Helping Clients Reduce Anxiety Symptoms at Work
By Megan Myers
Increasing Levels of Anxiety
Much of the US experiences high levels of work stress or anxiety, which can impact day-to-day life and work performance. A staggering number of US workers, 83%, suffer from work-related stress, according to 2022 statistics shared by The American Institute of Stress (n.d.). When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, four in ten adults reported experiencing anxiety symptoms (Panchal et al., 2021).
Anxiety might present itself in a range of symptoms, such as racing thoughts that are difficult to control, increased perspiration, tense muscles, difficulty sleeping, lethargy, gastrointestinal problems, and difficulty concentrating (Anxiety & Depression Association of America, n.d.). In order for career coaches and career counselors to support their clients in their career goals, it is important for them to understand and teach clients how to mitigate anxiety in the workplace.
Coping With Anxiety
While counselors can help understand the core issues and trauma that might create certain anxiety triggers, career coaches and counselors can help clients cope with anxiety symptoms. There is a growing body of research that suggests that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can also be helpful in mitigating anxiety symptoms, especially when it is co-occurring with other mental health disorders such as depression (Webb et al., 2016). Below are suggestions for helping clients understand and cope with anxiety in the workplace.
Identify Anxiety Triggers
The first step in coping with anxious feelings at work is noticing which work scenarios typically trigger such feelings. DBT encourages clients to notice their emotions and triggers without judgment to reduce shame centered around these feelings.
Common work triggers:
- Presenting material or talking in front of a group
- Taking on a new project or task outside of typical requirements
- Meeting a fast-approaching deadline
- Working with difficult team members
- Receiving unclear instructions, expectations, or communication
Listen to the Body
By the time an individual becomes aware of their anxious thoughts at work, they are likely already feeling anxious in their body. All emotions are felt in the body, and individuals can take cues to better understand and manage the onset of anxiety symptoms (Nummenmaa et al., 2013). By slowing down and identifying bodily signals, it is possible for clients to address anxiety earlier and determine how best to react in the moment (Simpson, 2022). Note that anxiety symptoms are nuanced and can vary depending on the individual.
Common somatic signs of anxiety:
- Tense shoulders
- Clenching the jaw
- Tapping hands or feet
- Increased heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
Teach Grounding Tactics to Reduce Anxiety
The phrase grounding simply means stabilizing the body from emotional unrest or stress. Because anxiety simultaneously occurs through the mind and body, it is important to address the somatic symptoms in the body to decrease anxiety or stress. Grounding helps calm the body and focus the mind so effective decisions can be made on how to handle difficult situations at work. Grounding techniques may be physical or mental (Raypole, 2022).
- Run wrists under cold water or splash face with cold water
- Engage in paired muscle relaxation to reduce muscle tension
- Bi-lateral tapping: cross your arms and tap each shoulder slowly
- Hold ice pack against wrists or the back of neck
- Walk up and down the stairs.
Distracting to Reduce Anxiety
If your client is finding it difficult to engage in grounding activities at work, distraction from anxious thoughts can be helpful. Encourage clients to notice when they are focused on something that is causing worry or stress. Direct them to shift their focus away from these thoughts for at least 30 minutes. This can be helpful in the moment, though it might not be a long-term solution to cope with anxiety.
Recommendations for distractions:
- Put in headphones and listen to music or a podcast
- Engage in a work activity that is technical and requires a great deal of focus (i.e. detailed spreadsheets)
- Call or chat with someone over instant messenger
- Watch a short video.
Validate Anxious Feelings
Individuals tend to experience increased anxiety when they feel shame or guilt for feeling anxious. Often there is a deeper reason someone is feeling anxious, even if the reason is not apparent at the moment. Therefore, validating your client’s anxiety is imperative in reducing the overall symptoms (Harris, 2015).
Additional Tactics Coaches Can Recommend for Reducing Work Anxiety
While tactical and somatic coping mechanisms for anxiety symptoms have been discussed so far, here are a few other methods you can utilize when coaching clients.
- Determine whether or not your clients are taking breaks throughout the workday
- Explore ways with your clients on how to set clear work boundaries and communicate those boundaries to their manager
- Ensure your client's communication is clear and that they have their job tasks in writing
- Reflect on how your clients can avoid engaging in prolonged dialogue with cynical or critical co-workers
- Assess your clients’ time management practices and organization techniques
- Encourage clients to be realistic about their goals and avoid overly perfectionist expectations for themselves
- Inquire as to what wellness resources clients might have available to them through their employer (Hartnett, 2022) such as a flexible time-off policy or free meditation apps
- Discover areas of opportunity for clients to speak up and ask for help when needed.
Why Workplace Anxiety Matters to Coaches
Because workplace anxiety is increasing, companies are beginning to support their employees’ mental health needs. Many companies are now offering stipends for coaching and counseling or giving access to online mental health resources (McLaren, 2020). As companies realize the need for additional employee support, career coaches will also have to be aware of the mental health challenges employees might be coping with. Anxiety can impact the client’s ability to be an effective leader, pursue a new job, or advocate for a promotion. Taking active steps to help clients reduce anxiety will allow clients to better focus on their career coaching goals.
Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (n.d.) Symptoms: Generalized anxiety disorder. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/symptoms
Harnett, H. (2022, June 14). Any company can support employees' mental health: Here's how with some low- and no-cost tools. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90760638/any-company-can-support-employees-mental-wellness-heres-how-with-some-low-and-no-cost-tools
Harris, R. (2015, November 1). The struggle switch [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCp1l16GCXI
McLaren, S. (2020, May 20). 5 ways companies are supporting employees' Mental Health and Preventing Burnout. LinkedIn. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-engagement/ways-companies-support-mental-health-and-prevent-burnout
Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 646–651. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1321664111
Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., & Garfield, R. (2021). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
Raypole, C. (2022, June 13). 30 grounding techniques to quiet distressing thoughts. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/grounding-techniques
Simpson, S. (2022). Integrating somatics into career coaching. Career Convergence. https://www.careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/471023/_self/CC_layout_details/false
The American Institute of Stress. (n.d.). Workplace stress. Author. https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress
Webb, C. A., Beard, C., Kertz, S. J., Hsu, K. J., & Björgvinsson, T. (2016). Differential role of CBT skills, DBT skills and psychological flexibility in predicting depressive versus anxiety symptom improvement. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 81, 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.03.006
Megan Myers, LCMHC-A, is a career coach and mental health counselor in North Carolina. She focuses on helping individuals with career transitions in coaching and reducing trauma symptoms to become stronger leaders in counseling. She can be reached at email@example.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/meganmyers1010/