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5 Ways Anxiety Can Sabotage Your Work Performance (and How to Keep It at Bay)

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If you feel on edge these days, you're not alone: most people have experienced an uptick in stress, depression, and anxiety over the past year, according to the American Psychological Association. It's been a seventh-inning stretch of curveballs, as we've all adjusted to remote working, endless Zoom calls, and attempting to find a work-life balance. However, being in a state of constant angst can be a productivity killer and career saboteur, warns Amanda Augustine, a career expert at TopResume.

"[Anxiety] often rears its ugly head in the workplace when you're feeling especially stressed about an impending deadline, an important meeting or presentation, or a project that's forcing you out of your comfort zone," she says.

What does anxiety look like? It often causes easy-to-detect symptoms like a fast heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, and bouts of fatigue. "And, if you suffer from an anxiety disorder, these intense feelings of nervousness, excessive worry, or fear can seemingly come out of nowhere, consuming your day and interfering with your work-life," Augustine adds.

If you feel as if you aren't able to cope, it's essential to seek help from a mental health professional. However, there are some self-coping mechanisms you can turn to, as recommended by career experts and psychologists. Here are some of the biggest ways anxiety can impact performance and frame of mind in a professional setting—and how to work through it.

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Anxiety makes you less focused.

Anxiety usually takes form in cyclical disruptive, negative thoughts that feel intrusive to our usual patterns. As you fret over something you can’t control, you lose the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, engage your creativity, or formulate new ideas, explains Hanna Stensby, MA, a marriage and family therapist. In short, your brain is all over the place—except where it needs to be in the present.

Stensby suggests utilizing mindfulness techniques by training your brain to become stronger at refocusing your attention to bring yourself back to the present moment. “By creating a daily mindfulness practice, you’ll increase your ability to shift your focus and engage in the thoughts that you choose rather than automatically giving power to thoughts that are intrusive due to anxiety,” she explains.

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A helpful way to picture anxiety—your swirling, stressful stream of thoughts—is a rushing river. It floods over you and takes control, and you’re left scrambling to come above the surface. When you find a ritual that helps you swim—maybe deep breathing or going for a walk—Stensby says you learn to pull yourself out of the river and sit on the bank. Then you can watch the river go by, without being swept away. “This [mindfulness-based] exercise helps to restructure the way you think about your thoughts,” she says. “You don’t have to believe everything you think, and you don’t have to engage in every thought that comes across your mind.”

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Anxiety makes you irritable.

When we’re feeling off balance, it shows. And often in not-so-pretty ways. Anxiety can cause us to become irritable, impatient and, well, flat-out grumpy, says Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles. Though you shouldn’t force yourself to put on a happy face when you’re really struggling with anxiety, it’s crucial to control your responses to others in a professional setting— particularly your colleagues and manager. “Because you’re feeling emotionally distressed and uncomfortable, you may easily feel annoyed,” Thomas says. “As a consequence, you may have problems with or [project] your upset onto those who you interact with at work. Especially if there’s a collaborative project, your colleagues may find you uncooperative, offensive, or harsh.” And as a result, you may become ostracized by your professional community or face ramifications from the higher-ups.

Thomas says it’s vital to find a healthy way to decrease your anxiety before heading into the office (or opening up your laptop at home). One tried-and-true solution is exercising for 30 minutes in the morning—a ritual that can help mitigate anxiety in both the short- and long-term. “By exercising before work, not only are you taking care of your physical health, but you’re also getting your emotional health back to a more appropriate place,” she says. “And this makes your work performance and interactions with co-workers less likely to be problematic.”

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Anxiety makes you disengaged.

People with anxiety are in a constant state of fight or flight and therefore have a hard time focusing on the day-to-day demands of work, explains Lorna Borenstein, CEO and founder of Grokker. This means you’re either lacing up your gloves to become defensive or you’re withdrawing from your responsibilities and colleagues. “If work is causing or adding to your anxiety, and you feel like your managers or employers don’t care, this makes the situation even worse,” she says.

If you feel left out or as if your voice goes unheard, resulting in more anxiety, don’t be afraid to express your concerns. Make a conscious effort to integrate yourself as part of the culture. “To help manage the anxiety that leads to disengagement, it’s important to connect with others at work and try to develop friendships with colleagues,” Borenstein recommends.

Anxiety can fuel an intense fear of failure.

Since anxiety is often born out of an underlying sense of dread, it can make you doubt yourself and your capabilities. After all, if something in your head is always preaching scary things, it’s normal to be afraid. Sadly, Augustine says the fear of failure can be so overwhelming that it can cause paralysis. “Those who suffer from this may find it hard to begin a project because they’re so worried about failing,” she continues.

Whether it manifests itself as writer’s block or severe procrastination, Augustine says the best way to overcome this situation is to take a small step in the right direction. You can do this by channeling your nervous energy for good. This includes acknowledging your feelings rather than suppressing them and then finding the silver lining. “Remember, when you’re feeling anxious about something, it’s because you actually care about that project, meeting, or presentation,” she says. “Instead of stressing about your anxiety and wasting energy trying to manage it, look for ways to use this nervous energy to help accomplish your goal.”

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Anxiety can stagnate your career.

Another form of professional-oriented anxiety is based on social interactions. This means when you attend a networking event, you stick to the corner, hoping to go unnoticed and then leave as soon as appropriate. Or when your team members are going out for lunch, you’re too nervous about joining them for a salad and chat. Unfortunately, when we give in to our social anxiety triggers, we can stagnate our careers, since we may avoid situations necessary for advancement, says entrepreneur and nutritionist Serena Poon.

As you may guess, the solution for this type of anxiety is to lean in to that discomfort. “If you change your mindset to think of every presentation and conversation as a practice that will help you improve, it may help get you over the fear,” she says. “As you do this, try not to judge the outcome. Even if you do something super awkward, it helps to remember that we’re all human. With more practice, standing in front of a crowd and chatting with others can feel like second nature.”

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