7 Practical Strategies for Managing Anxiety at Work

Posted: September 30, 2019

People who are employed full-time spend most of their waking hours at work. With hyper-competitive work environments, increasing student debt, and a drive towards perfectionism, it’s no wonder that workers frequently experience anxiety at work. Good news: First, you’re not alone: in fact, about a third of people will have symptoms severe enough to meet criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. That means even more people experience anxiety (feelings of nervousness, worry, unease) during the work day. Second, remember that anxiety is a normal part of emotional life. That said, when anxiety is holding you back or causing significant distress, it’s helpful to have some coping skills handy to help you weather the storm of emotions that come with a tough day. Here, two Columbia University psychiatrists offer 7 practical tips you can use to manage anxiety at work. 

1. Sleep more, worry less

Around one-third of adults in the United States do not get enough sleep). You’ve probably heard that sleep is important for memory and cognition, which is why people remind kids to get a good night’s rest before a test. You may have also heard that sleepy drivers are as bad as drunk drivers, which demonstrates the importance of sleep in motor performance and judgment. However, many people forget that restorative sleep is critical for optimal emotional performance and resilience. That’s where we get the phrase: “someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” Most people need 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Thrive Global’s sleep page has more information and more tips to improve your sleep. With our patients, our three favorite recommendations are: 

  1. Create a bedtime routine to decompress prior to bedtime. 
  2. Use sleep masks, earplugs, and/or white noise machines to minimize disruptions to sleep. 
  3. Turn off your phone and all sound and light notifications or use software to eliminate blue light from your screens at certain hours. 

These simple tips will help you your mind to truly rest and repair from the day. 

2. Decaf to decompress

Caffeine is the world’s most commonly consumed mind-altering drug. Like many, we drink coffee daily and enjoy the boost that it gives during the work day (especially in the mornings!). But, like any other substance, dosing matters. Many people fall into a problematic cycle of using caffeine to boost energy even late into the day. Too much caffeine can lead to spikes in your anxiety and worry at work. Having caffeine later in the day can negatively impact the quality of your sleep, hurting your productivity the next day and leading to more anxiety. Try to limit your daily coffee (or caffeinated tea consumption) to at most 2 (Starbucks tall-sized) cups per day, and switch to decaf if you need a pick-me-up after 3pm. 

3. Productive procrastination

Do you ever find yourself staring down an important task, not knowing where to start and feeling stuck? The accumulation of tasks is a common cause of workplace anxiety. If you then get paralyzed, other tasks begin to pile up and you find yourself falling behind, causing even more anxiety. If this happens to you, try switching up your order of operations and do the easiest (even mindless) tasks on your list first. This “productive procrastination” will give you a needed sense of accomplishment and build up momentum you can carry over to your bigger tasks. Feeling productive even at a few small tasks will give you peace of mind and boost your mood, helping to alleviate anxiety. 

4. Use noise cancelling headphones to block out distractions

These days, most people work in settings with open floor layouts. While this design enhances connectivity, it also brings with it distractions galore. Frequent interruptions, especially when working towards meeting a deadline, can impair productivity and raise anxiety levels. Noise cancelling headphones are an easy way to block distractions that most workers can use (I’m using a pair as I write this). Simply having the headphones on will signal to others that you’re busy and make them think twice before interrupting your flow. Try soothing music without words, like jazz or classical so that the lyrics don’t interfere with your focus. Or if you prefer, simply enjoy the silence provided by the noise cancellation.


5. Take a break to find your center. 

If you’re feeling panicky or overwhelmed with anxiety, it may be time for a break to regain perspective. First, try taking a short walk or drinking a glass of water. If those don’t work, try an audio guide. There are 3 different types of audio guides we like: guided imagery, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation. The premise is to have a soothing human voice refocus your attention and help you calm down. They have all been proven to reduce stress and anxiety.  There are numerous apps for this (check out a few we recommend here), and most of them have free exercises you can try. You can also find links just by searching Google or Youtube. By reducing the stress hormones associated with the fight or flight response, relaxation may even help boost your brain’s memory.


6. Review your goals, all of them

Anxiety may be a sign that you’re not working on the right things. Review your goals, both personal and professional. Then, compare your goals with your to-do list. A large disconnect may be a sign that you aren’t moving in the right direction. Your to-do list shouldn’t be limited to discrete work-oriented tasks to be checked off and just get you through the day. As you are making your list, ask yourself if your to-do items are leading you towards accomplishing your broader personal and professional goals. If they are not helping you lead the type of life you want to lead, it may be time to start course correcting. For example, if you have a personal goal of being physically fit or running a marathon, and exercise is not anywhere on your calendar or to-do list, try to add in 1 workout per week to start making your week look like the life you want. 

7. Talking to someone, anyone

Finally, talking to someone about whatever is on your mind can help relieve symptoms of anxiety. You don’t have to speak to a therapist to get the benefit of human connection and communication. Whether you are speaking with a close friend, partner, or coworker, talking to another human being allows us to process our own thoughts and feelings while getting support from others. Other people can provide a fresh perspective on our anxiety and help “check the facts” to bring worries that have gotten out of hand back down to size. At the risk of sounding old fashioned, try to make these conversations in person. If that’s not possible, go for a video call or phone call. Texting is a great communication tool, but it won’t give you the same emotional connection to another person that hearing their voice will. 

When to talk to a professional? 

Anxiety is a common part of work and life, and we hope these tips will help you manage your worry in a healthy way. However, if your worries are excessive and persistent or accompanied with debilitating physical symptoms (heart racing, sweats, stomach upset), they may leave you feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. If you feel anxiety symptoms are significantly impeding your ability to function at work or at home, you may have an anxiety disorder. Don’t feel you need to suffer in silence: reach out to a mental health professional to discuss your symptoms and the potential role of therapy and/or medications to help you with your anxiety. The good news is: treatment for anxiety disorders in general is highly effective, and the tools you learn will last a lifetime.