Simple techniques to short-circuit anxiety, please!
November 19, 2007 8:20 AM   Subscribe

My-work-is-stressing-me-out filter: What are simple techniques for ratcheting down the anxiety level during the day? Tips on how to combat the physical symptoms of anxiety especially appreciated!

My work is stressing me out, but it's all basically from good stuff: as I'm moving up, I keep getting handed new opportunities to develop in my career (yay!). However, they're always outside my comfort zone, and so make me feel stressed out (boo!). I'm talking about things like being put in charge of running certain projects, being asked to report to senior management about progress on stuff under my purview, being asked to give presentations to clients... so the solution isn't to "make work less stressful." I'm just one of those people that tends to get pretty anxious when I'm outside my comfort zone, and I have a hard time letting that anxiety go when I leave the office. (I've gotten to the point where I can't even watch certain shows when I get home at night, like Freaks and Geeks or The Office, because what used to be mildly uncomfortable but hilariously funny has become actually painful to add on top of my general anxiety level. I have to avert my eyes and cover my ears. I miss Steve Carrell! I want the funny back!)

So, does anyone have tips about concrete actions I can take when I start to notice the physical signs of anxiety at my job? (Things like my shoulders around my ears, or my heart beating faster when I think about something I need to do, or my perma-jiggling foot). Bonus points for concrete actions or mental tricks I can do to nip avoidance in the bud (yes, sometimes I shut down Outlook for an hour so I don't see the little envelope with new mail that I'm too nervous to open).

Possibly relevant information: I have my own office with a door (magic stretches?). I have access to a refrigerator and microwave (magic tea?). I workout regularly and I've cut myself down to one cup of coffee per day and no other caffeine. I've done therapy before, and it's A++ awesome for dealing with serious problems and issues, but I really don't feel like I'm at the point I need to do that--this is more annoying than actually debilitating.

I'm usually pretty good at taking care of myself, but I've really run out of ideas on how to deal with this, and the physical manifestations of anxiety really suck. Warm baths after a tough day ain't cutting it anymore. Help!
posted by iminurmefi to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I totally understand what you mean. I'm the same type of person in a fast growing business who works at an executive level. Here's the short version of what I'd suggest (and what works for me):

1. Drink lots of water. Keeps you healthy and feeling good. Work out too if you don't already.

2. Don't be afraid to turn off your computer for 10 minutes every two or three hours to center yourself. I usually take a walk around the block to calm myself.

3. Do your best to keep everything in perspective. No matter what happens, you're smart and think on your feet - that's why you have the opportunities you do. Trust yourself to figure out a way to make things work (because you always do). And if you drop the ball, realize that the equity you've built up with your team and senior management means they trust you and will likely cut you slack.

4. Work hard, play hard. In other words, carve out time in your life for good food, great friends and fun times. You can't work all the time.

5. If you can afford it, go get a massage (or otherwise pamper yourself) at least once a month.

6. Delegate as much as you can... and be honest with your senior management. Its better to say "no" to something then take on more then you can successfully manage.
posted by tundro at 8:26 AM on November 19, 2007

Is there something about your job that consistently stresses you? For instance, do you feel like things come at you too fast, or too many things at once? Would learning to better organize or manage your time help, if so? When I have too much going on, I set aside specific times during the day to perform certain job functions, and don't let anything interrupt me from those tasks. Block off time on your calendar.

If this isn't an issue, here are some other things I do.

-Breathing/meditation exercises. You have an office, so one thing you could do that is simple would be to walk slowly across your office, placing each foot on the heel and rolling it forward to the toe, and then placing the next foot. Concentrate on your feet and rolling them.

-Can you lose yourself in a picture? I have several nature scenes on my walls. Put yourself into that environment for a few minutes. What do the trees feel like? How warm is it? Think about that picture. If it gets old, replace it with a new picture.

-Go for a walk. There's a vending machine in my office, but if I get a snack I always go to the one that is several stories down and I take the stairs.
posted by veronitron at 8:32 AM on November 19, 2007

big thing for me is to recognize my standard stress-based defensive reactions to situations and be on the lookout for them.

i'm in a field where i have to switch back and forth between proactive and reactive throughout the day, and that can make for some weird emotional reactions.

watch for those things to come on and always be prepared to calm yourself.

i personally get some water, do light yoga or resistance exercise every hour and a half or so for about five minutes, just do anything to get away from the machine.

i also share my office with a shockingly lazy cat, and animals can be enormously therapeutic. pet the kitty.
posted by patricking at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2007

If it's really bad, go for a walk. Breathe in counting the steps to four, breathe out counting the right foot steps to four. Repeat until calm.
posted by ewkpates at 8:56 AM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

When you notice the physical symptoms you mention, try not to attack them with a "OMG MUST STOP DOING THAT!" attitude, if that's something you're prone to. Sometimes we can get anxious over the symptoms of being anxious, rather than just accepting them as reminders that we're human beings with fluctuating emotions.

I have the heart palpitations thing too when I'm anxious. When I notice it happening, I try to breathe calmly and just think, "Hmm, my heart's beating fast. That usually means I'm nervous. I wonder if there's anything in particular I'm nervous about. It's like X event. Well, being nervous about that makes sense."

That sounds weird all written out, I know. I guess my general attitude is that when my body acts up like that, it's trying to tell me something, to get me to notice that the stuff going on in my head is also affecting the rest of my body, and just to be sensitive to that fact. So I just try to notice, without judgment, what's going on, and I think that staying connected to what's going on without trying to change it is the most effective way of calming down.

The analogy I use is: If your partner was in a highly emotional or stressed out or angry state, what would be the most effective response -- emphatically saying "Stop doing that! Calm down! I hate that!" or calmly saying, "I understand you're upset, and your mood makes sense to me. How can I help make you feel better right now?"
posted by occhiblu at 9:01 AM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Errr, "It's like X event" should have been "It's likely X event."
posted by occhiblu at 9:02 AM on November 19, 2007

I am in the classroom with high needs students for approximately 5 hours a day. When you're in the classroom with these folks, there is no down time. However, we do have regular and fairly frequent breaks; whenever I can, I come back to my office and look at Cute Overload for a few minutes. I mean this in all seriousness. For whatever reason, looking at cute pictures of animals really brings my blood pressure and stress levels down. It is SO different from my job and allows me to zone out while I look at amusing/cute fluffy critters. Then I can go back and teach with a little more energy and a calmer attitude.

Are there any pleasant, soothing images you can keep in your office or find on the internet that will allow you to zone out?

[On preview: I guess this is like a combo of veronitron's nature picture and patricking's office kitty.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:12 AM on November 19, 2007

Response by poster: occhiblu--hmm. You know, your suggestion actually made me realize that I guess the real problem is that while I'm starting to recognize the anxiety for what it is (progress! I'm not just being cranky, I can actually pinpoint that it's the tight muscles, rapidly beating heart, etc), my methods of *dealing* with that anxiety are... less than productive.

Like (for instance) opening up a game of solitaire and playing it for 30 minutes to "calm down" (actually, to avoid dealing with the stressor, because I don't feel particularly calm afterwards).

So I think veronitron and patricking might be on the right track with the suggestions for breathing, taking a walk, or light stretches, but the problem really boils down to that I feel like my way of dealing with stress/anxiety is already sliding WAY too far towards avoidance and procrastination. So how do I do something to break that circuit of anxiety and stress without having it become an excuse to just not deal with the particular piece of work I'm avoiding in the first place? What makes me "feel better" in the short-short term is just not dealing with it, which makes things worse long-term.

I want, like, a rubber band around my wrist that I can snap to short-circuit it when I recognize it happening--except a rubber band in my mind. Or a stupid little mental trick I can play that will make it easier to deal with. Does that make sense?

(buka, that made me laugh. probably not a solution I can implement at work, unfortunately.)
posted by iminurmefi at 10:39 AM on November 19, 2007

"Will this matter to me--or anybody--when I'm 80?"

I ask myself this question when I get stressed. If the answer is "no" (and 99.9% of the time it is), then I tell myself there is absolutely no benefit to maintaining my stress, that it is harming me physically and preventing me from doing good work and focusing on what's important. If the answer is "yes", then that also helps me validate the stress in a useful way--kind of like: "Ahhh, that's why I'm stressed. Because this is really important." Which helps it dissipate and get me focused in a tactical way instead of wasting energy on stress. Also yoga.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:42 AM on November 19, 2007

Best answer: I want, like, a rubber band around my wrist that I can snap to short-circuit it when I recognize it happening--except a rubber band in my mind. Or a stupid little mental trick I can play that will make it easier to deal with. Does that make sense?

Yes. And I think that metaphorical rubber band is simply learning to accept that you're stressed or anxious, rather than trying to magically pretend that you're not. That acceptance of the feeling -- not just recognizing it, but being willing to say "Yes, I'm anxious, that's ok, it doesn't mean I'm incompetent or a bad person, and I can actually live with my heart beating fast, it's a normal reaction to what's going on and it's ok" -- is what's going to keep you from trying to avoid the feeling by playing solitaire or taking other non-helpful actions. (Well, sometimes at least. We're none of us perfect!)
posted by occhiblu at 10:45 AM on November 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: That is to say, it sounds like you're not just avoiding the work that's making anxious, you're actually trying to avoid the feeling that arises when you look at the work. The key to accepting that you have to do the work rather than procrastinating is accepting that you have the feeling rather than trying to procrastinate on feeling it.
posted by occhiblu at 10:47 AM on November 19, 2007 [14 favorites]

Consider buying a vibrating count down timer you can wear on your belt.

Set it to repeatedly count down and alarm (w/ vibrations) every 10-30 min's (depending on your stress level) throughout the day. When it goes off, breath in deeply and exhale saying (or thinking) "I am relaxing now."
posted by Jahaza at 10:49 AM on November 19, 2007

I love occhiblu's suggestions. You can find similar advice in the book The Mindful Way through Depression, which I am reading right now. I know you are talking about anxiety, not a diagnosis of major depression, but anxiety is often a feature of depression, and the book outlines techniques to deal with anxiety as well. The key is that, when starting to feel stressed, instead of letting that emotion take over, and trying to then argue with yourself about your anxiety ("why can't I stop stressing? I need to get going on this project . . . why am I so anxious?"), you instead accept it at face value, but avoid analyzing the emotion. You let the emotion sort of wash over you or past you. You remain centered and avoid the anxiety trap by practicing mindfulness. There are varying techniques - it can be a simple as focusing on your breathing for a few minutes. You stay grounded in the present rather than speculating about the future or obsessing about the past. And rather than avoiding your emotions, you accept them - but just don't let them pull you into a pattern of negative, irrational thoughts associated with those feelings.

I haven't finished the book yet, just read a few chapters, but I already find the techniques in it to be really helpful.
posted by tuff at 10:57 AM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I feel like my way of dealing with stress/anxiety is already sliding WAY too far towards avoidance and procrastination.

Yeah, 30 minutes of solitare is more than a bit of the old avoidance. I've found through simple meditiative-like breathing I can calm myself down in less than a minute. Granted, its a superficial calm, but i've found that stopping anxiety before it gets too bad helps quite a bit in the long run. You can learn basic meditation easily at home. Start bringing a little of that in the office. Just calm your mind and focus on the sensation of breathe going in and out of your nose. It works wonders.

Also switch from coffee to tea. Seriously.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:17 PM on November 19, 2007

When this happens to me I stop and spend a few minutes focusing on my breathing - specifically, slow breathing from the diaphragm. Wikipedia

A few minutes of this exercise and the anxiety is gone.
posted by monarch75 at 3:21 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I tried this thing called a "Stress Eraser". Google it and see what you think. It really does work for me. The thing uses the principles behind what monarch75 says. It is pricey though but it would be an investment in your health. You might be able to ask for it for the holidays.

Here is the url...
posted by bkeene12 at 7:36 PM on November 19, 2007

If you're at all religious, there are certainly passages that can help with this (I am, and this has helped me in tangible ways, fwiw). I like to meditate on things like this:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Or my personal motto:

Work is good, but its not that important.

Sometimes you just need to stop and turn thoughts like these over in your mind a few times - allow them to internalize and chase out the anxiety. Its good to work hard and be successful but not at the expense of your health or sanity.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:26 AM on November 20, 2007

nthing breathing! In through your nose and out through your mouth. Not only does it help you focus on the moment and not analyze everything you're feeling, but there's also a physiological benefit too. One time when I had to get an IV, the nurse was having a hard time finding a vein, and all her poking around was adding to my pain. The more I got anxious, apparently, the more my veins constricted and the harder it was for her to find them. I was told to breathe to maximize gas exchange, in through my nose and out through my mouth, and eventually things got easier. There's probably a clearer and more sophisticated biological explanation but I just tend to remind myself that our bodies, our thought processes - they all work better with oxygen....
posted by onoclea at 12:15 PM on November 26, 2007

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