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Recognizing and Responding to Anxiety

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Everyone feels anxiety sometimes. The signs of anxiety include trouble sleeping, uncontrolled worrying, gastrointestinal problems, rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, restlessness, tension, and panic. You are more likely to experience anxiety if it runs in your family or if you suffered a trauma or have ongoing stress (say, over a child, a reorganization at work, or your finances).

The symptoms of anxiety usually disappear after a situation passes. For example, anxiety over delivering a presentation decreases as soon as the waiting is over and presentation begins; it disappears once the presentation is finished. When anxiety persists, however, the physical and emotional changes it causes can lead to problems like heart disease, full-fledged panic disorders, phobias, social isolation, and substance abuse.

Recognizing Anxiety

Recognizing your own anxiety should be easy—the symptoms are sufficiently out of the ordinary. But you may dismiss your symptoms as “nerves,” hide them in fear of being stigmatized, or misdiagnose them as a physical ailment. In fact, very few people recognize their own anxiety. According to recent studies, less than 5% of people are able to recognize panic disorders, generalized anxiety, and separation anxiety.

While you should never diagnose someone else, you should be open to considering anxiety if a team member seems unable to concentrate, constantly fidgets or worries, withdraws, is repeatedly stressed by certain situations, or shows unusual changes in their behavior. The team member’s work may suffer, their absenteeism may rise, and they may become disruptive or refuse opportunities that make them anxious.

Responding to Anxiety

Whether in yourself or others, anxiety is real. When speaking with someone who is suffering anxiety, never downplay or dismiss the symptoms. Instead, focus on healthy habits: exercise and meditation are both proven to calm anxiety and simply going for a short walk away from the anxiety-producing situation may be sufficient. 

If anxiety is long-lasting or appears overwhelming, consider medical care. A Harvard Medical School study found that most cases of anxiety go undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed as physical ailments) for five to ten years and only a third of individuals with anxiety get treated for it. Yet, in one Harvard study, consistent telephone support by a therapist was sufficient to lessen anxiety and improve productivity in 300 workers diagnosed with anxiety, at a significant savings compared to the lower productivity and turnover of a control group who did not receive support.

Sometimes the situations that prompt anxiety may be in desperate need of change. For example, if someone feels discriminated at work, because of gender, race, or any other difference, that individual may very well feel anxiety whenever they come into work. Their anxiety may lead to legal and safety issues for both the company and the employee.

Therefore, one of the steps you need to take as an individual and a leader is to recognize the situation that is causing anxiety. Ask yourself:

  • Can the situation be changed to improve the anxious person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being? For example, if an employee refuses to fly to meetings, is transportation by rail or car possible while they are being treated for their anxiety?
  • Can the situation be stopped? Bully and discrimination, for example, should not be tolerated.

By expressing your concern, you not only support your team but help to counter the social stigma of stress and anxiety. By offering—or accepting—help, you ensure a brighter future for yourself, your team, and your company.

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