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How to Overcome Work Anxiety and Increase Productivity

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An exasperated mom leans over a laptop with her children behind her.

A quick note: We're social-impact experts, not healthcare professionals. If you are experiencing overwhelming feelings of distress, please be sure to contact a licensed medical professional.

Work anxiety can feel as ubiquitous as the common cold, but chronic anxiety can be especially challenging for social-impact professionals. If you count yourself among the 6.8 million adults in the U.S. who experience chronic anxiety, you may deal with racing thoughts, a general lack of motivation, or an overwhelming sense of dread that keeps you from focusing on your work.

For many, maintaining a steady work output amidst feelings of stress and anxiety can be difficult. However, there are several steps you can take to help you remain productive and focused on your social-impact work. Read on for tips and suggestions on new habits that can help you cope with work anxiety.

Remain calm when work anxiety strikes

One of the biggest obstacles to dealing with work anxiety is learning to keep calm when stress levels rise. Large projects, looming deadlines, and mounting pressure can make it difficult to stay focused. When you're struggling to center yourself, try some of the following techniques:

Take deep breaths. When we feel nervous or tense, we tend to take short, shallow breaths that raise our heart rate and make it more difficult to relax. Slowing down and focusing on each inhale and exhale gets your breathing back to normal and eases your stress levels.

Listen to music. Popping in your headphones and listening to music—whether it be calming ambient tones, relaxing nature sounds, or your favorite playlist—can soothe your nerves and allow you to refocus.

Take a walk outside. Try to get outdoors and get the blood pumping a few times a day. According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, exercise might be just as effective as some medications. Getting out and walking for as little as ten minutes can reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Write about your situation. When feeling overwhelmed at work, try to journal about what is going on. Taking the time to put things in perspective lets you examine the situation objectively and get back on track.

Talk to a co-worker. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend or colleague may relieve stress. Input from others may also help you work through anxiety and readjust your mindset so you can get through the day.

Some of these suggestions may work better than others, and it’s important to figure out which method works best for you. 

Cultivate a positive mindset

Instead of focusing on negative things that weigh you down, a good tip for staying focused and on track is to develop habits that encourage a more positive outlook. Here are some ways to embrace a positive mindset:

  • Think of challenges as a chance to grow. Developing a mindset that views obstacles at work as an opportunity rather than a time to stress can be extremely beneficial. Approaching deadlines and major projects with this outlook may ease work anxiety and allow you to look forward to new challenges instead (rather than dread them).
  • Surround yourself with positive media. Consuming uplifting movies, books, or shows after work and on the weekends allows your mind to decompress. Leaning into more positive media can lead to a better attitude at work, which in turn may lead to a more productive day.
  • Maintain your space. Keeping a tidy, clean space may prevent you from getting overwhelmed first thing in the morning. As a practical productivity hack, having a designated spot for everything on your desk and your computer makes it easier to quickly find the tools or documents you need, which can cut down on feelings of anxiety over disorganization.
  • Focus on the present. When you're at work, try to keep your focus on what's right in front of you and the best way to approach your current situation. Ruminating on previous mistakes may cause your stress levels to rise.

Getting into these habits when you aren’t stressed will make it easier for you to employ them once work anxiety kicks in, so try introducing them preemptively if you can.

Make healthy changes to your diet

You've likely heard the phrase, "You are what you eat," and so you may not be surprised to hear that your diet can impact your mental health. Diets rich in fats and sugars may lead to increased anxiety levels and adversely affect your health. As you work on reducing stress, try introducing a few of these changes to your diet to see if any of them work for you:

  • Eat foods rich with antioxidants. Some studies show that foods high in antioxidants reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Try to add foods like berries, nuts, beans, broccoli, and spinach to your diet.
  • Consume probiotic foods. A recent study explored how probiotics affect social anxiety. Try incorporating foods like pickles and sauerkraut into your daily meals to see if they help relieve stress and tension at work.
  • Consume less caffeine. While coffee and energy drinks may keep you focused, they can also make you feel more anxious. If you’re interested in cutting out coffee, try replacing it with a fresh smoothie or hot cup of decaffeinated tea in the morning for a delicious start to your day.
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that consuming up to 2,000 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids a day reduces anxiety symptoms. You can find these in supplements as well as fatty fish like salmon.
  • Get more magnesium. Diets that are low in magnesium can increase anxiety-related symptoms. To get more magnesium in your daily meals, add spinach, legumes, seeds, and whole grains to your diet.

Maintaining a productive output and a positive mindset at work can be difficult, especially for those in the helping professions. With a little trial and error, however, you may find lifestyle changes and stress-reducing techniques that will work for you.

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