Home 1 Minute Tips When Anxiety Strikes at Work, Here Are Seven Ways to Calm Yourself...

When Anxiety Strikes at Work, Here Are Seven Ways to Calm Yourself Down

Experts provide effective ways to counter COVID-19-related and other stress triggers

anxiety stress at work featuredBy Diana Hendel, PharmD, and Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA

We all have those moments when work is just too much. And if you’re working on the frontlines in health care right now, it may be happening more than ever. Maybe another patient just died or a family member is hysterical, and there’s nothing you can do. Whatever the reason, you suddenly feel triggered, overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. You know you need to keep it together, but frankly, you feel you’re about to fall apart.

Everyone in health care needs an action plan for handling those triggering moments. Enduring nearly a year of COVID-related traumatic stress takes its toll on optometrists and staff members. But when you are armed with the resources to recenter yourself during periods of distress, you can deal with those triggering moments, recover and get back to work.

Dr. Diana Hendel

Read on for some tools and resources you can turn to anytime you feel triggered at work by traumatic stress.

Take a few minutes to get grounded. Grounding is a great way to reduce anxiety and arrive in the here and now. Use it anytime you feel carried away by anxious thoughts or feelings or triggered by upsetting memories and flashbacks.

  • Find a comfortable place to sit (or stand). If sitting, rest your hands on your legs. Feel the fabric of your clothing. Notice its color and texture.
  • Next, bring your awareness to your body. Stretch your neck from side to side. Relax your shoulders. Tense and relax your calves. Stomp your feet.
  • Look around and notice the sights, sounds and scents around you for a few moments.
  • Name 15 to 20 things you can see. For example, the floor, a light, a desk, a sink.
  • As you keep looking around, remind yourself that “The flashback or emotion I felt is in the past. Right now, in this moment, I’m safe.”

Dr. Mark Goulston

Harness the power of deep breathing. We tend to hold our breath whenever we are stressed, but this only exacerbates feelings of anxiety and panic. Instead use “box breathing” to calm yourself and heighten your concentration. Box breathing is the technique of taking slow, deep, full breaths. Here’s a tutorial for when you’re feeling triggered.

Slowly exhale your breath through your mouth. Consciously focus on clearing all the oxygen from your lungs. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for four slow counts. Hold your breath for four more slow counts. On the next four counts, exhale again through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Hold your breath again for a final slow count of four beats.

Reach for an amulet to help anchor you…Carry a small reminder of what you love about your life and focus on it if you feel triggered and need to center yourself. It might be a photo of your kids or pet, a small rock you picked up on a scenic nature hike or a special necklace. Think of the gratitude you feel for your life whenever you look at this token.

Or grab a human lifeline. Make sure there’s at least one person you can reach out to when feeling triggered. Ideally, your workplace will have a formal support group to help you deal with the stressors of the pandemic. But if not, consider forming your own informal “fire team” consisting of the colleagues fighting by your side. Not only can this team meet a few times a week to talk through the challenges of the crisis, but you can also reach out to a member anytime you need support. And if you are feeling truly overwhelmed or desperate, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Reach out to your company’s EAP or contact a mental health professional.

Let your feelings out (when possible). At times you may find you need to step away from your duties for a few minutes and give those intense emotions some “breathing room.” Try to move to a different room so you can cry or discreetly express your feelings. Sometimes you need to release the stress that’s built up in your body, and finding a private place to let the tears fall or vent for a few minutes can lighten your stress and enable you to get back to work.

Play a mind game. If there is no way to speak to someone else and you need comfort in the moment, imagine talking to someone who loves you. Imagine that they are listening and lovingly holding and encouraging you. As you hear them talking and walking you through it, you will feel their love and belief in you. This kind of mental pep talk can be a bridge until you are able to speak your feelings to somebody in person.

Get out of the building for a few minutes. If at all possible, try to get outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Take deep breaths, stretch your arms and legs, and take in the gifts of nature around you. And if possible find someone else who is on a break and invite them for a 10-minute walk so the two of you can blow off steam.

It’s important to acknowledge your feelings—no matter how inconvenient they may be—when you are in crisis. When you are triggered, there’s no benefit in suppressing your emotions because they will only intensify and surface again and again until you deal with them. And if you are not okay, there’s no way you can be there for your patients. Face and release what’s bothering you, and then you will be able to keep going.

About the Authors: Dr. Mark Goulston is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching—which he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs—and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.

Dr. Diana Hendel is an executive coach and leadership consultant, former hospital CEO, and author of Responsible: A Memoir, a riveting and deeply personal account of leading during and through the aftermath of a deadly workplace trauma. Dr. Hendel led one of the largest acute care, trauma and teaching hospital complexes on the West Coast.

They are co-authors of a new book, Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD (Harper Horizon, December 2020, ISBN: 978-0-7852-4462-2, $17.99) is available in bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. Learn more here. 


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