How can I work through my work-related anxiety?
July 6, 2009 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations for overcoming fear and anxiety about work?

I have been at my first job out of graduate school for about eight months. I started having anxiety almost immediately, due to high stress, long hours, and a boss who whines, shouts, and has temper tantrums (something I have never been able to handle). I have been taking antidepressants and Xanax to get through the day, but on three separate occasions I have had to leave work because I am too upset/fearful/anxious to be able to compose myself for the rest of the day. I have also called in sick after having panic attacks before work.

I have held other jobs and have experienced milder forms of these symptoms, but never enough that I have to miss work over it. The stress basically a combo of the work environment and having a job with lots of responsibility. Added to my stress, I have (tons) of student loan debt and make a modest salary, and job openings for my experience in my practice area are slim to none.

I am terrified of being laid off, and basically cannot quit, as I have little savings and would look bad on my resume.

Anyone else been in this experience? Anyone able to get to this point and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, go to work, and get on with life? I really need some advice from people who have been there. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You clearly have a psychiatrist, because of the prescriptions you list above, but are you in therapy? You don't mention it, and the best thing you can do to address anxiety issues is to work on them in therapy.

I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but I highly recommend either cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. There's a lot of focus on coping skills in both. If you're in New York, MeFiMail me and I can give you a list of places that have sliding scales so that no matter what your finances are like, it will be affordable.

On top of therapy, I'd recommend yoga and meditation.

And as for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? You have an anxiety disorder, dear. You have control over how you address this, yes. But remember that there is something going on with you right now that needs medical attention.

I've been in the same place as you, with somatic symptoms as part of my panic attacks, and I know it's excruciating. I'm sorry you're in so much pain right now. Seriously, though, try to see a CBT or DBT therapist, if you can.
posted by brina at 3:04 PM on July 6, 2009

I am terrified of being laid off, and basically cannot quit, as I have little savings and would look bad on my resume.

I personally think that needing to take anti anxiety meds in order to get through the day is far worse than having a ding on your resume. Not every job is a good fit - there's no shame in finding something that's a better fit for your personality. I think you're focusing on the wrong end of this equation.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:19 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I started having anxiety almost immediately, due to high stress, long hours, and a boss who whines, shouts, and has temper tantrums (something I have never been able to handle).

Nobody should put up with a boss who whines, shouts, and has temper tantrums. Face it, you have an abusive boss. Considering that you already deal with fear/anxiety issues, it is very important that you get away from this work situation. There is really nothing you can do, in my experience, to "deal" with an abusive boss, short of quitting.

I am terrified of being laid off, and basically cannot quit, as I have little savings and would look bad on my resume.

I can't help you with the lack of savings, but in my opinion, quitting a job with an abusive boss --- especially when it's your first job out of college --- isn't something that can be expected to have a very detrimental effect on your resume.
posted by jayder at 3:19 PM on July 6, 2009

I've been thinking about your situation, and I have a few questions for you to ask yourself:

• You say you have experienced milder forms of these symptoms at other jobs. Do you think your anxiety will be better at another job, or do you think it will eventually reach the same epic levels it has reached at your current job?

• Exactly how often are you having panic attacks? What about anxiety attacks that don't reach full-blown panic? Are the incidents themselves becoming more intense?

• Have you identified the triggers? You're afraid of being laid off, but your boss also mistreats you. Are there any thoughts or incidents that occur right before the panic attack? Thinking this over might help to address the question of whether this is about your boss/hostile workplace or if it's about something you need to address regardless of whether your boss is an evil, incompetent hell beast.

• What is the fear you have in the moment of a panic attack? What is the thought behind that fear? This is the work you should be doing with a therapist, but it doesn't hurt to think about it now.
posted by brina at 3:35 PM on July 6, 2009

You are not ready for this level of responsibility and your boss is shirking his/her own responsibility in managing your progress in order for you to get up to speed. You need time out. Go to the doctor, explain your symptoms and, if possible, have them sign you off for a fortnight. Get some rest and perspective and consider that you might need to switch jobs.

Alternatively you could try some assertiveness training, or at the very least speak to HR in your organisation and ask if they can help. Is there anything you feel would improve the situation? Less contact time with boss? Different office? Internal transfer? A bit of mentoring from another 'boss'? Is there a professional network or membership body outside your job that you can contact for support?

Whatever you decide though, don't be hard on yourself. Difficult bosses make you think it's all your fault - it isn't. Undergoing considerable amounts of therapy and further medication in order to be able to deal with an impossible situation doesn't seem like a good long-term solution. Unless quitting will literally leave you destitute, it could be the most empowering, positive, confidence-building thing you can do for yourself to get out of there. You are not a slave, you do have some choice. Loan payments can be deferred - your peace of mind and sense of self cannot. You can always try part-time work or temporary work (possibly doing something else entirely) until you're back on your feet again.

Very best of luck.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:45 PM on July 6, 2009

I would agree that you need to leave this job for a new one. As soon as possible. Can you go through an agency that will work on placing you? (Although stay away from the ones that will take a cut of your pay. You want the ones that get the company to pay upfront for you) This is the best way to find a new job as far as I'm concerned. Get yourself hooked up with an agency (or several) and hopefully it will only be a matter of time before they find you some new prospects.

NOTHING is more important than your (mental) health. I know this from experience and wish I had taken myself out of a similarly health-damaging environment sooner.

In the meantime, practice rolling your eyes at your boss when he/she isn't looking. Try to see the childish behavior as ridiculously funny rather than threatening. You need to emotionally distance yourself from this individual.
posted by kitcat at 3:52 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The problems you describe are, in a sense, the same problems that everyone deals with. The degree to which you are affected is significantly greater, of course, but this doesn't mean that you shouldn't attempt to use the same methods that the average person uses to deal with stress at work.

Yes, go to therapy. And if medication is called for, take medication. But at the same time, step back from your responsibilities at work and take a problem-solving approach to your job. Figure out at a granular level what it is that you're supposed to do all day. What tasks do you need to carry out, what interactions do you need to be a part of, what skills are you called upon to use. Figure out which of these you're already an expert at, and which cause you uncertainty. As brina suggests, identify your triggers, and then come up with a plan to dance around them.

The solution may turn out to be finding a new job, but in order to find a new job that will suit you better, you need to know what triggers to avoid, and you won't find that in a medicine bottle.

Another possibility? Figure out something you can do exceptionally well, no matter how trivial you consider it, and get a second job doing that, even if it's only for a few hours a week. Find something where you can exist comfortably in the workplace, and then try to build on that.
posted by RobinFiveWords at 4:26 PM on July 6, 2009

In slight contrast to the folks above:

You seem to be very self-aware (you know how you feel and what is making you feel that way). That awareness (or some pre-existing issues) might also be making you more sensitive to this kind of environment.

Have you experienced any other work environment before that you can use for comparison?
Are there co-workers that you could talk to to confirm that the issue is as bad as it feels?
Can you describe any specific incidents that would allow the hive to make an objective judgment?

It sounds gloomy, but your job might just be a normal job and your boss might just be a normal boss (if indeed you are super sensitive to anxiety or the weight of responsibility). Without confirming your suspicions with a peer, or explaining the exact kind of behavior to a therapist (or us) no one can really tell you if what you are exposed to is unreasonable.

Without being able to determine if your environment is reasonable or not, no one can really tell you that switching jobs is going to help. In fact, it is possible that you might inadvertently jump out of the pan into the fire.

Try to find out if the problem is a problem with the work environment or your perception of the work environment. No one should have to have a panic attack going in to work everyday, that much is clear. I would try to figure out the "why" before jumping ship.

Good luck!
posted by milqman at 4:47 PM on July 6, 2009

I experience this everyday. I hate my boss and would rather not work for him. I cannot quit because I need the cash. So, I look for another job and suck it up in the meantime. I would guess that 50+% of all workers feel this way.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:13 PM on July 6, 2009

on three separate occasions I have had to leave work because I am too upset/fearful/anxious to be able to compose myself for the rest of the day. I have also called in sick after having panic attacks before work.

I would agree that many, many people justifiably hate their bosses and their jobs. And that it causes them stress and misery. But 50+% of workers don't feel anything even close to what the OP is describing. IANAD, but this sounds like severe anxiety and depression and it's interfering with the OP's ability to carry out normal, day-to-day tasks. This being the case, even if the job and environment are within the 'normal' range as far as stress goes, sucking it up isn't working (it's been 8 months already) and I would say it isn't advisable either. Besides, the OP isn't asking whether we think his/her feelings are reasonable. Anxiety and depression are never reasonable.

OP: Whether it's meds tweaking, therapy/counseling or a new job you need (and I would suggest you need all three), please consider that you very probably cannot fight your anxiety by sheer force of will. Think about it - how do you plan to do that? Maybe you tell the anxious parts of your mind to shut up over and over again. Maybe you try to numb your anxious feelings. Problem is, you can't selectively numb only certain types of feelings and not others. These efforts are likely to worsen your depressive symptoms, making the whole thing into a visious cycle.

Do you have benefits at your job? You may be covered for a therapist. Or, your work may offer free employee counseling (confidential, of course). Keep going back to your doctor for monitoring - meds may need to change and dosages may need to be adjusted.

I wish I could tell you that it's possible to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it, but that's just not my experience and I haven't seen or heard of anyone else being able to do it either. Don't beat yourself up because you can't. That's really the best advice I can give. Good luck to you.
posted by kitcat at 12:30 PM on July 7, 2009

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