Managing Your Anxiety in the Workplace

Posted by on Dec 16, 2014 in Mindfulness, Self-awareness | 0 comments

Fear City

A client called me from a trip to San Francisco for a job interview, experiencing heightened anxiety. She doesn’t need the job as she already has a good one on the East Coast. Plus, since she has been recruited by several organizations and has had multiple phone interviews with no anxiety, we discussed where the increased emotional response came from.

Based on my reading about the brain, we have highly developed sensors for novelty, as novelty or ambiguous situations can be threatening. Threat arouses the amygdala, and any previous similar threat that has been encoded in memory in the hippocampus adds to the fear response. The hypothalamus then sends messages to the pituitary glad where most hormones are governed. Cortisol and oxytocin flood our system, along with the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradreniline, speeding up our heart and shutting down clear thinking.

In my client’s case, she has moved several times, and finds moving emotionally challenging and administratively complicated, stories encoded in her hippocampus. Being in San Francisco, as opposed to the telephone interviews, heightened her awareness of the moving aspect of taking another job, and increased her anxiety.

What can she do to control the anxiety, especially before and during her interview?

She can use a technique called reappraisal, where she uses the cognitive or executive functions of her brain to reinterpret the experience, actually reducing limbic activity. She can remember that part of the nervousness of each move is excitement, and that after the initial challenges, she has enjoyed discovering each new place.

In the interview itself if anxiety surfaces, trying to suppress it doesn’t work, as that actually can heighten limbic arousal, and surprisingly, can throw off the person interviewing her. Simply naming the feeling can help her, as labeling it takes it to the abstract, engaging the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and moving the brain activity away from the amygdala.

In the moment, if she is overcome by anxiety (especially if thoughts of past moves intrude), she can refocus her attention and divert activity in her brain by attending to the present and noticing sounds in the room, or the feeling of her feet on the carpet.

Everything has a social emotional context, as much as we want to think of ourselves as thinking logical beings. Our responses to threat to move away are so quick because they help us survive. We can experience threat all the time at work, whether from real threat, or perceived threat both of which have the same impact on our limbic system, sending our hearts racing, and shutting down our thinking.  Our brains  give us an opportunity to reassess and control that automatic response, and we can learn techniques to practice and get better at emotional regulation.

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