Having to manage social anxiety at work can feel awful. Everyday activities that seem to be no problem for others can lead to a wonderful range of feelings such as dread, fear and embarrassment, less-than-impressive work habits such as avoidance and missing deadlines, all of which can lead to physical symptoms like sweating, headaches, back, neck and shoulder tension (to name a few).
When it comes to dealing with situations at work that make me anxious, my natural reaction has always been to try and avoid them. Obviously, this isn’t always possible when you’re in the workforce, and if you’ve ever done any therapy work for your anxiety, you’ll know avoidance is a big no-no. The reality is that all jobs are likely to include some activities that make you feel uncomfortable, whether you have anxiety or not, so it’s important to find and practice strategies that will help you manage your anxieties so you can get through the day.
Please note: I do not pretend to be a psychologist, psychiatrist or anything of the sort. Everyone is different, and just like anything, there isn’t one strategy that will work for all people who live with social anxiety. All I want to do, as someone who has social anxiety, is to share some of the strategies that have helped me, in the hope that they will help you too.
My 5 strategies to manage social anxiety at work:
1. Open up
Exposing the way you’re feeling can often be one of the most terrifying prospects for people with social anxiety, but the more you do it, the less power you give that fear. In my experience, the more vocal I am about having social anxiety and what that means for me, the more I realise that it isn’t as big a deal as I’ve built it up to be in my head.
I’m not saying I broadcast the fact I have social anxiety to everyone I meet, because we fear being judged or thought less of, but my supervisor, bosses and closest colleagues know, and I’m now even able to make jokes about it. Telling the people I work with about how my anxiety affects me not only takes power away from the feelings and thoughts, but increases my confidence and strengthens my interpersonal relationships.
2. Practice makes perfect
In the same way, exposing yourself to the activities that are part of your job that cause you the most anxiety is awkward, scary and uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the better you will feel about it.
For example, one of the greatest causes of my social anxiety at work is talking on the phone.
Whether I know the person on the other side of the phone or not, I worry because I don’t know why they’re contacting me, whether they’re going to be angry at me, whether I’ve done something wrong and they’re going to call me out about it or whether they’re going to ask me a question I won’t know how to answer. But it’s not just the person on the other side of the phone that causes me anxiety, it’s whether there is anyone nearby to hear my side of the conversation. The move towards open-plan offices is the bane of social anxiety sufferers everywhere! I worry that if any of the above concerns actually occur, the people around me will know I’ve messed up/ don’t know what I’m doing and will judge me.
3. Take baby steps
If, like me, your anxiety is heightened by the presence of other people hearing your side of the conversation, take measures that will allow you to make the call in private. I’m lucky enough to work in a building with several meeting rooms with phones, so if I need to make a particularly scary call, I’ll pop in there. There’s nothing wrong with starting small.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to write a script to help you make challenging phone calls. This can be particularly useful if it’s a cold call and you’ve never talked to the person on the other side of the phone before and your brain has a tendency of going blank in such situations. My anxiety has been so bad in the past when making phone calls that I’ve had to follow scripts word for word and even had to write my name into the script in case I forgot it. The only thing to be mindful of when relying on a script is that you can be too reliant on it, and if the person on the other end of the phone throws you a curve ball, you may have trouble coming up with an answer.
5. Be ‘mindful’
Anxious people have a tendency to work ourselves up about the things that make us anxious until there’s no way we can carry out the task we need to complete. To get myself into a more positive, calm mindset, I’ll use a couple of mindfulness exercises I find work for me, such as deep breathing, focusing my attention on touch or sound and envisioning positive outcomes of the task at hand. Even just acknowledging the fact that you are feeling anxious can help, because you’ll remind yourself that while it doesn’t feel great, you’ve felt this way before, and it won’t last forever.
There will always be times when your anxiety will make you feel like you can’t do your job, but anxiety doesn’t mean you’re not capable. It just means it might take a bit more time to teach ourselves that we can actually do the things we are anxious about. These 5 strategies are helping me slowly become more comfortable and confident with the tasks that make me anxious at work (although I still have a LONG way to go!), and I really hope they help you too.
But, just as with any health issue, if you haven’t talked to anyone about your anxiety yet or feel like it is becoming overwhelming and hard to manage, reach out to a professional for advice on how to manage your own specific anxieties, because everyone is different. One website I’ve recently discovered that has lots of free resources on the topic, is Overcoming Social Anxiety, but there is plenty of information and professionals willing to help you out there, all you have to do is look!
If you also live with anxiety and are looking for ways to better manage your symptoms, I recommend checking out this blog on how to cope when your anxiety gets physical, and this blog on the benefits of having a mental health kit that you can take with you anywhere, even work!