Overcoming anxiety at work and on the job hunt.

Recently, Daniela posted over on the Everybody has a Brain Tumblr about some anxiety challenges she tackled after getting laid off, then searching for a new job, and then at her new workplace. Her story was such a great example of all the skills we’re always talking about, and it includes vomit! It’s so useful to talk about overcoming these challenges and often that means overcoming very real physical symptoms, like nausea. So I wanted to share Daniela’s post and throw in some comments to connect her examples to some of the recovery skills you’ve probably seen me talking about before. Let’s dive in:

On March last year, life threw me a bit of a curve ball: I got laid off from my job. These things happen often and they happen to all sorts of people, but when it happened to me, it came with a whirlwind of an old friend of mine, social anxiety.

My anxiety is usually manifested in a very physical way, it makes me feel nauseated and it makes me fear I will barf in front of people, which would make me feel very ashamed. Over the last decade, I had kept my anxiety in check, with very few episodes, and most of them only happened in really crowded places, like movie theatres, concert venues, restaurants, or conferences. Usually, I was able to overcome them with some breathing exercises and the occasional nail-biting compulsion.

It’s very common to experience our mental health challenges physically, in our bodies, as nausea, indigestion, misophonia, pain, panic attacks, eye floaters, tinnitus, a cold, acne and so many others. Calling them “mental health” problems trips us up sometimes. We expect it to be an emotion or a thought. Many of my own symptoms were physical. In the past, I actually thought I didn’t experience stress, because I wouldn’t feel stressed. Instead, the stress would just come out through my body. This is why, when I talk about a compulsion, I talk about it as being a reaction to “experiences we don’t like” because you might not be reacting to anxiety. You might be reacting to something like nausea.

However, with the loss of my job, I had to get myself out there again, rebuild my resumé and portfolio, and worst of all, go to job interviews. No biggie, I had a much stronger portfolio than the last time I was job hunting, I had all this experience now – why would I worry about meeting strangers who have the capability of hiring me based on my skills and personality? Well, I did, it was freaking terrifying.

There I was, getting some calls and eventually going to some in-person interviews. Things were for the most part going ok, except for one thing: my nausea wasn’t just nausea anymore, I started barfing before interviews. Then, I was so afraid of feeling sick, that I started cutting meals before going to interviews, which meant that if I had an interview at 3pm, I wouldn’t eat at all until after 4, possibly 5 pm.

Avoiding meals as an attempt to control the possibility of something bad happening in our bodies is one of those incredibly common compulsions we often think of as “normal”. Watch out for it.

I used to tell myself that this was ok, that once I landed a job things would be different. My insecurities and anxieties would stop once I had the reassurance that someone else believed in my skills and considered me smart enough to pay me for it.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Eventually I did get hired to do awesome work with great people. But they were still strangers, and I still wanted them to like me, to think I’m smart, to not regret hiring me, so my nausea was still very much there. Just before meetings, calls, presentations, introductions, there it came, like a loud train I could just not stop hearing: “You are going to barf, and you’ll do it in front of all these people, and they will probably think you’re pregnant, and you know how much companies love promoting pregnant women.

Two things here: 1) Brains love compulsions. It’s not really about the superficial topic of the particular anxiety flavor of the week. If you think you’ve “solved” a specific fear about being judged by others, your brain will happily give you another to solve, and another, and another, like Daniela mentioned. That’s why it’s so important to go after those big underlying fears (like Daniela is going to do coming up momentarily). And 2) we can see the impact here of systemic prejudice in the workplace. It infects people’s mental health challenges and piles on extra burdens to carry so part of being a mental health advocate has to include advocating for healthier, more inclusive communities that dismantle structures of prejudice. Sexism and racism are mental health issues.

No matter how much I tried to silence them, these intrusive thoughts didn’t leave when I got a job. If anything, I just got even more exposed to them as this new job required a lot more social interactions that triggered my anxiety.

I was devastated, I used to come home feeling completely defeated, feeling that I was never going to be able to become the professional I know I can be because I was letting my anxiety win. Anger, frustration, and embarrassment came to the party – nobody is greater at bullying me than myself.

I had two options, to continue to starve until all my meetings were over, or accept the fact that this was not going away until I decided to seriously work on it and change some things.

I took the second option. It’s taken me a very long time to start rewiring my brain to accept uncertainty as a natural part of my work.

Woooooooooooo! Best option.

One of the things that has really helped me now, is to stop checking and controlling before social interactions like meetings and presentations. This one was really tricky, because it’s a compulsion that makes “total sense” at work. You want to come fully prepared for these events, you rehearse things, double (triple, multi) check presentations, you think long and hard about how you’ll start talking, what you’ll say, what you’ll wear, prepare to answer questions, etc.

In retrospect, this is probably what started it all during the job interviews, checking my resumé many times, rehearsing things I wanted to say in my head, repeating the name of the person I was meeting dozens of times so I wouldn’t forget, etc.

If you’re applying for a job, watch out for the types of compulsions that Daniela mentioned. Again, we so often label these as “normal”. We think they’re good. We’re getting all of these messages around us not to mess up those things, but it’s just fuel for anxiety. The more we try to control, the more our brains will give us things to worry about controlling.

My good friend Mark helped me notice that this is an anxiety pattern. I would start working on my files and presentations about an hour before my meeting, then adrenaline started kicking in while I was finding spelling mistakes, tweaking a slide, choosing different imagery, saving and re-saving changes minutes before presenting. The perfect anxiety storm.

Now, I wrap up my presentations a day before I have to do them, and then I don’t open them until I am presenting them. Whatever made it in, made it. If there are mistakes, if I need to clarify something I worded poorly, if the image I picked sparks some questions, then so be it. I need to accept that no matter how much I prepare beforehand, people will still have questions and ask me to change things I thought were done. And this is no sign of incompetence.

That right there is how you do it! Finishing presentations a day before is such an awesome way to proactively take care of mental health work. It’s about being proactive, accepting uncertainty, understanding how your brain works, and it’s a skill that’s going to help with doing the things you want to do at work. Taking care of our mental health is about doing the things we want to do in life. Finding these simple changes we can make in how we do what we do is what taking care of mental health is all about.

Now, recovery to me doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t worry about these things, I might never get completely rid of these anxieties, but I am trying my hardest not let them dictate the type of professional I want to be or the times of the day I can eat at work.

So bring on that sandwich! I’ll eat it during the hour that I used to spend compulsively checking that powerpoint presentation.

Bring on all of the sandwiches! Thank you so much, Daniela, for sharing that message.

Illustration by Matt

2 comments On Overcoming anxiety at work and on the job hunt.

  • Hi Mark!
    I’ve hit a brick wall regarding careers. I’m extremely anxious about financial security, and yet cannot sustain or choose a job to focus on. I know with ERP/ ACT, I could very well just do anything and face the anxiety while accepting it, and generating some income. But even then, I can’t seem to settle on any one thing to expose myself to. I only seem to have one focal point at the moment, and that’s strength training. I have a 7 day a week program that I love, but often most of my “exposure” to anxiety is focused on making it through my workout and sticking to my diet plan. I’m terrified of working on top of this, and/ or getting further education to prepare me for another career in the future. I have alot of compulsions around learning new things, and I’m afraid of getting too “in my head” – or choosing a career, job, or academic program that I end up quitting (just like all the other’s I’ve quit in the past). Strength training is the only thing I’ve stuck with. I’m looking for OCD-specific therapy, though my options are limited with the low-income health insurance I have. My current therapist has very traditional methodology, and I don’t see myself doing the work you recommend.

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