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How I broke the chains of workplace anxiety and stress.

Updated: Feb 9

I learned to cope with stress and anxiety in the workplace. Here's how.


I used to worry about everything.

An image representing anxiety

 

I had to plan every tiny detail, activity and contingency for everything I engaged in. Even an hour-long car journey had to be meticulously prepared with backup printed maps, first aid kits, checking the oil and tyre pressure, planning toilet breaks, and printing out my breakdown recovery details.

 

So, imagine how I was as a project manager.

 

Pretty good. I was getting promoted, bigger projects and more responsibility, but it came at a price to me personally.

 

Anxiety.

 

And I'm not talking about just worrying a bit about things; I'm talking about life-impacting anxiety at a level whereby the thermostat in your brain screams at you that something is wrong, even though there is no evidence to support it.

 

Anxiety is an all too familiar co-pilot for too many of us.

 

I couldn't settle down in the evening due to the thousand and one thoughts in my head. I had to pursue all workstream leads in detail to ensure they had plans for delivery. Every risk needed constant revision. I was overthinking everything and often stuck in analysis paralysis. Then, the panic attacks hit. Something I'd never experienced before but soon came to dread.

 

So, if you've never had one, you can consider yourself lucky in that respect. However, if you have, you'll know that it feels like someone is suddenly pushing you towards the door of a helicopter, asking you to make a skydive. Yet, the reality is that you are just sitting at your desk, having a coffee and looking at an Excel spreadsheet.

 

It's a feedback loop that quickly spirals out of control. You feel anxious, which leads to you observing the feelings, which makes you feel more anxious, and suddenly, you feel like the world collapses in on you. At my worst, I would worry that the building would literally collapse on me.


A representation of anxiety

The Illusion of Control


So, what was the epiphany I had? Well, it was two-fold. First, I had the most vivid dream.

 

"OK, weirdo, what was it?"

 

Thank you for asking. I'll tell you… In my dream, I stepped out of my house as a massive tornado ripped along the street. Black, menacing clouds whipped in front of me. Everything was a wall of noise and a blur of objects whipping past. For some reason only known to my subconscious, I stepped into the tornado...

 

The storm continued to whip around me, throwing objects around like I would be transported to Oz, but it was calm and quiet in the eye of the tornado.

 

The dream was so vivid and, to this day, burned into my memory.

 

Some part of my brain was trying to tell me something.

 

In the days and weeks that followed, I thought about this odd dream that didn't just dissolve into my subconscious. I concluded that I never had control over anyone or anything they were doing. Sure, I had influence and could identify issues, anticipate problems, and try to tip the balance in favour of a successful outcome, but I didn't have total control. It was a fallacy.

 

This realisation led to a fundamental shift in how I approached subsequent projects and, more importantly, my anxiety.

 

I took a look at the whirlwind around me and decided what I could and could not control and the types of things that might well trigger my anxiety.


Inviting the Panic In

 

I said my learnings were in two parts. The second part was to realise (and I mean, really understand) that despite the awful feelings anxiety was pushing through me, 'it' had no real power over me. It couldn't actually hurt me.

 

This was key.

 

If anxiety is the result of an overactive part of my brain causing a feedback loop, then the only person that can control it is me. So, I read somewhere that when I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I should rest calmly somewhere and actively invite it in. I would say, "Do your worst; you can't hurt me".

 

And you know what? It worked.

 

The crushing feeling of anxiety and the fight or flight response quickly lost its ability to push me into that awful place where your mind is telling you that you are in mortal danger.

 

So, that helped with the acute anxiety attacks, but not the anxiety as a whole. I'd dialled back from a 9 out of 10 to a 4 out of 10. I'm a natural worrier and have been my entire life. I sweat the details. So, being able to remove anxiety from my life entirely doesn't seem possible, but it is manageable. It's kind of like pain, which is a horrible but necessary response from your body to external influences. The same with anxiety; if we didn't have any at all, we'd probably be in more trouble. So, management of it is the best I'm going to get.

 

So, how did I manage it in the real world?


The Importance of Delegation

 

I decided empowering team members to take responsibility for their roles and to push some of my mentally self-imposed obligations to success off my plate and onto theirs was more effective. If they deliver, great; if they don't, that reflects on them, not me.

 

An image of someone suffering from stress and anxiety.

I did start to shine the spotlight more intensely on people and their ownership of deliveries through updates in highlight reports, risk and decision ownership, and being crystal clear on accountabilities.

 

The feedback I started getting was tremendous. People recognised that I wasn't being Gordon Ramsey-level horrible; I was supportive but no-nonsense. People learned I wouldn't just roll over and accept poor excuses or shore them up with my performance and planning. I was there to dig into the reasons and help resolve any issues – not do their thinking for them.

 

The true embracement of delegation was a game-changer. I started assigning tasks with the full expectation that they would be managed and completed without my direct oversight. Of course, this doesn't mean I stopped monitoring the project altogether… I don't want to give the opinion that I was sitting back and sipping margheritas while everyone else was working, which was far from it.

 

I maintain regular check-ins to ensure the team is on the right path. However, the emphasis shifted from micro-details to broader objectives. We all talk about that helicopter view but practice so little.

 

OK, you probably think, "Isn't that what project managers are supposed to do?"

 

But here's my point: I KNEW it, but I wasn't DOING it.

 

There is a vast difference between thinking you are doing something and actually doing it (case in point: see my kids washing their hands after using the toilet). When it clicks, it clicks, and you know. But I had to work at it.

 

I also check in frequently with those at the coalface who are doing the job. They'll give you a quick sense of if things are going well or badly in a way that no highlight report or workstream leader is likely to give you.


Navigating the Sea of Uncertainty


I also stopped being preoccupied with capturing and revising every risk.

 

While it's important to anticipate problems, there comes a point where too much risk management becomes counterproductive. It becomes risk 'soup', most of which are just additives with no value.

 

I learned to recognise which risks were worth my attention (I call them 'the ones that keep people awake at night') and which were merely distractions.

 

Sure, the data centre could flood, but let's not worry about it. In the event it manifests, the management and response is beyond my control.


Letting Go of Perfection


I accepted that not every decision needs to be perfect.

 

The fear of making a mistake had been a significant source of stress for me.

 

I learned that often, when decisions are hard to make, it's because there is no 'wrong' answer. Accepting that it's OK to make mistakes and that they can often be corrected was incredibly freeing.

 

I deliberately made small mistakes to allow myself to get used to the feeling. I'd even go so far as to allow others to revel in them a bit. It's strangely empowering to learn to make mistakes.

 

I now embrace the concept of 'ready-fire-aim' (yes, you read it right) and avoid perfection in preference of having a bias towards action. It was a lesson hard-earned.

 

And if I find myself in a death-march project, I'm not playing that game. My mental health is far too important for someone else's crusade.

 

The Result


The effect of this paradigm shift was twofold.

 

On the one hand, my stress levels decreased dramatically. I finally managed to reclaim my evenings, no longer haunted by the relentless need to prepare for the next day.

 

I'll be honest, I still do prepare, but 'just enough' is my mantra. My newfound ability to 'switch off' also positively impacted my sleep patterns, personal relationships and overall well-being. I have more energy and focus to give the role in the 'on' hours.

 

You can't pour from an empty cup.

 

In retrospect, the day I acknowledged the limitations of control was when I set myself free from unnecessary stress. It enabled a more effective, collaborative, and successful management approach. It's a lesson I wish I had learned sooner, but it came when I needed it the most, and I had to learn it for myself.

 

Someone can tell you about a trip to the moon, but you'd have to experience it to truly understand.

 

I encourage others bogged down by the minutiae of control and anxiety to take a step back and reevaluate their approach. Sometimes, letting go is the first step toward real control.

 

And the anxiety?

 

I still struggle with it. It's part of my DNA almost, but it was a game-changing day when I realised that if you invite it in, literally. And say, 'Do your worst, you can't hurt me', and that I can't control everything, that it suddenly lost its terrible grip over me.

 

Step into that tornado. It ain't so bad.


 

Additional Resources



Resources for Anxiety Management

Here are some additional sites that help with anxiety and workplace issues.

Website

Description

URL

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

Articles and resources focused on anxiety in the workplace, including coping strategies.

Mind (UK Mental Health Charity)

Resources for managing mental health at work, focusing on anxiety and stress.

American Psychological Association (APA)

Expert advice and tips on how to manage stress and anxiety in a professional setting.

Heads Up (Australia)

Tools and resources for creating a mentally healthy workplace, including sections on anxiety.

Mental Health America (MHA)

Resources and information on promoting mental health in the workplace, including dealing with anxiety.

Harvard Business Review (HBR)

Articles by experts on managing anxiety in a professional setting, including research-based advice.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Comprehensive information on anxiety disorders, including workplace-related anxiety.


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