Anxiety at Work: A Career-Busting Condition

Katrina Gay always worried about her on-the-job performance, but she used the anxiety to her advantage by pushing herself to produce quality work. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, however, she felt a little less in control.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night and my heart would be racing. I’d be sweating and I’d feel like I was having a heart attack,” says Gay. At work, she felt physically and emotionally drained, and found it difficult to talk and listen at meetings.

Fortunately, as the chief of field operations for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), Gay recognized her symptoms right away and visited a psychiatrist. She was diagnosed with anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses, affecting 19 million children and adults in the U.S., reports the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA).

ADAA also reports that the ailment consumes almost a third of the total $148 billion total mental health bill for the nation. That’s not surprising, given people with anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor, and six times more likely than non-sufferers to be hospitalized for psychiatric ailments.

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Although anxiety disorder describes a group of illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias, there are some symptoms that characterize the illness as a whole.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, when people suffering from anxiety disorders talk about their condition, they often include these descriptions:

  • Unrealistic or excessive worry
  • Exaggerated startled reactions
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Jitteriness
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Lump in throat
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Racing or pounding heart

In the workplace, these symptoms could translate into difficulty working with colleagues and clients, trouble concentrating, preoccupation over the fear instead of focusing on work, and turning down assignments because of fear of failure, flying, going in to the elevator, or public speaking.

For people who think they might have anxiety disorder, Jeffrey P. Kahn, MD, a clinical psychiatrist and author of Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace, recommends the following first steps of action:

  • Talk about the problem with someone you feel comfortable with. Also ask that person what they notice about you.
  • Take a break from your worry by playing sports, listening to music, praying, or meditating.
  • Join a self-help group.
  • If talking about the problem or relaxation techniques don’t work, seek professional consultation.

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