I rarely talk about my clinical anxiety at my job in advertising sales at Google, but when I do, I always add the quick caveat that “It doesn’t affect my work.” I attempt to breezily explain that my anxiety is around relationships and social activities, not work, for fear that my co-workers will think I’m not able to handle workloads or stressful assignments the same way they can.
I’m not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only one-fourth of those with an anxiety disorder have told their employers about their diagnosis. Thirty-eight percent of those who hadn’t worried that “their boss would interpret it as lack of interest or unwillingness to do the activity” while 34 percent of them worried it would affect their promotion opportunities.
But recently, I’ve come to realize my anxiety isn’t holding me back at work but actually making me a better employee.
According to Nanci Pradas, who has 30 years of experience as a therapist, “There’s evidence to show that people who overcome thought distortions and automatic thoughts (symptoms of anxiety) can think more quickly, get promotions more frequently, and be more assertive.” And explaining how just might help break down the stigma about anxious workers.
My journey with anxiety probably started in college but hit a breaking point soon after, when I started a new job and broke up with my long-term boyfriend. I started seeing a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, a form of psychological treatment that focuses on addressing mental health problems through active behavior change. My anxiety was exhausting, all-encompassing, and painful to work through. But the truth is after four years of therapy and targeted medication, I have learned valuable lessons that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have anxiety.
I often describe my anxiety as going down a big mind spiral, where unfounded thoughts lead to even more unlikely imagined scenarios, such as “My boyfriend and I got in a fight. Now he’s definitely going to break up with me, and I’ll be alone forever. I better start researching egg freezing,” which start to feel not just possible but inevitable.
This also happens in the workplace: I’ve seen people translate one odd look in a meeting to the assumption that a client is going to pull all of its spend. This creates unnecessary stress and work when it most often isn’t even needed, work often described by the workplace lingo of “spinning your wheels.”
The tool I’ve learned for coping with these harmful thoughts is asking myself, “What is the evidence right now?” This often helps me find good reasons to assuage my fears. In my nonwork life, that might be noting to myself that my boyfriend has already texted me with plans for the night—something he probably wouldn’t do if we were breaking up. I use this same tool constantly in my job, asking myself and teammates if there is actual evidence pointing to a problem, and saving us hours of unproductivity. Was that weird look in the meeting sandwiched between otherwise positive indicators about the client’s level of satisfaction with our work?
A key determinant of career success is the ability to take feedback calmly and use it to change or improve your behavior, but many employees struggle with this. It’s easy to leave a year-end review with a lump in your throat and a feeling that any critiques you heard from your boss mean you should start looking for a new job or hold a silent grudge. But through CBT for my anxiety, I’ve learned how to reflect on both my strengths and weaknesses and then to change patterns of unhelpful behavior.
So when I received the constructive feedback from my boss that I sometimes interrupt and correct co-presenters in customer-facing meetings, I took time to reflect on why I was doing this. It was coming from a fear my manager thought my new teammates were more knowledgeable than I am. Once I challenged that fear by noting that there was virtually no evidence this was true, and started pausing before each meeting to remind myself I had nothing to prove, my manager noticed a difference right away.
Dealing with anxiety has also increased my empathy for colleagues. I know I’m not perfect—I have a real mental health issue—so I don’t expect others to be either. I am more likely to give the benefit of the doubt and understand that when others exhibit what seems like irrational behavior, they might just be experiencing anxieties of their own.
While I’ve worked to reduce my anxiety, maintaining some is actually critical in achieving my goals. According to Colleen Cira, founder of Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago, “flow theory” explains that people need a certain amount of physiological arousal (anxiety, engagement, stimulation) in order to be productive. But she warns that too much anxiety can make people overwhelmed. The key is finding balance, she says. “A person with well-managed anxiety is likely going to be a more productive employee as a result of their tendency to be anxious.”
A 2018 study about anxiety in the workplace echoes this, according to authors Julie McCarthy and Bonnie Hayden Cheng of the University of Toronto. “After all, if we have no anxiety and we just don’t care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job,” said Cheng.
The most valuable thing I’ve gained from coping with anxiety is a strong belief that change is possible, and that keeps me motivated. The process of working on myself didn’t happen overnight or in a linear fashion, which has helped me not get discouraged at the change of pace at large and complex organizations. But for anxious workers to thrive at work, we have to take on the stigma around mental illness at work. It’s time to see anxious employees as assets, not as liabilities. An employee who is productive, has empathy, challenges long-standing beliefs, and is persistent? Who wouldn’t want to hire someone like that.