In the mid '80s, I was offered two jobs. One was at a startup with a cut in pay but with 10,000 shares of founding stock. The other was in huge company with a 30% pay increase. I picked the huge company because (though it pains me to admit it) the risk of working in a startup caused my anxiety to go through the roof. 

Today, those 10,000 shares are worth about $100 million while the 30% extra I made for the six years I worked in the huge company is a round-off error in my lifetime earnings. So that was a very dumb decision.  Well, I'm not alone in making dumb decisions when I'm anxious because anxiety short circuits the brain's decision-making ability, according to Psychology Today:

"There is growing evidence that the cognitive process of decision-making depends on proper functioning of specific neurons within subregions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The prefrontal cortex--which is housed in the frontal lobes of the cerebrum--is the newest part of the human brain in terms of our evolution. The PFC plays a pivotal role in executive functions that include: long-term planning, understanding rules, calculating the consequences of risk and reward, regulating emotions, problem solving, and decision-making. Anxiety, in both animals and humans, appears to disrupt brain neurons in the PFC that are critical for making smart decisions."

I'm not alone in suffering from workplace anxiety. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA):

"Self-reporting of anxiety symptoms and prescription medication use are high among America's employees, but diagnoses of anxiety disorders are dramatically lower.

72 percent of people who have daily stress and anxiety say it interferes with their lives at least moderately.

40 percent experience persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives.

30 percent with daily stress have taken prescription medication to manage stress, nervousness, emotional problems or lack of sleep.

28 percent have had an anxiety or panic attack."

That's a lot of anxiety and consequently a lot of very bad decision-making. Therefore, if you feel anxious at work, you should take steps to moderate it. Based upon advice from WebMD.com, here's what works:

1. Find and use a trusted sounding board.

Anxiety hampers your ability to see a situation objectively. Asking for someone else's perspective can help you realize when your fears are unrealistic. Important: when you ask for someone's perspective, listen carefully and then think about what you just heard.  Don't respond with a "Yeah, but..." statement. That's your anxiety talking.

2. Do something that will distract you.

A lot of "what to do when you're anxious" advice suggests praying, meditating, or going for a walk. Those activities, however, can give you more opportunity to obsess about your anxiety. It's more effective to focus on something that will distract and occupy your mind different, like games, reading, music, television, and podcasts... Avoid, however, any media that "riles you up."

3. Join a self-help group.

I never did this but I did take a course of group therapy which turned out to be surprisingly useful since it helped me understand how my anxiety "came off" when I was around other people. If you want to pursue getting help in a more informal setting, the ADDA has a list of self-help groups for the chronically anxious.

4. Go to a psychologist and get diagnosed.

For years, I suffered from a nameless sense of dread but couldn't put a name to it. When I was finally diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I was incredibly relieved because once you know what's going on, you have a clearer path to dealing with it. More important, the diagnosis made me take the condition seriously and get it treated.

5. Get counseling and medicine if necessary.

Before I got the diagnosis and went into counseling (and later onto anti-anxiety medicines), I spent nearly every waking hour feeling as if something horrible was about to happen. I also had nightmares--the wake-up-screaming kind--at least once a week. I learned the hard way that "positive thinking" isn't going to fix a chemical imbalance in your brain.

I'm happy to say that I seldom suffer from anxiety now--although my recent heart attack has made for a bit of health paranois--and I firmly believe I'm making better decisions now than when I was constantly second-guessing whether taking a risk would cause a panic attack.

Published on: Oct 24, 2017
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