder," Berent says. "But they don't talk about it because this is a problem that is characterized by shame, embarrassment, humiliation and panic."

Lemley says she would rather hide behind e-mail than deal with phone calls or face-to-face interactions, but she knows that is a slippery slope into letting the disorder take over her life. After learning coping techniques from Berent, she has learned to change her thought processes.

"Let me give you an example: I have a supervisor in the cubicle next to mine, and I was so fearful that she was judging me as incompetent, lazy and stupid that I could not ask a question of the person at the desk next to me," Lemley says. "But now I have the objective part of me say, 'That's ridiculous.' I tell myself I can't get better at what I do unless I ask questions."

Berent says the disorder affects people at all levels of their careers, but he works with many top-level executives who have to come to him because their job is on the line.

"These are people who aren't going to get the promotion — or may even lose their job — if they are not able to speak publicly or interact with others," he says. "They may have learned to survive until this point, but they're in a lot of pain, and that can lead to other problems such as depression or using alcohol."

The authors provide a variety of techniques to help those suffering from the disorder learn to overcome it and rebuild confidence in their professional lives.

They say one technique that can be especially beneficial is the "adrenaline control technique." The steps:

1. Set realistic expectations. You're not going to be able to stop the surge of adrenaline when you're asked to give a speech, so accept it as natural. This is important so you don't become frustrated or angry.

"Those are the emotions that drive the anxiety you feel when adrenaline flows. The truth is you must welcome the adrenaline as fuel for success," they say.

2. Recognize adrenaline is a source of power. When you feel the adrenaline, don't let it panic you.

Instead, see it as a sign that you're ready to move forward.

Berent describes how his hands often become cold before a public appearance, a sign his adrenaline is pumping. While it's "nothing to be scared of," Berent says a similar reaction in someone who lets the anxiety take hold could result in a panic episode.

3. Go with the flow. "Imagine a surfer on a wave, harnessing its energy. .. going with it and in control," the authors write. "The wave represents adrenaline. Accept it. Don't fight it."

Some people have said that the adrenaline actually makes them perform better.

4. Remember to breathe. Take in slow, deep breaths for four counts, and exhale for four counts. This will help calm you.

"I tend to carry stress in my chest, and that makes my back tense. I know when I feel that, I need to pause and take a deep breath. I am choosing to have adrenaline be my friend," Lemley says.

Does work make you nervous? How do you handle it?



Anxiety Attacks said...

Anxiety in the workplace can be a nightmare, i used to work in a kitchen and having panic attacks on a busy shift trying to cook is not pleasant. Being aware of your surroundings and body can keep you level while you work in stressful enviroments. My friend used to have panic attacks in a quiet office, the silence was too much for him. Its incredible what can bring on your anxiety.

Anita said...

I know that after I did this story I started thinking differently about the way some people behave in the workplace, and I hope it will make me more empathetic in the future. As the experts say, there is help for this problem, and people should consult a professional if they can't cope on their own. Thanks for adding your personal story.