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Anxiety at work: How to build resilience

Anxiety is not a mental illness – it’s a temporary state of being. By learning how to respond to this, and creating a more supportive, psychologically safe place to work, we can address this. In the second of a two-part series, Evelina Dzimanaviciute outlines some key skills for regaining control over anxiety and developing resilience.

In my last article, I explained why the modern working environment is detrimental to our wellbeing and the difference between anxiety, fear and stress. Anxiety is a natural human response to an unhealthy environment – so what can we do to redress the balance?

There are three key abilities and skills required for building resilience and regaining control over anxiety: self-awareness, self-regulation and self-expression.

  1. Self-awareness (know thyself) is all about understanding how our mind and body work, how our experiences shape us into who we are, how environments affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, being able to tune into different levels of intelligence and intuition, and knowing the difference between what is in our control and what is not so that we are not worrying about things that we cannot do anything about.

  2. Self-regulation is our ability to manage our emotions, stress response, nervous system, behaviours and responses, and thinking patterns. This is a key part of good mental health and wellbeing, as we either know how to control our emotions, or they control us. Most addictions, compulsive behaviours, emotional eating or drinking, or risk-seeking behaviours are our attempts to self-regulate, it’s just we do this through harmful processes because no one has ever taught us anything better.

  3. Self-expression is about doing the right things and doing things right. Being able to act in line with what meets our needs and does good for us, the ability to communicate those needs to others, to express and release our emotions in a healthy way, and to perform at our best regardless of external limitations.


Building resilience and self-regulation

If we want to build more resilient organisations that foster employee wellbeing, it’s crucial to include practical tools and self-regulation skills in our ways of working, our personal development opportunities, and workplace design.

There are three neuroscience-based ways we can help to regulate our anxious nervous system: top-down, bottom-up, and outside-in.

It is important to be able to engage in regular practices that can help us to restore our nervous system to equilibrium.

The top-down approach is calming down your emotional lower, limbic (or mammalian) parts of the brain by tapping into the power of our human neocortex, prefrontal parts and outer layers of our brain. This involves reasoning, logic, visualisation, having the right information and knowledge, planning and acting on it, and avoiding uncertainty.

The bottom-up approach is calming your brain through the body. This involves having quality sleep and rest, regular exercise and a healthy diet, maintaining the right posture, having the right daily routine and living in sync with your body’s circadian cycles and rhythms.

The outside-in approach is regulating our mind and body through our environment. The way we feel when we are on the beach watching the sunset, how listening to different types of music can induce different emotional states, or why some people energise us while others drain us, are all examples of the impact of our social environment on our physical and mental wellbeing.

 

Switching off your panic and anxiety attacks

It is important to be able to engage in regular practices that can help us to restore our nervous system to equilibrium, which takes time and patience.

If we want to stop unnecessary suffering and poor physical and mental health, it is time to reimagine our environments and ways of working.

In a moment of panic, however, we can switch off our response with specific grounding exercises and breathing practices. For example, four-eight breathing is one of the most effective tools:

This involves counting the length of your inhales and exhales, starting with an inhale to the count of four, and exhaling for the count of four. Then with every round of breathing, you keep inhalation the same, but add one number to your exhale, until your exhale becomes twice as long as inhale, for example:

  • Inhale for a count of four, and exhale for four.
  • Inhale for four, exhale for a count of five.
  • Inhale for four, exhale for six.
  • Inhale for four, exhale for seven.
  • Inhale for four, exhale for eight.

Why does this work? Well, because inhale is governed by a sympathetic nervous system (stress, or fight-flight response), while exhale is governed by parasympathetic (rest and digest part of our autonomic nervous system). By consciously controlling our breathing, we can override an automatic response of our autonomic nervous system and regain control over our emotional state.

 

Redesigning the future

In summary, the way we live and work in the modern world is so far away from how we have evolved to thrive through millions of years of evolution.

If we want to stop unnecessary suffering and poor physical and mental health, it is time to reimagine our environments and ways of working in a way that promotes human sustainability. The future of health and wellbeing is in redefining our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.

Recent resources

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