A 2009 New Zealand study found that one in seven women and one in 10 men in high-pressure jobs reported clinical levels of anxiety though they had no mental health history to speak of.
This may resonate deeply with those engaged in mission-driven work, where balancing workplace demands with self-care can feel like a tightrope act.
This piece will explore a four-step method for what you can do if and when you suffer from panic or anxiety in the workplace brought on by self-talk, self-doubt, or insecurity. If, however, you feel your anxiety is disrupting your daily life, there’s no shame in seeking help. Resources like the NAMI HelpLine can be a great resource for finding affordable mental healthcare near you.
DARE to self-care
The answer, according to anxiety coach and author Barry McDonagh, is to shift how you approach your anxiety. McDonagh is the creator of the Panic Away program and author of DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks. His position is that you need an approach to anxiety that helps you to acknowledge how you feel and helps you to work your way through a panic attack.
His solution, the DARE response, teaches anxiety sufferers to master their anxiety rather than feel like a victim. Because anxiety is the body’s response to a perceived safety threat, you need to remind yourself that you are in fact safe and capable of overcoming difficult feelings.
In other words, you can learn to DARE: defuse, allow, run toward, and engage.
Step #1: D is for defuse
When you feel the onset of a panic attack, it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of “what if” thoughts. You may be afraid that because of your anxiety, something negative will happen, and this only exacerbates the fear. Here’s an example of what a “what if” thought can look like: “What if I faint because my heart is beating so fast and I can’t calm down?”
When your fear begins to rise and what-if scenarios start swirling in your head, McDonagh advises responding with a “so what?” If you’re afraid your panic will cause you to faint, your response could be: “So what? Fainting isn’t the end of the world. There are people here at work who can help me if I’m not well.”
By defusing and confronting your worst-case scenarios with a “so what?,” you’re emphasizing your control and safety, allowing your fear to begin to dissipate.
Step #2: A is for allow
After you’ve defused your what-if thoughts, the next step is to accept and allow your anxiety by repeating this mantra: “I accept and allow this anxious feeling.”
Usually when you feel anxious, your initial response is to resist or suppress the negative feeling, hoping that you’ll be able to forget it and move on. This urge may be particularly strong when trying to avoid an unwanted workplace spotlight on you. But that resistance doesn’t make anxiety disappear. In fact, trying to squash or bottle up the bad feelings may only act to amplify your negative feelings.
If, however, you allow yourself to feel the anxiety, you’re letting the feeling run its course.
Step #3: R is for run toward
McDonagh’s third step is to run toward your anxiety in an attempt to reframe it into a more positive feeling: excitement. Start by repeating “I’m excited by this feeling.” It doesn’t matter if you fully believe this or not; the point is to “trick” your brain. This repetition can actually help your anxiety plateau or lessen since the body’s response to anxiety is similar to its response to excitement.
You can also be more specific in how you reframe your anxiety. Focus on something, big or small, that you’re looking forward to. It could be your coffee break, a walk in the sunshine, or the upcoming weekend. Whatever it is, tell yourself that you’re not anxious; you’re just excited for that specific thing you’ve been looking forward to.
Step #4: E is for engage
The last step requires that you engage in an activity that fully occupies your mind. McDonagh suggests activities like reading, getting started on a work task, or having a chat with someone. The point here is to stay busy.
You may not feel calm right away, but in keeping yourself occupied, you’re giving your body a chance to settle while you focus your attention on something engaging.
Advocate for your mental health
The DARE response to panic attacks can be done anytime, anywhere, and McDonagh notes that it gets easier each time you employ it. But don’t wait for a panic attack to take care of yourself in stressful work situations. If you find that your anxiety is heightened at work, make time for breaks from your desk, stay hydrated, try breathing exercises or a short meditation, or talk to someone you trust and whose company you enjoy.
What has helped you overcome anxiety at work? Share your tips with the community in the comments below.