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  • Writer's pictureLaurence Paquette

Confessions of an anxious person: thriving at work when suffering from anxiety

Updated: Oct 23, 2023


I don’t remember the first time I experienced anxiety and I can’t recall a time when anxiety was not around and ready to creep on me. It seems that I have always had an inclination for anxiety and that at times, when the anxiousness reaches a peak, it turns into a panic attack. Although anxiety is common and many struggle with it on an ongoing basis, it remains somewhat of a taboo topic in the workplace. I can’t recall any specific instance in my career where a peer of mine told me they had anxiety or that they needed a moment to calm down because a panic attack was creeping on them. Anxiety in a work context continues to be taboo and I think that’s a shame because I am sure it’s not just me who carries anxiety around.

Personally, I experience anxiety in all facets of my life. At home, at work, with my family, with friends and also when I am on my own. Over the years, I have learned to identify some of my triggers and learned to manage myself well, but it doesn’t mean I don’t get anxious. I do and I do at work.

Anxiety is a natural and common human response to stress and perceived threats. It is usually characterized by feeling worried, fear and important apprehensions. For people like me who suffer from anxiety, the feeling of worry, fear and apprehension can become overwhelmingly strong to the extent of impairing and preventing us from being fully rational, confusing our concerns and reality. When anxiety reaches its peak, it can transform into a panic attack, which I personally don’t recommend to anyone as it is always a very unpleasant experience. For those of you who have the privilege of not knowing what a panic attack is, let me explain in a few words. A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of fear that is usually accompanied by physical and psychological symptoms. Panic attacks can occur with or without warning and usually reach their peak within a few minutes. During a panic attack, individuals may experience a combination of the following: heart palpitations (✓ for me), chest pain or tightness (✓ for me), shortness of breath, dizziness (✓ for me), sweating or chills, trembling or shaking, nausea or stomach discomfort (✓ for me), tingling or numbness in extremities, headaches (✓ for me), fatigue, tunnel vision (✓ for me) and a few more. Additionally, the panic attack is accompanied by psychological symptoms such as feeling detached from oneself (✓ for me), fear of dying (sometimes for me), fear of losing control, sense of impending doom (✓ for me), depersonalisation (✓ for me), hypervigilance (✓ for me), paranoia (✓ for me), racing thoughts (✓ for me), confusion (✓ for me) and others. So imagine a moment where you feel all the check marks at once, that is how a panic attack feels for me. Happily, I manage my anxiety well enough not to have panic attacks too often, but they happen. For example, and probably somewhat of a taboo topic, I had an important panic attack while giving birth to our daughter (story for another day). Panic attacks happen and as I can’t choose when and where they do, they have also happened while I was at work.

Although I have had panic attacks at work, this is definitely not something I have talked about before because I didn’t want the negative stigma of anxiety labeled on me or for my peers or superiors to perceive me as weak or unfit for the job. Now that I have spent almost 12 years with the same employer and climbed the ladder repeatedly, I feel comfortable enough to speak about this taboo and say, yes, I have anxiety. Over the years, I have spent time understanding my anxiety, assessing its presence in my life and I have developed effective strategies to manage it. In this article, I dive into the topic of anxiety and provide some practical tips to help others navigate and cope with anxiety more effectively. I also share this article so that others may find themselves more comfortable talking about this topic, even in a professional context.

The signs of anxiety:

Assessing if one is experiencing anxiety is an essential step in managing it effectively. Here are some indicators that may show whether one has anxiety:

  • Catastrophic thinking: imagining worst-case scenarios and fearing negative outcomes excessively. I personally experience this often, even more so now that I have children as I will worry to an extreme about them in ways that aren’t necessarily rational. For example, I always worry greatly when my kids are going to the pool with other family members and I imagine the worst happening… every time!

  • Sleeping difficulties: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or having disturbed sleep patterns

  • Irrational fears or exaggerated fears

  • Racing thoughts

  • Avoidance behavior: avoiding situation and activities that might trigger anxiety

  • Physical tension: muscle tension, jaw clenching and/or headaches

  • Physical symptoms: experiencing the physical manifestations of anxiety and panic attacks such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness etc.

  • Procrastination as a coping mechanism to avoid anxiety triggering activities

  • Hypervigilance: being excessively cautious or alert to potential threats or dangers, even when there is no risk.

  • Panic attacks: sudden episodes of intense fears accompanied my physical and psychological symptoms.

  • Restlessness: inability to relax or feeling constantly on edge

  • Irritability: low tolerance for frustration, impatience or becoming easily agitated or angry.

  • Excessive self-doubt

  • Heightened startle response

  • Perceived loss of control

  • Etc

As you can see, anxiety manifests itself in many ways and most of us will have a combination of the above, which will change based on the context and situation. I am not always anxious, but I easily get worried and my anxiety can easily be triggered and spiral beyond my control if I don’t ground myself effectively.

Work triggers:

In a work context, anxiety can present itself in different shapes and can be triggered by different factors such as:

  • High workload

  • Perfectionism

  • Performance expectations

  • Public speaking

  • Conflict or difficult situation to manage

  • Changes or uncertainty

  • Job insecurity

  • Work-life balance challenges

  • Work culture

  • Lack of support

  • Job dissatisfaction

  • Discrimination or inequality

  • Excessive pressure

  • Etc.

This in turn can impact someone’s ability to perform at work as the person suffering from anxiety might experience racing thoughts, perfectionism paralysis, social anxiety, decision-making anxiety, conflict anxiety and so much more.

Laurence experiences anxiety at work:

As I have experienced anxiety and panic attacks at work and as I want to diminish the negative stigma that comes with anxiousness, let me share some anecdotal situations where my anxiety was triggered.

  • Meetings: I have experienced anxiety and panic attacks in meetings. Triggered by various factors, I have found myself surrounded by colleagues in meetings where my heart started to race, my chest felt tight and my vision became tunneled. On some occasions, I have managed to ground myself on the spot, but I have also had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom to regain composure. For a long time, I felt a deep sense of shame around this, but I don’t think it’s being fair nor kind to myself… It happens. You can read more about my challenges in meetings here.

  • Networking: I have experienced anxiety in networking events many times. The strength it takes to converse with strangers can be a trigger for me. I have struggled with it enough to have written an entire other post about this, which you can find here: Networking for introverts and social overthinkers

  • Presentations: I have had anxiety during presentations many times. Over the years, I have learned that the only way for me to manage my anxiety when I present is to control everything I say. Therefore, I rehearse until I know everything I will say and can put myself on auto-pilot. You can read more about my views on presenting here.

  • Elevators: yes, I know it sounds embarrassing and it might be a little bit, but entering crowded elevators isn’t my favorite thing. I actually secretly rejoice everytime I take the elevator alone. I am not a fan of tight close spaces with other people.

  • Flying for work (or pleasure): a few years back, I developed an important fear of flying. It’s much better now. If you fear flying, read my post on the topic here.

  • Team-building exercises: many team-building exercises push us out of our comfort zone and for me that can be a trigger for anxiety and even a panic attack. I was once at such an event and we had to finish an obstacle course in teams. This included ziplines, climbing walls and a lot of pressure to finish as fast as possible. I had to step out of the activity as my panic became uncontrollable. At the time, I felt embarrassed so I didn’t tell anyone I was having a panic attack and just blamed my fear of heights, but it was way more than that. Since then, I have been very careful and aware in my selection of team building events to ensure I don’t push employees across their trigger point.

  • Crowded commute: I have felt anxiety in crowded commutes and on the metro many times.

I have experienced anxiety and panic attacks in many more situations, but this is a short summary to really showcase that this can happen in various different settings and although it’s unpleasant, it happens and we shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed. What is important to acknowledge is how we feel and learn ways and techniques to regain composure and ground ourselves so anxiety doesn’t become a handicap.

How I manage my anxiety:

Here are some of the tricks I have learned to manage my anxiety, both at home and at work so I can bounce back quickly and thrive at work regardless of my overly worried brain:

  • Self-awareness: being aware of our anxiety is key. It needs to be acknowledged and not ignored. By acknowledging it, we can start observing what triggers it and start managing the triggers to prevent anxiety surprising us. And when facing a triggering situation, we can defuse the potential panic attack by grounding ourselves and doing some breathing exercise in plain sight.

  • Breathing exercise: I always do “box breathing” when I sense panic creeping up on me. Box breathing is a deep breathing technique that can help you slow down your breathing. It works by distracting your mind as you count to four, calming your nervous system, and decreasing stress in your body. It’s a simple technique where you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and repeat. Additionally to box breathing, I also like to use the double breathing technique for a quick fix. Double breathing is simply to inhale twice back to back followed by a long exhale. This slows the heart rate and provides a quick sense of calmness.

  • Physical exercises: I can’t stress enough how physical exercise is the greatest management tool for anxiety. I train daily to manage my mental health and balance my overly anxious brain. Physical exercise has become my most important anxiety management technique in the last few years and this is not a quick fix, this is just something I need to do daily to ensure I have a greater composure and I will continue for the rest of my life. Physical exercises provide me with endorphins and it reduces stress.

  • Seek support: I am not ashamed or embarrassed to say that I have been through therapy a few times in my life and for various reasons. Every therapy I have done has helped me grow and develop and I can’t stress enough the importance of seeking support when needed. I am a firm believer that no one is too good for therapy.

  • Pragmatism: as my brain tends to wander towards racing thoughts and catastrophes, I have learned to ground myself in pragmatism. As I feel my head racing, I breathe and remind myself of the reality of the situation and try to stay as pragmatic as I can. This doesn’t always work, but I try…

  • Mindfulness and meditation: I try to do some meditation but I admit that I have not cracked the code on this one yet. If anyone has good advice, I am all ears on this one.

  • Time management: time stressed me out. Actually time is my greatest anxiety trigger of all. I get anxious because of time. Either there is too much time until the next thing or there isn’t enough time to do all that I need or want to do. This is a huge source of anxiety for me so I time box and plan everything with an allocated time slot. This keeps me in control and reduces a lot of anxiety triggers.

  • Speak up: when anxiety is creeping up on me, I have started to tell people more about it, especially at home. I will say that I am becoming anxious and need a moment to calm down. This proves to be enormously helpful as I have stopped being ashamed of how I feel and people give me space to ground myself again.

Overall there are many ways to manage anxiety and attempt to prevent panic attacks, whether at work or at home. I don’t always manage, but I have learned many techniques that allow me to control my anxiety effectively most of the time. As an anxious professional managing my anxiety continues to be a process that requires ongoing self-awareness, self-care and proactivity. More importantly, I think that not being ashamed of my anxiety has helped me greatly. It is part of who I am and hiding it makes it worse.

Finally, I’d like to end this article by reminding myself and everyone that it is common and very human to experience anxiety. When that is said, this topic remains taboo and unspoken in the workplace because there is a negative stigma around this. Many people would assume that having anxiety would prevent someone from thriving in a corporate environment and prevent individuals from being successful. I hope to prove that this is not the case. One can have anxiety and yet thrive and deliver as long as one practices self-awareness and self-management. Let’s be more open at work and allow ourselves to talk about our fears, our worries and our anxiety.

Confessions of an anxious person.


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