By Ailis Clarke, Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Mediator >
We usually think of anxiety and stress as problematic; the kind of things we want to avoid. But they can play a key role in helping us to succeed as well.
When we feel pressure start to mount, it’s like an internal alarm system going off, alerting us to the areas of our lives which need most attention. If we pause and examine what’s behind our feelings, we can start to identify what we need to do to put things right: whether this means investing more time in a relationship or project, or deciding to walk away.
Anxiety and stress can be particularly helpful early on in our careers – they push us to work harder, which in turn can expose us to accelerated opportunities and make it more likely we’ll be handling projects with thoroughness and preparedness. However, they can also become maladaptive, especially when overused. At these points, anxiety and stress stop being helpful motivators and start contributing to overwhelm.
When this happens, our rational thinking becomes hijacked by big feelings, which often stem from childhood experiences. What we can find is that how we behaved to stay safe as a child may now be replicated as an adult. When these feelings are acted out in the workplace, they can confuse colleagues who may be surprised by expressions of resentment, outbursts, and accusations, or who witness our complete shutdown.
When anxiety and stress find their way to the surface, it is often very painful. As it is a process that unfolds subconsciously, it is equally unpredictable for both parties, leading to huge feelings of regret both for the person who has become distressed and the person on the receiving end. Fortunately, anxiety and stress systems can be reset, enabling you to use all your skills confidently again.
How anxiety shows up in the workplace
If we look back at childhood experiences, we can trace the route through to adult behaviour.
A criticised child may grow up to become successful in their career but be crippled by imposter syndrome. They may hide a dread of not measuring up or of being shouted at and shamed. This may lead to perfectionist tendencies and workaholism.
An emotionally neglected child might grow up to be a people-pleaser, craving opportunities to be seen and appreciated. This may lead to over-investing in helping others at their own expense or relying too closely on a few co-dependent relationships.
A bullied child may grow up to become a bully themselves, perhaps blaming others for problems that they are experiencing. Sometimes displacement occurs when anger towards someone in one setting is taken elsewhere (for example frustration towards a boss or team-mate spilling out at home). In extreme cases, personality splitting occurs. For adults who behave in this way, only low levels of emotional complexity can be processed, meaning people must be seen as either all good or all bad as understanding that we may have a mix of traits is too much to process when feeling under threat.
All of these defence techniques have roots in the past and we retain them because we believe they help us cope in the moment. We may have been through moments of anger, stress and tension when these responses helped us to navigate things safely – but once we recognise them they have served their purpose, and it’s time to let them go and grow into a brighter and more emotionally-regulated future.
How to break free
Anxiety, stress and fear are interconnected. When we perceive a risk, we recognise a threat and feel fear. We may then become distressed and either lash out or crash out, as described above. Some of us have become so used to this constant state of threat that a sense of calm or happiness can trigger unrest and guilt, putting us back on edge again. Critically, this may lead us to sabotage projects, relationships and career opportunities. It is exhausting to live like this.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help us to move beyond our instinctive childhood fear responses. Using CBT can reduce sensitivity to threats, increase tolerance for feeling anxious and help us to identify and manage our reactions.
Together we can unpick how and why you think as you do. For example, catastrophic thinking (“I’ve an unexpected interview with my boss, so I’m about to lose my job, my house will be repossessed and I will be homeless”) is a common bedfellow of anxiety. Using CBT, catastrophic thinking can be identified earlier to reduce feelings of helplessness – and when you are in a less threatened state, you will be able to consider more realistic interpretations of situations.
Examining the roots of your thinking errors, mapping their triggers, considering the consequences of this thinking and discovering an alternative perspective puts you back in control.
We all develop responses as children which get us through difficult times. Without help or a loving parent modelling how to emotionally grow further, it is easy to remain trapped in behaviours even when your life circumstances have outgrown them. Can we abolish anxiety and stress completely? No, and nor should we want to as they are an important part of our psychological makeup. But what we can do is learn to tolerate them as part of life, and use them to help us read situations realistically and respond in a healthy way.