Most older people who have been in the workplace for a while know about anxiety on the job. This is not college-style stress: “I know I am going to bomb my exam,” or “Are we about to break up?” type of anxiety, but an increasingly persistent or acute kind of tension that sticks in the pit of your stomach and lasts long after 5:00 rolls around. The type that sends you to the nearest brewpub instead of to the gym after work. But if you are just starting out in the work world, you might not be familiar with some of the signs or know how to manage them. So, quiz yourself:
Do you dread going to work each day even though you like your new job?
While at work, do you become easily upset or find it difficult to control emotions like worry, fear, or irritability?
Are you excessively tired before or after work? Do you find it difficult to fall or stay asleep?
Do you often experience a rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, panic, stomach problems, or headaches when faced with a challenge?
Everyone has these symptoms sometimes, like when the boss unexpectedly puts us on the spot in a meeting filled with top-level executives. But if you have no related health issues and you replied ‘yes’ to any of the questions, then consider whether there is a trigger for the symptoms or if these are your new norm. Persistent anxiety is something you must pay attention to because diagnosing and dealing with it early, can prevent chronic health problems and help you become the confident, successful individual you wish to be.
When Stress Becomes an Illness
We know that our mental and physical functions are connected. In fact, there is a direct line of communication between our brain and the organs called the vagus nerve. It handles the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions that interact with our organs to control energy, breathing rate, blood pressure, alertness, and even the relaxation response. When we get super stressed, neurotransmitter signals along this highway can cause accelerated heart rate, respiration, digestive upset, dizziness, and sweating. Over time, over-stimulated organs and nerves can result in irritable bowel syndrome (and it is estimated that 25-45 million people have some level of this gut disorder!), bruxism (teeth-grinding), psoriasis, respiratory ailments like asthma, and even heart disease.
If left too long, low-level fear or a generalized anxiety disorder can worsen beyond physical symptoms to psychological conditions like a phobia or a full-on panic disorder. And no one wants to experience a melt-down during a project meeting!
So, don’t let an overstimulated vagus nerve ruin your career. Here are some ways that you can help yourself in addition to alerting your doctor about any health effects stress and anxiety may be causing.
Take Control of Anxiety
We have often heard that some stress is good stress. While it is true that anxiety can be a catalyst for achievement, it should not control our lives. To practice self-care in managing your job stress before it gets out of control, try these techniques:
- First, realize that you have some control over aspects of your mental health and how you view stressful situations. Understanding your own power over your thoughts can help you build resilience to tackle life’s most difficult challenges. Check out psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s fascinating ideas for changing how we view stress.
- If you are nervous about starting a job, minimize stressful distractions. Turn off the news and take a break from politics and internet trolls. Snarky and rude Twitter posts or click-bait like, “Can that wrinkle on your skin be cancer?” can worsen anxiety. Remember the old internet adage: garbage in, garbage out. Don’t feed worry with negative inputs.
- Exercise and diet are like medicine for the brain. Endorphins, produced during exercise, are nature’s opiate without the harmful side-effects. A proper diet high in stress-relieving foods like whole-grain carbs, lean proteins, nuts, probiotics, and omega-3s, will give you the strength to tackle even the most stressful day.
- Deep breathing is a time-tested technique that tells the vagus nerve to release acetylcholine – the chill-out neurotransmitter. Practice taking several deep breaths if public speaking makes you nervous. Set your fitness watch or phone app to start a relaxation and breathing routine every hour or so, which you can do at your desk or on your lunchtime walk. Practice meditation, or try one of these vagus nerve stimulation exercises to relax and re-energize your mind.
If uncontrolled anxiety and stress are upending your career or enjoyment of life, do something about it. If you think that your workplace culture is to blame, talk to your human resources manager about ways to reduce workplace stress. Be sure to contact your doctor or mental health provider if your anxiety disorder is out of control or you are experiencing panic attacks. Psychotherapy, meditation techniques, and medications can be helpful.
The first step is to address symptoms early before they get out of hand. Don’t let anxiety prevent you from achieving success in your career!