Five Workplace Anxiety Triggers and How to Manage Them

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For many students and recent grads, adjusting to a new workplace is an egg-citing transition.

But for others, it can feel like a minefield where you must tread carefully to avoid triggering potential stressors.

Like many disorders, anxiety falls along a spectrum. Feeling a rush of adrenaline just before making a presentation is a normal response, and experts suggest it might even be healthy. But if the prospect of a teleconference makes you feel ill to the point where you want to call in sick, it may be time to assess your anxiety levels.

Overcoming your anxiety will not happen overnight, but it is possible to regain control and manage the symptoms. Outlined below are the five most common workplace anxiety triggers and advice on how to tackle these obstacles head on!

1. Public Speaking

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Humankind’s fear of public speaking goes back so far in history that the Ancient Greeks even had a name for it: glossophobia. But even more ancient than these wordsmithing Athenians is our physiological response to this anxiety, known as the “fight-or-flight” phenomenon. Throughout history, this reaction occurred when we perceived an immediate threat in our environment; for example, when faced with wild animals like bears or wooly mammoths.

But in modern times, the nature of this beast has changed.

Despite all of our advances, the danger-sensing part of our brains has not developed enough to discern the difference between a threatening animal and our fear of public speaking. As a result, giving a presentation to your colleagues may signal a debilitating fear, regardless of how friendly the circumstances. The brain then gives us two options in these scenarios: to run or to fight.

For this section, we’ll be focusing on the second option. Get ready to face your fears head on with the following tips!

  • Stop fleeing from potential stressors. Avoiding public speaking will only give your fear more power, making it increasingly disruptive and persistent.
  • Speak slowly. This may seem easier said than done, but it’s important. When you hurry through a speech, you aren’t giving yourself enough time to breath properly. As a result, you may feel like you aren’t getting enough air, and in extreme cases, this could trigger a panic attack. Speaking slowly will give you more control over your mind, body, and presentation.
  • Engage the audience. Ignoring your audience is an avoidance strategy – what you should really be doing is the opposite: forming a connection. Focusing on the audience takes you out of your own headspace. It also allows you to gauge their reactions to your presentation’s content; the focus then shifts to what you’re saying and why, rather than how.
  • Engage your rational mind. Simply acknowledging your fears stimulates your rational frontal cortex, which then challenges and calms your brain’s “fight or flight” reaction. Remind yourself mentally, “I recognize that I am nervous, but I prepared for this and I am ready.” Afterwards, don’t dwell on mistakes made in the presentation. Tell yourself, “That was hard, but I handled it and I am proud of myself.”

2. Speaking With Authority Figures

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Authority figures come in many forms. They may be a parent, a teacher, or a boss. For those suffering from even mild social anxiety, the fear of interacting with higher-ups at work is often heightened significantly.

Fortunately, a fear of authority is a learned mechanism and can be unlearned (though you should always remember to be respectful and polite!). Ready to face your fear of speaking to authority? Remember the following advice:

  • Humanize them. Recognize that your boss is a person, and that they didn’t always occupy the role they do today. Even CEOs and Presidents have to start somewhere! At one point, they were just like you and probably had similar fears when they were starting out.
  • Stand up tall. Projecting confidence is a valuable skill. Rather than dodging authority figures at work, stand up straight and meet their eye. This simple move communicates that you are professionally capable and willing to engage them in conversation.
  • Remember your manners. For some, interacting with authority can cause a sense of panic that overshadows your social graces. However, observing appropriate manners can distract you from your anxiety. Be sure to listen attentively when being addressed, wait for your turn to speak, and always express gratitude and politeness with “thank you” and “please.” If you can’t control your anxiety, you can at least control your manners, which communicates confidence.

3. Taking on New Challenges

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No matter how secure you are in your habits or your job, change is inevitable. However, what is important is how you react to it: how you turn a challenge into an opportunity. Fear of new challenges is common in the workplace for several reasons: you may be afraid of failure (or of success), of the unknown, or of looking stupid in front of your peers.

Often, when we lose a sense of predictability or routine, we also lose our sense of control over the situation. But fear not – new challenges should be embraced for their potential for positive change and personal growth. Consider the following tactics when dealing with new challenges at work.

  • Seek Support. Sharing your thoughts with others who may be encountering similar experiences can help you process feelings of uncertainty and remind you that you aren’t alone.
  • Communicate. One sure-fire way to spread anxiety over upcoming change is through unfounded gossip. Be sure that conversations about new developments are grounded in fact by communicating with authority figures who are appropriately informed.
  • Cultivate optimism. A glass half full perspective can remind you of all the positive aspects associated with change. For example, maybe a change in management will open better lines of communication, or new opportunities for a promotion. Try not to dwell on negative thoughts or on the fear of the unknown. Remind yourself of challenges you have risen to in the past. What strategies did you use then?

4. Coming Off Visibly Anxious

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In some cases, those suffering from extreme social anxiety develop a secondary phobia, one of appearing visibly nervous to others. The fear of coming off as noticeably anxious is strongly linked to characteristics of perfectionism and image control. Some of these traits include blushing, trembling or shaking, or having your voice crack or stutter.

While it might feel like these responses are out of your control, there are many strategies you can use to overcome them. For instance, you could…

  • Practice in the Mirror. Stand in front of a mirror and act as though you are speaking to someone else. Use the opportunity to assess how your voice and body language come across. By studying your appearance when you are alone, you can practice making gestures and expressions until they become second nature.
  • Enlist friends and family. If you have a major presentation coming up, it helps to practice in front of a supportive audience.
  • Record yourself. If you are unable to enlist family or friends, try using a smartphone or another type of recording device. Having an artificial eye on yourself simulates the experience of being watched and can be useful to overcome image anxiety.
  • Take a public speaking or improv class. By routinely putting yourself in scenarios where you must interact with others, it can help you fake it til you make it. With exposure and practice, you can manage aspects of your appearance and voice that might have previously indicated social anxiety.

5. Perfectionism

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Much like the previous fear of appearing visibly anxious, perfectionism is heavily associated with anxieties of image control. Having high standards is one thing, but a belief that minor flaws will lead to catastrophe is quite another. Perfectionists believe that any mistake is unacceptable and will set increasingly unattainable standards, which could lead to unhealthy lifestyles and mentalities. When perfect is the only option, you set yourself up for failure.

Recognizing perfectionism can be a problem, as many will deny it is even an issue. If you suspect you may be struggling from this disorder, ask your close friends or family members whether they have ever identified perfectionist tendencies in your behaviour. Additionally, the following tips can help address perfectionism.

  • Recognize perfectionist thinking. Acknowledging that aspiring to be perfect is a flaw in itself is the first step to overcoming this workplace anxiety. Practice realistic thinking in scenarios where perfectionist behaviour comes out. Remind yourself that “Everyone makes mistakes,” and “Sometimes it’s okay to not feel okay.” Just repeating these expressions, even if you doubt their validity, has been shown to derail negative thought processes.
  • See the Big Picture. Sometimes perfectionists may get caught up in the details of a project. However, focusing on micro-managing will prevent you from seeing how all the contributions add up to the big picture. Remind yourself that obsessing over the best time to send an email or which font is the most appropriate is neither in your best interest nor the best use of your time.
  • Reward yourself. As counterintuitive as it might seem, rewarding yourself for achieving a less than perfect standard is important to positively reinforce behavioural changes. Rather than beat yourself up over a typo in your PowerPoint, remind yourself that mistakes happen and do something nice for yourself.

It is normal to have workplace fears or anxieties. Nevertheless, if your anxiety feels as if it is controlling your life, it might indicate a serious mental health risk, or, the very least, it could be significantly impairing your productivity levels.

Becoming aware of the varying workplace triggers and identifying strategies to address your fears is the first step towards competency and professional success!

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About the author

Madison Burns is the Content and Community Coordinator and designer at TalentEgg. With a double major in Communication, Culture & Information Tech and Professional Writing, you'll always find her with a book in her hand (or bag). Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow me on Instagram @madi5on!