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Big Ideas

Feeling Anxious at Work? Ask Yourself These Four Questions

Kristine Steinberg helps both employees and executives battle anxiety and find fulfillment at work through her consulting and coaching practice. Here’s how you can do the same.

You know that feeling when something’s just not right at work but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong? Maybe you’re in a relatively new job, or in the middle of a big project (or maybe it’s just any random Tuesday) and you’re overcome with a vague sense that something’s off and it just doesn’t feel good. It really doesn’t feel good. You’re not sure what you want to do or where you want to go, but you absolutely know that you can’t keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a bummer of a feeling, and chances are that if you’ve experienced this yourself, you know exactly what we’re talking about: Anxiety. Specifically, workplace anxiety. 

“Workplace anxiety is when you feel a sense of deep restlessness and fear that is both propelling you in an unproductive way and keeping you from moving on,” explains Kristine Steinberg, a consultant who focuses on helping individuals work and live with purpose. “It’s an existential feeling that’s hard to articulate. It’s a feeling of physical tightness and angst, and you don’t know why. You’re always looking over your shoulder. It’s that fight-or-flight feeling that makes you think ‘I don’t know if I’m safe.’”

Steinberg is CEO and founder of Kismet Consulting, and has worked with top-level executives and companies such as Bain, Soho House, TED and more, leading workshops and helping individuals not just realize their full potential but learn how to act on it, too. And that’s why we’re talking to her today; because the thing about anxiety is that it’s a two-fold problem. You have to be able to both identify the feeling and develop the courage to make changes. Here is Steinberg’s roadmap to recognizing anxiety — and putting yourself in a position to do something about it.


Is it anxiety? Or is it other negative emotions?

“There are a lot of different negative emotions that can come up in the workplace: Lack of confidence, toxic energy, fear,” explains Steinberg. While these feelings can certainly cause anxiety, it is a beast of its own. So how do you recognize when you’re anxious versus when you’re just dealing with some bad juju? Ask yourself if you feel “unsafe.” 

No, this doesn’t mean that you think you’re in danger, but that there’s something fundamentally keeping you from feeling mentally and/or spiritually secure. Steinberg goes on: “Anxiety can make you feel like you have to flee, like you have to do something to escape. Sometimes, in the workplace, that might mean going online and buying a pair of fall boots, or grabbing drinks at lunch and coming back buzzed. You’re looking for a way to get out of the situation.” Quick-fix coping mechanisms like these may help you feel better in the short-term, but are ultimately unproductive and only serve to worsen your anxiety. 

Recognize the loss of perspective created by an anxious state

Identifying when there’s more at play than your standard-issue “something is wrong” is crucial. “Anxiety is a heightened, frenetic energy that takes over. It’s a different way of being paralyzed. It’s that mental chatter,” Steinberg explains. “When you’re anxious, you can’t really see the forest for the trees,” she adds. Anxiety impairs your ability to think clearly and causes you to lose perspective. And when you’re in that state, it can feel impossible to escape. 

It’s also important to remember that anxiety can be at play even when it’s not presenting itself as anxiety “attacks” per se, but just sort of an always-on (or nearly always-on) general sense of discomfort. You don’t need to be breathing into a paper bag to be suffering from anxiety — it can get you low-key, too. 

Make space to get your rational self back on track

It’s essentially impossible to be objective when you’re in the weeds, and that’s counterproductive to your situation. When you recognize anxiety taking over, “The first thing to do is to take a deep breath,” says Steinberg. “Take a deep, physical breath. Slow down and try to create some form of space, both physically and in your mind.” It’s good to keep a few mindful breathing techniques in your back pocket to pull out when you recognize you’re in the throes of an anxious state. Box breathing, a breathing exercise used by Navy SEALs to remain calm in stressful situations, may be helpful, or it may be as simple as focusing solely on your breath and nothing else (as described in #3 here). Whatever it is, find something that works for you to pull you out of the “void” of anxiety. 

Objectify the problem(s)

So your head’s clearer and you recognize there’s an issue. Now what? “Get out of the trenches and put the problem in front of you so you can begin to problem-solve,” explains Steinberg. 

How? Start journaling. Steinberg suggests beginning with these four questions: 

1. What feels off? 

2. How would I define the problem that I’m facing?

3. What am I afraid of when it comes to making some changes around those things?

4. What are three actions I can take that would improve my situation?

The goal of journaling these questions is to bring the issue into focus and get you organized about what needs to happen next. “What we’re trying to do is get you truly unstuck so you can take effective action,” explains Steinberg. Writing things down helps you get clarity on what’s going on and helps you work through your feelings to get a better grasp on what’s really happening. 

Start taking action…with small steps

From there, it’s all about the small steps: “Is there a trusted colleague or friend to talk about those things with?” she suggests, though adds that this isn’t a decision to take too lightly, especially when it comes to your career. “You have to be careful because you don’t want to put the wrong person on alert about your anxiety.” Doing so, she reminds us, can just cause more anxiety.

In most cases, anxiety is the manifestation of a void somewhere in your reality, and the only way to mitigate that feeling is to identify and remove that void. “To relieve anxiety is to come into the moment,” explains Steinberg. And the best thing we can do to move ourselves forward? “Get really comfortable with your present moment, which will give you the clarity on what you need to do to change things.” 

Our Takeaways: 

  • If you’re feeling like your sense of safety is threatened, and you’re mentally plotting escape tactics, you’re likely experiencing anxiety. 
  • It’s very easy to lose perspective when you’re in an anxious state. That’s ok. When you recognize that anxiety has control, take it back by doing a breathing exercise.
  • Writing down your thoughts and feelings will help you take stock of your emotions and find the “void” that’s causing your anxiety — and help you get organized about what needs to happen next. 

More Posts by Erin Scottberg

Erin Scottberg writes about sustainability, food, and culture. Erin’s work has appeared in Modern FarmerPopular MechanicsEsquire and more. 

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