The word “trigger” means different things to different people and is rarely positive. Whether you are firing a gun, upsetting someone, or starting a fight, it often begins with a trigger. A trigger is an event or action that causes something to start or sets off a mechanism (again, rarely positive).
In the last piece, we treated workplace anxiety symptoms, causes, and coping skills. However, we know that, like any psychological event, workplace anxiety, alongside its “causes” and “coping skills”, is not one-size-fits-all. Usually, it is person and situation-specific. Identifying what sets off any anxiety you feel at work or towards your job is a relevant first step in managing workplace anxiety.
At this point, let us introduce a hypothetical character, Mrs Y, who headed a department whose output was greatly deadline-oriented. She was constantly neck-deep in work and haunted by deadlines; however, as a high performer, she ensured that her team delivered before deadlines.
Unfortunately, two junior managers from her team relocated within a few months without being replaced. This gap caused delays in project execution and affected the ability to meet deadlines.
Mrs Y began to observe that whenever she received a call from someone at work, her heart rate would increase because she was constantly expecting bad news from her team or complaints from other departments about her team not meeting certain obligations. Gradually, she developed this reaction to every phone call – work-related or not. Her enthusiasm and energy dropped; she stopped looking forward to meetings and started dreading work.
In this case, it would be tempting to say that the phone calls that delivered bad news triggered Mrs Y’s anxiety, but this would be wrong. It would also be wrong to attribute it to the recent exits. What triggered the anxiety for her was her inability to deliver excellently as usual – that loud drop in her performance. All would have gone well if her team’s performance – and consequently her performance – was unaffected by the exit.
The simple way to deal with it would be to identify that her trigger was the drop in her performance, and request that the executives adjust her performance indicator to accommodate the current reality of her team size. She could also impress on the executives the urgent need to replace the managers.
Another route would be to do all the above, including taking a break from work or seeking professional help. However, the focus of the intervention would be to provide an environment to achieve goals or set realistic goals. Thus, identifying triggers is crucial to managing work-related anxiety, and there are ways to accomplish this.
- Start a journal: This does not have to be anything fancy. Immediately you suspect that you may be exhibiting symptoms of workplace anxiety, start taking notes (we discussed symptoms in a previous edition). Jot down when you start noticing them and the events that you think triggered them. Mrs Y’s journal could have events like Exits, Negative Feedback, Complaints from the CEO, Failed appraisals, Missed deadlines, etc. Keeping track of your feelings provides a clear perspective and helps you analyse what makes you anxious. You could include how you think you can manage it.
- Identify stressors: What is the one thing you constantly dwell on and cannot stop thinking about? Look out for activities or events that you dread participating in. If Mrs Y had taken time to think, she would have realised that she did not like attending meetings because they highlighted the performance of everyone, including hers.
- Be honest about your feelings: Honesty remains the best policy. Honour your feelings and acknowledge them to yourself freely. It will help you accurately track a journal and identify stressors.
- Create time to reflect on past experiences: Past trauma remains a significant trigger. Let us assume that Mrs Y successfully overcame this experience. If we fast forward to a couple of years later and more than two people leave her team almost simultaneously, she could start experiencing anxiety symptoms immediately, even without any negative impact on the team’s performance.
- Talk to someone: Talking to loved ones also helps you to analyse your feelings. A trusted friend or family member can provide valuable insight into situations and experiences. You can also talk to a therapist.