A good ally for workplace productivity? Getting rid of anxiety

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According to an international study reviewing the prevalence of anxiety, women are affected by anxiety twice as much as men. (source).

Its source may vary, but when women feel anxiety, especially if it is in the workplace in, they have difficulty concentrating.  They often feel distracted or overwhelmed.  According to Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, Psychology professor at NYU:

Intrusive thoughts that elicit a strong affective reaction (…) [are] given processing priority in your mind and undermine the ability to reach your primary goal.

In other words, when you have anxious thoughts, your brain spends a lot of time focusing on them. And it undermines your ability to focus on the task at hand.

As a result, anxiety in the workplace can impact job performance.  It can also strain relationships with colleagues.  (source)

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are a few important tools and tips that women can use to get a handle on this anxiety. To represent their strengths and capabilities in their truest light. And to know within themselves that they are doing the best that they can. Managing anxiety is hard work. But there are some practical tools and tips that can help.

Make a plan in advance for when the anxious thoughts come up

One of Peter Gollwitzer’s major research findings is the profound impact of what he calls Implementation Intentions.  They have also been called “If-then” plans. (“If situation X arises, then I’ll do Y.”).

His solution is to create a plan, in advance, for when anxious thoughts come up in the office. To choose a specific thought to think ahead of time, when you start hearing that anxious voice in your head.

If people pleasing is a source of anxiety for you in the workplace, you could make a plan for when it arises. For example, instead of waiting until a typical negative thought arises.  Something like “My boss didn’t like my performance in that meeting”.  You could make a plan. You could tell yourself:

If I start to berate myself about my performance, I will remind myself: there is no perfect performance. I did the best that I could in the moment, and that’s all that I can do.

In other words, consciously redirect the negative thought toward a specific positive one. Which will make you feel less upset and help bring your mind back to the task at hand.

If-then plans have several significant benefits. According to Gollwitzer (from the book Affective Determinants Of Health-Related Behaviors):

Forming implementation intentions [if-then plans] is (…) effective (…) in up-regulating mood, down-regulating distress, and (…) reducing clinical levels of anxiety.

So think about what your two or three “go-to” negative thoughts are. And make a plan for what to think instead. Write your chosen thoughts down on a post-it note on your desk. Put them as a reminder on your phone. And intentionally think about them when your mind wanders away from the present.

Set aside “worry time”

Often anxiety in the workplace can manifest itself for women as rumination.  Rumination is when you think about the same few things over and over again. It often feels like the need to solve an uncertain situation or outcome.

In truth, we can’t predict the future for many uncertain outcomes.  But we can manage our minds’ need to focus on those uncertain possibilities.

One way to do this is to set aside “worry time.” To tell yourself that it is OK to worry. That it is normal, and common. You are allowed to ruminate on a certain topic.  Such as, whether your son is eating enough at home while you’re in the office, or if you’ll get that promotion. But only during designated times. In practice, this looks like creating blocks of time.  30 or 45 minutes to work uninterrupted, with the goal of 5 minutes of worry time at the end. About whatever is on your mind.

In this way, you can gently redirect your mind whenever the ruminating thoughts came up. It’s the idea that it’s OK to worry, but let’s save it for 9:45am. This helps many people relax and redirect their focus back to the work right in front of them.

For many women there will never be a complete lack of anxiety, at home or at work. But if we make a plan for what to think in advance.  If we block off “worry time”.  It can make a significant difference in our available cognitive load. Which means more focus at work. And less anxiety. These tools can help women overcome some of the unique obstacles they face at work.  And over time, help women climb higher on whatever ladder they choose.

Deb Knobelman is a PhD neuroscientist who spent many years on Wall Street and as a C-suite executive at public and private biotech companies.  She is the Founding Partner of Waverly BioConsulting, where she works with small public and private healthcare organizations to support them through unique financial and/or business challenges, often acting as interim Chief Financial Officer or Chief Business Officer.  Prior to Waverly BioConsulting, Deb worked at Pfizer, where she held a variety of positions.  Earlier in her career, Deb was an Equity Research Analyst on Wall Street, following the Specialty Pharmaceuticals sector at several investment banks, including Piper Jaffray and JPMorgan. Deb earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and received an AB with Distinction in Chemistry from Duke University.  She is also a writer, published in Quartz, Thrive Global, Lifehack.org, and Thought Catalog, among others. For more of her work, go to www.debknobelman.com

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