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January 13, 2020

The 5 'anxiety traps' you fall into at work—and how to escape them

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 22, 2021.

    Writing for the Harvard Business Review, leadership adviser Sabina Nawaz outlines five "anxiety traps" that often occur at work and how to deal with them.

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    The 5 anxiety traps

    While Nawaz writes that it's "normal to occasionally experience anxiety" at work, mental health experts believe that doing so can limit our ways of thinking. Left unaddressed, these thought patterns, or "traps," can send us down a spiral "convincing us of impending doom and further exacerbating our sense of helplessness," Nawaz writes.

    Anxiety traps that Nawaz commonly hears from her clients, typically senior executives, include:

    • Catastrophizing: imaging the worst-possible outcome to a situation;
    • Mind reading: assuming you know what other people are thinking;
    • Fortune telling: imaging what could happen in the future without any data;
    • Black-and-white thinking: considering only two potential outcomes to a situation; and
    • Overgeneralizing: ascribing a generalized outcome to all situations.

    How to 'break your negative thought patterns'

    Nawaz cautions that she's not a psychologist or medical professional, but notes she does "have experience helping … clients adjust their behaviors, change the way they think, and increase their effectiveness at work."

    In turn, she offers five tips to "help you break your negative thought patterns, gain control over your anxiety, and allow you to listen to the chatter that really matters in your daily work."

    Here are her five tips:

    1. Stop the 'amygdala hack': Often, anxiety comes with physical symptoms, Nawaz writes, such as an upset stomach or sweaty palms. These reactions occur as a result of "an amygdala hijack," in which your brain is forced into a fight-or-flight state. Nawaz advises "consciously chang[ing] your activities" once you notice these reactions. Namely, she suggests engaging in some kind of thought challenge to distract your brain from your stressor.

    2. Give the threat a 'concrete' name: Give the thought pattern you're stuck in a name, either one already known or one you make up, Nawaz suggests. "Naming converts the vague threat to something concrete," she writes. "You regain power by realizing you've encountered it before—and survived. You can fine-tune your mitigation strategy based on the specific trap that's ensnared you."

    3. See if the issue is a fact—or just a fear: Nawaz advises creating a two-column list. The first column is a list of your fears, uncertainties, and doubts (FUD) while the other column is for verified facts. "Being able to compare the two can quell your fears and bring you back to reality," Nawaz writes. If your FUD column ends up being longer than your facts column, Nawaz recommends finding someone you trust to talk to and ask for their point of view, as they may be able to "point to some realistic facts to offset your anxieties."

    4. Let yourself tell stories: Anxiety tends to cause us to believe the most extreme and negative stories we can tell ourselves. "Instead of curbing this reflexive habit, indulge it," Nawaz writes, such as by creating three separate, distinctly different stories about your situation. "Expanding the stories you tell yourself about a specific situation shows you there are multiple possibilities, many of them more positive than your initial hypothesis."

    5. Walk your talk: Ask yourself what you would tell a colleague to do if they came to you in the same predicament, Nawaz writes. Stopping and asking yourself what you would say "allows you to become more objective and loosen the thinking trap that has you in its hold."

    Experiencing fear, self-doubt, and confusion is perfectly human, Nawaz writes, and these feelings can often be helpful for keeping us alert and productive. "But when anxieties overburden our brains and undermine performance, it's time to consciously choose the strategies that put us in charge of our own internal dialogue and tune in to the chatter that matters," Nawaz writes (Nawaz, Harvard Business Review, 1/2).

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