Performance Anxiety at Work: Signs and How To Manage It
By Indeed Editorial Team
Updated August 18, 2022
Published October 8, 2021
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
A view of a person’s work desk with books, papers and a laptop open. The person is seen with a pencil in one hand and using a keyboard with the other.
Many people experience stress or worry related to their work performance, but when these worries linger and ultimately affect your ability to feel fulfilled in your work, you may have performance anxiety. Anxiety is a common and uncomfortable condition, but it's possible to live with when you have the right skills and support. Learning about workplace anxiety and how to handle it can help you feel more confident in your job.
In this article, we will explain what performance anxiety is and describe its signs, plus provide steps and tips for how to manage performance anxiety at work.
What is performance anxiety at work?
Performance anxiety at work involves feelings of worry, uneasiness or distress about a specific or general aspect of your work performance. Often, those experiencing this anxiety recognize that it's irrational, but they still have trouble calming their nerves and managing their anxious thoughts.
Living with work-related anxiety can be challenging for your mental health and physical well-being and can make it difficult to feel confident, engaged and fulfilled in the workplace, so learning to recognize and overcome these feelings is important. When you learn to identify your anxious thoughts and behaviors, you can implement strategies that help you manage them.
Signs of performance anxiety at work
Although the signs of anxiety can vary by person and severity, here are some common physical, mental and behavioral characteristics of anxiety:
When you feel anxious about your work performance, it's common to feel the physical symptoms of stress. Physical symptoms are your body's natural reaction to stress. They occur when you feel uncertain or threatened, even in the absence of physical danger. Although these symptoms can be uncomfortable, they can also be helpful clues that help you identify your feelings. These physical symptoms include:
Feeling tense or having sore muscles from being tense for a long period of time
Experiencing nausea, chest tightness or other feelings of discomfort in your chest and stomach
Sweating, shaking or having a fast heart rate
Having trouble breathing or feeling like there's something heavy on your chest
Feelings of weakness or general fatigue
Developing headaches from holding tension in your face, neck, shoulders and head
Another way to identify anxiety is to pay attention to your mental and emotional patterns. People experiencing anxiety may have thought patterns and emotional responses that differ from their typical thoughts and feelings.
Learning to recognize these shifts can help you identify your thoughts and feelings, note unhelpful thoughts and change those patterns to reduce your anxiety over time. Here are some of the mental and emotional signs of anxiety:
Having repetitive, obsessive or racing thoughts
Focusing on the worst-case scenario related to an upcoming work engagement
Struggling to focus or concentrate because of thoughts about work
Finding it difficult to think clearly or having your mind go suddenly blank
Feeling more irritable or short-tempered with those around you
Having a harder time distinguishing between feelings or managing feelings
Crying easily or feeling more guarded than usual
Finally, when you're feeling anxious, it may influence how you behave. These differences in your actions can be subtle, so paying attention to how your behaviors change depending on your thoughts and feelings about work can help you respond effectively to them. Some examples of behavioral symptoms of anxiety can include:
Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Feeling restless or agitated and needing to move or fidget more than usual
Performing repetitive motions like fixing your hair, adjusting clothing, playing with jewelry or picking at your skin and nails
Avoiding situations or putting off tasks that contribute to your anxiety
Startling easily at sudden noises or movements
Withdrawing socially from colleagues, friends and family
Adjusting your nonverbal communication to appear closed-off from others
How to manage performance anxiety at work
If you're experiencing anxiety in the workplace, here are some steps to help you manage it:
1. Identify and name your feelings
The first step to managing workplace anxiety is recognizing the signs of it in yourself. The more aware you are of your thoughts, feelings, physical symptoms and behaviors, the more effectively you can respond to them.
For example, if you notice that you have trouble sleeping at night and rarely had this problem before, you can take this cue and reflect on its causes. Note your feelings and name them. Consider keeping a journal to track your feelings over time.
This practice can help you recognize patterns in your anxiety, which may help you notice them faster and implement strategies to recover from them quicker. Having a record of your feelings can help you monitor any changes to these feelings as you try new ways of managing your anxiety.
When you spend time learning to identify your physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral cues, it can improve your self-awareness so you can better identify, express and care for your emotional health.
2. Reflect on sources of anxiety
As you monitor your anxiety cues, also look for the environmental factors that may cause them. Distinguish whether you feel anxious in general about your work performance or if there are specific aspects of your work that worsen your anxious feelings.
For example, notice whether your anxiety symptoms worsen or become more frequent before giving a presentation, making a phone call or leading a meeting. Identifying the sources of your anxiety allows you to take preventative measures or take action to lessen your worries ahead of tasks that provoke your anxiety.
3. Practice anxiety management strategies
After identifying your feelings and noting the sources of your anxiety, research some anxiety management techniques and integrate them into your workday. Since everyone experiences their anxiety differently, it's important to find techniques that work for you.
Knowing what specific sources cause your anxiety and how your anxiety affects your feelings and actions can help you choose strategies that directly address your concerns. For example, if you know you're prone to headaches and muscle soreness in the days leading up to a big meeting, try to incorporate gentle stretching, yoga or muscle relaxation techniques into your routine.
4. Ask for help
Finally, if work anxiety causes you significant distress, prevents you from engaging with your life outside of work, harms your physical health or keeps you from meeting your personal and professional goals, consider seeking professional help.
Anxiety is a common struggle for many people, and seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional can help you learn skills for managing it. Working with a mental health professional like a counselor, therapist or clinical social worker can help you gain insight into your feelings, learn strategies for dealing with your anxieties and find support from a trained professional.
Tips for addressing performance anxiety at work
Here are some ideas to help you manage performance anxiety at work:
Use breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques
Many people experience the physical symptoms of stress, so practicing body-focused stress management techniques can be one way to lessen these symptoms.
Breathing exercises involve changing your breathing patterns and focusing on taking deep breaths at a controlled rate. For example, one common breathing exercise is to inhale slowly for seven seconds, hold your breath for another seven seconds and then exhale again for seven seconds. Continue practicing this pattern until you feel calmer.
This is a great technique to use at work because it's discreet and you can do it while at your desk or in a meeting. Another way to manage your physical stress symptoms is to use progressive muscle relaxation. With this technique, focus on tensing specific muscle groups and holding that tension for four to 10 seconds.
Breathe in deeply as you tense. Then, release the tension while exhaling. Allow yourself to relax for 10-20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. When using this technique, you can either work your way up from your feet to your head or down from your head to your feet. You can use this relaxation method while sitting at your desk.
Take short breaks throughout the day
If you have trouble focusing during the day or find yourself overly focused on a particular task, find opportunities to take short breaks during the workday. Taking time to get up from your desk, do some light stretching or take a brief walk can help you calm your thoughts and reset your focus. Turning your focus from work to stretching and moving your muscles can provide some relief from your thoughts so you can come back to your work feeling refreshed.
Some people may also find it helpful to schedule regular breaks during their workday. You may set a timer to work for a certain length of time before giving yourself a break from your work. For example, give yourself a five-minute break after every 20 minutes of sustained focus.
If 20 minutes is too long for you, consider working in 10-minute intervals, with two-minute breaks in between. Having set time limits can help you divide your work into smaller, more manageable sections so you can feel focused and productive.
Create a desktop sensory kit
For those who fidget, feel restless or need to take a short mental break during the day, creating a kit with some materials that engage your senses can lessen your anxiety and improve your focus. When putting together a sensory kit, include at least one item that engages each of your senses.
For example, you might include fabric swatches from a craft store with different textures, a small piece of clay or a stress ball to engage your sense of touch. Having lightly scented lotion or oils are great options for your sense of smell.
Additionally, a small piece of bubble wrap or a clickable pen, gum and hard candies and a picture with lots of colors or a calming image can engage your senses of hearing, taste and sight. If you're feeling anxious or need to take a short break during the day, using the items in your box may offer some relief.
Although these can be great for personal use, be mindful of others who share your workspace and keep their sensitivities in mind when choosing items for your box.
Acknowledge and accept how you're feeling
Finally, acknowledging your feelings is an important step toward managing them. If you're feeling anxious, remind yourself that it's okay to feel that way. It's common to feel stress and anxiety related to your work, and often it's a positive sign you care about your work and want to succeed.
Being honest with yourself about your feelings makes them easier to accept, and when you're aware of what you're feeling and why, you can make more effective decisions about what to do with those emotions.
You can also consider sharing your feelings with others. Expressing your feelings to a trusted friend, family member or colleague can help you gain the support you need from those around you.
They may have ideas to help you deal with your anxiety, or they can hear your words and provide emotional support by listening. When you share your feelings with others, it can improve your relationships, reduce your stress and remind you that you're not alone.
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