My client, Meredith, is a successful, high-performing professional who gets it done. She’s experienced and instinctual and knows what to do in almost every situation presented to her.
"I can’t turn it off."
"Turn ‘what’ off?"
"The constant thinking, planning, worry, and stress around my job."
"What’s going on? Is there a big project?"
"No, I wish it was one project." I’m juggling many projects. I work long hours, but when I finally get time to relax, I can’t. When I’m with my kids, I’m thinking about a thousand other things I should be doing. When I’m relaxing, guilt hits me like a ton of bricks as I ponder on other things I could be doing. I feel this sense of weight on my shoulders all the time."
"Wow that sounds exhausting."
"Yes, I’m exhausted and I know it’s affecting my performance. My peers who are less experienced than me are getting promoted because they have the energy to go the extra mile and come up with new creative ideas. On the other hand, I’m anxious and somehow bored at the same time."
Sounds familiar? Take a deep breath and read along.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. It can be described as a sense of uneasiness, nervousness, worry, fear, or dread of what's about to happen or what might happen.
To some degree, it’s normal—adaptive even—to be anxious in the face of uncertainty in a fast-changing world. In fact, two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, showed that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in humans and animals. Excessive anxiety, however, impairs performance, and so does too little anxiety.
Today, we'll be addressing workplace stress. Not the kind that helps us become better in the face of challenges... But that dull, never-ending feeling of the "Sunday Scaries". It's the dread and rumination about a work-related situation that keeps you up at night or binging on another cookie to comfort yourself.
From coaching numerous professionals, I've discovered that there are a variety of reasons for anxiety, and the cause for anxiety may vary among individuals.
For some, it’s:
The unrelenting long work hours
The pace of change
A lack of managerial support or office politics
Many professionals ruminate. They continuously ponder on the same thing. Oftentimes, what they ruminate on is sad or dark, maybe even depressing. Most of my clients report having difficulty sleeping. This can impact high performers in many ways.
"I’m exhausted, literally about to break."
"What’s going on?"
"I can’t sleep. I’m exhausted, so I fall asleep, but then I wake up at 1 am, and I’m wired. I can’t stop thinking about work: the emails, to-do lists I never got to, friends I'm yet to reply to, and home projects I haven’t started. I can’t get quality sleep at night. Then, I wake up the next morning with brain fog. This terribly affects my ability to focus and prioritize—I just feel disoriented all the time, doing a ton of things but never getting anything done."
Bill is out to brunch with friends on a Sunday but can’t stop thinking about the work he needs to get done the following week. He can feel the anxiety and desire to go home and start working gradually building up. Because the weight of work he needs to get done is so intense, he can’t enjoy his time with friends.
Rather than leave, he drinks more to numb his feelings. Thereafter, he heads to another bar to watch football with his friends for the rest of the afternoon. He does all these, not because it's fun, but as a distraction from the anxiety or Sunday Scaries.
Continual rumination may be dangerous to your mental health as it can prolong or intensify depression. Excessive rumination may also impair your ability to think and process emotions. Many describe themselves as feeling constantly fatigued, overwhelmed, and tired.
After doing my Chaos to Calm Workshop for over a thousand professionals at this point, I’ve found that the top two ways anxiety is expressed in professionals are through emotional eating and insomnia.
Pro tip: I would highly suggest continuing with rumination and anxiety if you want to increase insomnia and gain unhealthy weight. Otherwise, steer clear.
Why Do We Ruminate?
The American Psychological Association states that rumination includes:
The belief that by ruminating, you’ll gain insight into your life or a problem.
Facing ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled.
Our thoughts are so powerful that we can activate stress responses simply by thinking. Unfortunately, many of us don't know how to turn off these stress responses. And while our bodies are created to deal with stressful situations, they are not built to handle stress 24/7.
We can't change the PAST.
We can't predict the FUTURE.
All we have is the PRESENT.
So, accept and live in the present. Accepting something as it is doesn't mean giving up or giving in. Rather, make peace with the situation, let go of unrealistic expectations or pressures, and create a base from which to move forward.
How do we break the rumination and anxiety loop with mindfulness
(so we can get back to sleeping, planning, remembering things, and caring for ourselves)?
Research suggests that the default mode network (DMN), an interconnected series of brain regions, is involved in the process of rumination. The DMN is activated and set on "autopilot" when we tend to ruminate. However, when we actively pay attention to what we are doing, the DMN is less activated.
A recent meta-analysis revealed that meditation/mindfulness practices are strongly associated with a reduction in the activity of the DMN. Research has specifically shown that mindfulness helps in reducing anxiety and depression.
By being mindful of the present, mindfulness counteracts rumination and worrying. So, we're able to respond to stress with the awareness of what is happening in the present instead of worrying about the past or future (which we have no control over).
"If you can have someone who’s less burned out and less stressed, the employee wins and the employer wins," she says. Debra Kissen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist,
My #1 tool for reducing/eliminating anxiety and increasing your consistent performance:
Acknowledge the rumination or the stressor.
Determine if you can take ACTION. If so, schedule a time that you can focus on it without distractions.
If you cannot impact the stressor, ACCEPT that what you've done is enough. Take time to process if needed, and when ready, move your energy to situations you can impact.
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving in. It entails accepting that you have a limited amount of energy and directing it toward situations or people where you can make a difference. Acceptance could be a process (like grief or forgiveness), or it can be simply acknowledging that you have to wait (accept that you can’t do everything) to hear back from your client to see if they are going to approve the deal you are working on.
The ability to distinguish between where you can take action and where you can't is the most important skill professionals can learn to deal with life's inevitable stressors.
My client, Meredith, started using the AAA method — sometimes it was the last thing she did before she shut off work... Other times, when she noticed she wasn’t present with her family, she would take a minute to excuse herself to go through it for a few minutes.
After two weeks, during our next coaching session, she said she'd just enjoyed her first weekend without worry or anxiety in years. She had used the AAA method that whole week, and by Friday afternoon, when she did it, she knew she had a clear plan of attack for the following week and didn’t need to think about work on the weekend. By the end of our three months of coaching, she said that she actually looks forward to working now. Her anxiety had been replaced by excitement, motivation, and even ease!
In conclusion, there are times when rumination is natural and even adaptive. However, it could become harmful if it causes distress and interferes with your daily functioning.
Some other notes on anxiety in the workplace
Employees: you can choose to tell or not tell your employer. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with a physical or mental disability who are qualified for a job. This can protect you from job discrimination.
Employers: make sure that your employees have access to mental health services and support. (Ahem, like a mindfulness program)
Darcy E. Gruttadaro, JD, the director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, also suggests a few other things employers can do to support their employees:
Educate the workforce and managers."The more visible you make information about mental health conditions like anxiety, the more likely employees will feel psychologically safe in seeking treatment," Gruttadaro says.
Encourage employees to use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Reminding employees about the mental health benefits available can also help. Normalizing anxiety as common and encouraging your workforce to get help when needed is also a good idea, Gruttadaro says.
Support managers in supporting employees with anxiety."This includes working with managers on strategies to manage with empathy and compassion." "This may not come naturally to all managers," Gruttadaro says. "Remind managers that a supportive workplace helps build employee loyalty, dedication, and engagement to perform well for the organization, which ultimately benefits everyone."
Other research on mindfulness:
The results have been positive, indicating that mindfulness is indeed a useful way to help anxiety. This sampling of studies highlights some important findings.
An analysis of 78 randomized controlled trials involving nearly 6,000 participants showed that mindfulness improves attention, memory, and processing speed, helps manage moods, and relieves symptoms of anxiety and depression. 17
A study reported in the 2010 edition of the journal Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging revealed that mindfulness directly changes the brain by increasing gray matter (the tissues in the brain that contain nerve cells, the brain’s power areas). One area of gray matter strengthened by mindfulness is the hippocampus, an area responsible for learning, memory, emotional control, stress responsiveness, and anxiety. In boosting gray matter in the hippocampus, mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and improves our stress response. 18
A study review conducted at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) indicated that mindfulness reduces anxiety by directly benefiting the brain. Mindfulness, these reviewers found, serves as a protection against stress and improves our decision-making ability, something that is negatively affected by anxiety.19
A 2010 study conducted at UCLA found that people who tend to be mindful, focusing on their present moment and approaching life with acceptance, nonjudgment, and openness are less emotionally reactive to stressors and experience low levels of anxiety. 20