A Guide to Beating Stress for Anxious Office Ninjas

I worry about anxiety.

Lately, it seems to be everywhere. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 18 percent of the population qualify as having an anxiety disorder.

And that statistic is true for just a snapshot in time, which means that over our whole lifetimes there’s a high chance we’ll experience anxiety ourselves.

This startling statistic represents nearly one in five. That’s one Spice Girl, one Backstreet Boy, and one from One Direction.

Of course, stats don’t quite work like that—not every group of five people will have one living with anxiety. But Zayn Malik’s recent openness is a helpful reminder that everyone may struggle with their own brain from time to time.

Office managers, executive assistants, and directors of getting sh*t done may be awesome butt-kicking action heroes … but Ninjas are human, which means they’re as susceptible to anxiety as anyone else. In fact, the pressure to constantly be awesome (or to at least appear to be) might even add to the anxiety.

With all that in mind, let’s look at why anxiety arises and what an anxious Ninja might do about it.

Anxiety Versus ‘Feeling Anxious’

It’s important to remember that the feeling we associate with anxiety isn’t inherently bad. It’s merely a helpful bodily signal.

Just as pain is an unpleasant signal that “something is wrong: take your hand off those thorns!” anxiety is an alarm that something stressful is occurring.

Some feelings—like anxiety, pain, and frustration—have negative connotations. If we never experienced anxiety or pain, however, then we’d constantly put ourselves in serious danger!

Most of the time, these feelings are fine and natural, and we don’t want to eliminate them. If you’re about to give a presentation or go to an interview, then a little anxious feeling can even be helpful.

It’s when these feelings get out of control that it becomes a problem.

The Only Thing We Shouldn’t Fear is Fear Itself

One way our natural anxiety can go wrong is if we fear the feeling of anxiety itself.

This is an understandable response: feeling anxious is awful, so we may worry about experiencing it again … but this creates a vicious cycle.

You fear anxiety, so you worry, which makes you feel worse, so you become more afraid. Suddenly, boom! You’re trapped in a deeply unpleasant loop. Fighting the feeling only pours more fuel onto the fire—this cycle is often at the root of panic attacks.

Recognizing that we’ve caught ourselves in this trap is a major step toward escaping it. We need to retrain our brains to no longer fear anxiety. My go-to technique is to consciously think, “Oh, anxiety again! I’ve felt this before. It’s fine” as soon as the telltale feeling appears. This prevents me from pouring more fear-fuel onto the anxiety fire.

Still, escaping these feedback loops doesn’t solve every problem. What about the underlying anxiety?

Well, there are three main possibilities:

  1. Our anxiety is a habit—it’s become a constant background reality.
  2. Our worries are no longer proportional to what’s happening in reality—magnifying problems to become much larger than they truly are.
  3. Our anxiety is reasonable—we’re being chased by a wolf or something equally nerve-wracking like attending a job interview.

This last possibility only requires recognizing the truth that our feelings are OK, and then relaxing. Before we look at how to do that, let’s investigate the first two causes a little more deeply.

Constant Anxiety Isn’t Ideal

What feels like anxiety is actually a chemical change in our bodies. These anxious chemicals prime us for action. But we can’t live in a state of constant readiness for action. Our bodies aren’t designed to have these chemicals in this concentration all the time.

According to online stress-factory (and medical advice repository) WebMD, constant worry negatively affects appetite, relationships, sleep, and job performance. It even makes us more likely to take up harmful habits.

Most of us are aware of the toll stress takes on our bodies. It’s actually stress-inducing to be constantly told to relax! But it bears repeating. We might think that we’ve handled this level of constant anxiety for years without problems, but eventually it will take a toll. Better to make changes now than to crash entirely later.

Disproportionate Worry is More Insidious

Sometimes our worries do not reflect reality.

Perhaps we’re handling everything fine. We’re on top of deadlines. Our co-workers appreciate our work. We’re capable of doing everything we’re being asked to do. And yet, we still feel anxious. The part of our brain that assesses threat is malfunctioning, and we’re detecting possible disasters everywhere.

There are a million different causes for this, from Imposter Syndrome to habitual overthinking, from bad experiences that we’re irrationally worried will repeat to a lack of downtime.

Our unique life experiences can conspire to create a cocktail of believable reasons to worry, even if reality isn’t saying the same thing.

What To Actually Do

It’s fair to say that I’m not going to solve the problem of anxiety in one article.

But, then, I couldn’t solve it in a whole book either. Fundamentally, we have to find our own solutions for our unique circumstances.

Here is a basic framework to help you develop your own personal anxiety solution:

1. Identify the Problem

It’s amazingly easy to fail to notice that we even have a problem with anxiety. We can justify it to ourselves: “Doesn’t everyone live with constant stress, worry, and fear? It’s normal!”

We can even hide the problem from ourselves. Our brains normalize everything we do. If we got poked by a sharp stick every morning we’d eventually accept it; and over a long enough period of time, we might even stop noticing it at all.

Anxiety can fade into the background too. Think back over the last few months, and ask yourself:

  • Am I living with constant anxiety?
  • Are my levels of stress proportionate to reality?
  • Do my anxiety levels occasionally get out of control?

These aren’t simple questions to answer. They require looking at ourselves and our lives with fresh eyes and questioning everything we’ve come to accept as normal.

2. Make a Change… And Then Another

If you realize you are more anxious than you ought to be, no one can tell you what to change in your life or how to change it. So we need a system that everyone can apply. And the system is simple.

If we’re constantly anxious, or our anxiety is disproportionate, then clearly whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working.

Whether it’s your thought patterns (constantly thinking “I’m not good enough”), your routine (not getting enough sleep), an inability to say no, refusing to let go of work in the evenings, or even your job itself, you can try making a change.

One change isn’t going to solve all your problems, but if it improves things, then great! Onto the next change. And if it doesn’t improve things? Also great! Now you know one thing that doesn’t help. Still, onto the next change.

Need More Specificity?

Some changes are unique to specific situations, but there are many possible tweaks that are near-universally regarded as helpful. If you’re stuck, perhaps these will make a good starting point for your experiments:

  • Set clear boundaries for your time. Ninja life often means being connected at all times, but make sure to schedule some downtime! (For some, this comes naturally. For others, this may require a wholesale rethink of your relationship with work. Small changes may still help, however.)
  • Take up meditation. It’s not all weird; it’s a genuine rest for your brain. This is particularly useful for anyone prone to overthinking. Try apps like Calm or Headspace, and make resting your mind a habit.
  • Pay attention to yourself. What are the thoughts you have that spark anxiety? Remember how invisible anything can be—try to identify thoughts that are invisibly stressing you out (“I’m going to fail! I’m going to be fired!”) and then get out of the habit of paying attention to them. A technique known as defusion can be useful for taking the power away from troublesome thoughts.
  • Welcome anxious feelings—this breaks the feedback loop of fearing fear.
  • Change little things about your life or environment. Traveling a new way to work, rearranging your desk, reversing your routine; making changes gives you a greater sense of control over your life. Sometimes anxiety arises from a loss of control, so retaining control over any area of your life can help.
  • Exercise! Again, easy for some, tough for others. Even a walk is useful. Moving helps you use adrenaline productively.
  • Breathe consciously. Notice what’s happening in your body right now. Anxiety is rarely about what’s happening now; it’s usually fear of an imaginary future. Returning to the present brings a useful sense of perspective.
  • Talk about how you’re feeling. This can be HARD, particularly if there’s pressure to appear super-awesome and like everything’s under control. This is where the OfficeNinjas community is so useful: a judgement-free place to vent with your peers! Take the mask off and relax—being understood is so important.

What tips do you have for reducing anxiety? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s note: The advice in this article is intended to be general in nature. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, please contact a professional (here is a list of international crisis hotlines).

 

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is a comedian, writer, programmer and physicist. He shares his experiences of anxiety alongside embarrassing stories and foolish nonsense at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm. He likes it when people say hello. See his comedy talk about anxiety in this TEDx Video.

Comments

  1. Sherrie C
     

    Great article Neil – I suffer with anxiety and depression, so hearing that others go through what I do and what they do to try and work through it is helpful. It is a vicious circle and can make you lose self confidence – I find it hard to talk to people at work as it sounds like you are being oh poor me but I will try some of the suggestions above like counting different numbers to try and refocus

  2. Emily
     

    If you have an actual anxiety disorder, rather than just a bout of anxiety, it can feel isolating. I was always trying to “hide” it at work or when I was at events. I chose to combat this with honesty. I let my friends and family and a select few co-workers know what I was going through (in a factual way versus a pity party). I just wanted them to know if I exhibited certain behaviors, got really quiet, or left events early that it wasn’t because of them, but that I was working through an anxiety attack. And you know what? Over 50% of them responded with, “oh, I have anxiety too!” It’s not something to be ashamed of. Finding a supportive network that offers understanding and tips (like this article) is a great help.

    I agree with others on exercising, taking a walk, and separating your feelings from the actual situation. During an anxiety attack, I start saying random numbers like “121, 5, 17, 34…” When my brain has to focus on something so specific, it immediately stops whatever negative tape track I had playing. My body often gets stuck in fight-or-flight mode. When I feel anxiety building, I start telling myself “You’re not in danger. You’re ok. Nothing to fear here.” It’s a little silly, but it helps to not get frustrated with yourself, acknowledge your feelings, and then talk lovingly to yourself just like you would if you were trying to calm someone else down. Also, aromatherapy! I keep lavender oils in my purse to rub on my pulse points when I get anxious. I even shared some at the airport once with a woman in front of me who was freaking out as we were boarding. Works like a charm!

  3. Kathleen Young Rybarczyk
     

    As a certified mental health first aid responder for youth and adults, I find it’s important to get people out of what I call the “negative feedback loop”. One bad thought spawns another and then another and another, and you end up spiraling down until you feel like you can’t get up. Encouraging people (including myself) to step back, take a breath, and look at the feeling(s) and the problem separately helps a great deal. Getting mentors who can listen and help you get another perspective is also wonderful. I’ve been lucky not only to have great mentors but have the chance to mentor others, as well as helping the young people in my life deal with their stress!

  4. Lori L
     

    Thanks for the great article, Neil! I often find that when I start to get that nagging feeling creeping into my brain, I get up and go for a 5-10 minute walk outside. It helps to do some deep breathing too.

    1. Neil Hughes
       

      I agree. I’ve tried to train myself to recognise the early signs of anxiety and to change *something* whenever it happens – standing up and walking around is a perfect way to regain perspective and prevent myself from magnifying whatever I’m worrying about into some huge thing. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Stefanie
     

    Really great article that happened to be posted on a day I was feeling overwhelmingly anxious. I have a lavender scented stress ball on my desk that I use to take a few seconds to breath and relax. This helps me in the moment. I also use the Power Poses that Amy Cuddy describes in her amazing TED Talk.

    1. Neil Hughes
       

      I’m glad the article was timely (although of course it sucks you were feeling anxious in the first place – hope you’re feeling calmer now?)

      The stress ball sounds like a great idea, a handy thing to have around as a reminder to get out of your head when things start getting out of control. Will look into that for sure :)

  6. Alicia
     

    A good anxiety reducer is to keep a perspective – Will the anxiety driver matter in an hour, two hours, tomorrow, a month from now, a year or five years from now. Not everything is on fire. Also if you feel your world is crashing in – Deep slow Breathing counting 5 for inhale and exhale at least 8 times while counting your blessings and what you do have or what has gone well today vs focusing on what was, could or should be. Live today the best you can – One day at a time. And if you need to, one hour at a time.

    1. Neil Hughes
       

      I agree! I think a vast amount of anxiety is about perspective. Focusing on any one thing blows it up and makes it seem all-important, and while it may be of importance it (usually) isn’t life-or-death. Finding ways to regain that perspective is so important, as is turning those ways into habits so it becomes a natural unconscious process.

      Breathing practice and focusing on “this moment” (as you say, an hour or moment at a time) is a huge help. Thank you for the reminder!

  7. Carolyn M
     

    Great article and tips from someone who has had to deal with major, often justifiable, i.e., life-changing, events. There is a new-ish theory that cortisol, that nasty, necessary chemical released when you’re responding to stress, can be addictive. Whether is truly is, who cares? Even thinking it might be is a game changer lots of times because you can get the anxious feeling, say “darn you, cortisol!” and the act of doing that relieves enough of the stress to allow you to take another look at what’s making you anxious. Yup, getting up and walking is also a big help, especially if you can walk outdoors (unless you are in a dangerous neighborhood, one with hungry grizzlies or angry skunks). Thanks for the article, Neil. Hope I didn’t cause you any anxiety by replying.

    1. Neil Hughes
       

      Haha, not at all, Carolyn, it’s lovely to hear your thoughts!

      I considered writing about cortisol, but as you say – who cares? Naming the chemical doesn’t necessarily help – although I love your technique of “damning the cortisol”. Because it’s a little absurd it takes us out of our minds and helps us to get perspective back. Perfect :)

      Totally agree that avoiding the grizzlies and skunks is probably good – though if we can get back to nature without infuriating any skunks it certainly helps :D

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