Struggling to Manage Anxiety and Work? Give Yourself a Break

When you're anxious and afraid, getting work done is hard. Give yourself a break, find your purpose, and make it through your work life with this sage advice.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #591
The Quick And Dirty

Here are some strategies to help you maintain productivity in the face of anxiety

  1. State your fear out loud
  2. Practice radical self-care
  3. Chunk out your days
  4. Reward yourself for every little thing
  5. Celebrate the upsides
  6. Focus on your purpose

How many fingers would you need to count the number of times “the new normal” has worked its way into a conversation? I’m up to 14 hands at my last count.

The new normal feels ... heavy. It's as if each of us is carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. And while each experience of this moment is unique, many of us are struggling to balance our ability to stay engaged and productive with our work while managing a pervasive sense of anxiety.

Myself included.

My days of the new normal are filled with client calls, supporting my kids through virtual school, following the news, fretting, calling friends and family, more news, more fretting, more clients, baking cookies, news, clients. Cookies.

The anxiety is warranted. Times truly are scary and require our vigilance. We can’t put our heads in the sand. But how do we also find ways to stay focused on our jobs, and keep performing at work?

I asked my friend Amy Dombach, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at Felician University, for advice. Our conversation gave me comfort and a path forward. Today, I’d like to share some of her advice with you.

State your fear out loud

What’s happening right now isn’t the bogeyman. It’s not made-up monsters under your bed. What you fear is real and valid. So start by letting it in. Say it out loud. “I’m anxious right now. And I’m doing the best I can.”

Say it out loud—'I'm anxious right now. And I’m doing the best I can.'

By naming our fear, we invite the rational part of our brains to engage with it. As Amy said, we [Americans] went collectively from denial to full-on toilet-paper hoarding in moments because we didn’t give ourselves time to really think about what was happening. We just let the primitive lizard part of our brains respond.

So start by letting that fear in. Invite your brain to engage it. 

Practice radical self-care

In short, add things to your days that lead to wellness, and subtract things from your days that don’t.

Anxiety is exhausting, and many of us are running on fumes right now. So find moments of rest, whatever that might look like for you. Nap, pet the dog, play with your kids, bake, meditate, take a bath. The right activity is the one that recharges you.

Anxiety is exhausting and many of us are running on fumes right now. So find moments of rest, whatever that might look like for you.

And, at the same time, cut off sources and voices that are wearing you out. I’ve personally chosen two daily podcasts I listen to each morning for critical news updates. I’ve selected two whose perspectives feel balanced and complete but not alarmist. Those 40 minutes a day help me to feel informed. And yes, I'm afraid, but not terrorized. I’ve stopped listening to voices or following the accounts of people who leave me feeling helpless.

So, find a way to do this for yourself. Spend some time understanding what recharges and depletes your energy. Then make decisions that serve you. 

Chunk out your days

Since the pandemic began, there have been many articles written about how to stay productive while working from home. And for those focused on maximizing productivity, keep reading those sage articles.

But for those looking to balance productivity with their anxiety, Amy’s counsel is to define space and create boundaries around all the essential parts of your day.

So, for example, a full day might include things like news consumption, time with kids, work emails, worrying, time in nature, sales calls, touching base with family, napping, exercise, working on your resume, and reading books or articles. Build a schedule for yourself that both holds you accountable for giving time to each of those things, but also lets you know when that time is over.

Literally, scheduling 30 minutes in your day for worrying or reading the news, and then putting it aside until tomorrow, can not only help you stay connected with the world at large but also move you along to your next work-related activity.

Reward yourself for every little thing

Right now, we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this new normal. Every one of us is in training. For anyone who’s ever trained a puppy to sit or a toddler to leave deposits in the potty, you know the first rule of training is positive reinforcement.

Recognize that you’re in training right now. You’re navigating a new world requiring new habits, new goals, and new routines.

During the toddler years, my girls got M&M’s for every you-know-what on the potty (a secret I keep from the Nutrition Diva). And my dog still runs to her bed every time she wants a training treat. She spends a lot of time running to that bed! (My girls, thankfully, no longer need M&M’s for motivation. They’ve graduated from training.)

So recognize that you’re in training right now. You’re navigating a new world requiring new habits, new goals, and new routines. So every time you do something you set out to do, reward yourself. Did you stick to your 30-minute worry zone? Unfollow someone toxic on Twitter? Send that client email you’ve been sitting on? Heck, did you put on pants? No joke—the bar can be low. But when you honor a commitment you’ve made to yourself, have a treat.

Treats come in many forms, so get creative. When it’s time, call a friend. Watch a show on Netflix. Nap. Take a walk. Listen to your favorite light-humored podcast. These moments of bliss will give you quick rushes of dopamine that you’ll come to associate with the behavior over time. New routines will become habit. And you’ll find your productivity start to lift naturally.


Celebrate the upsides

If I gave you 30 seconds to name everything about pandemic-life that you aren’t loving, how many notebooks could you fill? There’s a lot that’s hard right now. And we can mourn what we’re missing, be it face-to-face interaction, a reason to get dressed, or social events.

The upsides are harder to see, but they're still present. Make sure you're spotting those bits of silver lining.

The upsides are harder to see, but they're still present. Amy suggests that we make sure we’re spotting those bits of silver lining, and allowing them to brighten our moods. Many of us are getting more sleep. We’re talking to friends and family, we’re reading, having family meals, cleaning out garages, taking more walks, even taking stock of our careers.

I can be a natural cynic, so Amy’s reminder resonated with me. Am I going out of my mind some days? Yes. But I’ve read some interesting articles I’ve shared with clients and I’ve talked to my dad every day, and I’ve accomplished some long-term planning for my business as client projects get put on pause.

Taking time to celebrate both enhances my mood and mindset, while reminding me why I do what I do, thus moving me further into engagement and productivity.

Focus on purpose

Healthcare workers are everyone’s heroes right now. But frankly, so are grocery store and warehouse employees. They go to work each day and perform a service that is keeping us sustained during this challenging time.

Something you’re doing is making someone else’s life easier, better, cleaner, clearer. Focus on that.

While your work might not be keeping people safe or fed, something you’re doing is making someone else’s life easier, better, cleaner, clearer. Can you find something that feels important, that gives you purpose? Focus on that, and be as productive as you can in delivering it.

Those are some tips to help you balance productivity and engagement with anxiety and overwhelm. I hope something has resonated with you. Wherever you are on this journey, be kind to yourself. You’re doing your best. We all are.  

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.