Working with Anxiety: From Personal Weakness to Career Strength

Julene Johnson

Reading time: about 8 min


  • Career
If asked to describe yourself in a few phrases, which ones would you pick? In social situations, I might say, “I like music, and I like volleyball.” In professional situations, I might say, “I have a bachelor’s degree, and I’ve worked for five years as a Quality Assurance Specialist.” But, in my head, I’m more likely to describe myself by saying, “I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and I do so many things wrong because of my inability to manage it.” Generalized Anxiety Disorder involves chronic excessive anxiety that can be triggered by everyday situations. Once the panic has started, I struggle to let it go, and consequently, even  simple things like talking to someone or giving my opinion become difficult. Some days it feels like I’m incapable of being useful in any way. A few years ago, I was told that my struggle was a gift. That simple idea stuck with me, and I started to see how the habits and skills I learned because I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder could be beneficial. I’d like to share a few experiences that demonstrate how anxiety can lead to career strength as a tester, and how career strengths can help me manage my anxiety. As you read, I invite you to consider how these ideas can apply to you as well.

Missed it by that much

When I was in elementary school, I spent a portion of one recess sobbing as I was helped to scrape dog poop off of my shoe. I was mortified. I don’t know if this was the moment or just one of the moments that triggered my new obsessive behavior, but in an effort to never again step in something embarrassing, I started watching the ground as I walked. One day, while walking with my eyes focused on the floor, I heard my name called and looked up to find a pole inches from my nose. In my haste to defend myself from the dangers of the ground, I forgot the dangers right in front of me. What sort of phrases might I use to describe myself that day? I nearly made a fool of myself. I let my anxiety keep me from seeing the world. But looking at the situation differently, what had I done really? I’d done a risk assessment. Past experience had taught me that if I didn’t watch the ground, I’d get undesirable results. So I watched the ground. Then, I had a new experience that exposed an area of risk I had overlooked, and I changed my behavior. Now, I alternate my attention between the ground and the area around me. As a QA Specialist, assessing which areas of the product have the greatest risk of bugs is essential. With all the intricacies of the code, I often fear I’ll miss a bug, and that worry can be paralyzing. But if I remember that I can change perspective as I gain more experience, I can move forward with more confidence—so long as I remember to look up once in a while and reevaluate. That near-accident years ago was practice for a job today. The same pattern can work in your life, whatever your career. Use your experiences to make the best decisions you can. When you are unhappy with the results, adjust. But remember to look up and evaluate if you’re applying new experiences. And just like the warning call of someone with a different perspective kept me from running into the pole, if you listen to those around you, their perspectives can help you avoid dangers you haven’t yet considered. As we use this pattern, we can be more patient with and confident in ourselves and others.

Celebrate the plateaus

A year or two ago, I found myself complaining to a friend about my failure to make a positive change in my life. I drew a graph as I explained the problem. For a stint of time, I had positive momentum and I felt successful. But eventually, that momentum died, progress halted, and I plateaued. After a while I managed to build up some momentum again, only to plateau once more, still short of my goal. When I’d finished my rant, I recognized the graph I’d drawn. I’d seen it years ago in my chemistry classes.
Change of State graph
On this diagram, the x-axis represents energy input, and the y-axis represents temperature. If you take a solid object and add energy, the temperature rises at first. Then at the melting point, the graph plateaus. Energy put in during that time causes the solid to change into a liquid state. Once melted, the temperature rises again until it plateaus at the evaporation point. How can this connection shift the phrases I use to describe myself? Plateaus weren’t evidence I was failing, but evidence that I was changing. With this perspective, plateaus in the workplace take on new meaning. When I do not make the progress I want to, I can take a step back and consider if I see indication of change. If that change is there, the most productive action may be patience. Patience doesn’t mean laziness. Just as the plateau in the diagram still required energy input, a plateau in a goal only represents change when I’m still trying. But if I direct my energy toward consistency instead of progress, I can prepare myself to better handle the next growth spurt. Everyone experiences plateaus in their progress. When you do, take time to evaluate the situation. Are you truly stuck, or are you just in the process of changing? Then, depending on your answer, direct your energy into momentum, or active patience. This graph can also remind each of us to look for success in unexpected areas. What at first seemed like a failure turned out to be an essential part of progress. As you and I identify those incorrect assumptions about ourselves and our co-workers, we have the opportunity to see what was once frustrating as evidence of progress.

Take a moment to breathe

After encountering one of my triggers at work, I spent at least an hour trying to squelch the anxiety by reading documentation about what scared me. At some point I realized that none of what I was supposed to be doing that day was getting done, so I contacted my manager. First I explained the situation. He let me know I didn’t need to worry about it. Then we spent the next thirty minutes talking about something not work related. After that, I was able to get back to work. This provided me with a template to successfully handle stress in and out of the office:
  1. I am important, so I need to treat myself and describe myself like I am important, even when stressed.
  2. Taking time to take care of myself made me more effective. Usually, I refer to any time I’m not working as “avoiding.” I need to allow myself time to relax and use that reset to spur me into action.
  3. Talking to someone helped me to move past the stress. When I feel anxiety building, I can find ways to talk to others or write in a notebook to talk it out on my own.
Giving yourself and others time to pause and address seemingly less important or less urgent concerns can at first feel like a misuse of time. But you are important. Each one of your co-workers is important. And not only do you deserve to be treated like you are, but you may find that a short break to regroup brings better results as you work to accomplish professional and personal goals.

What now?

Everyone has things they struggle with. Sometimes, it may seem that the negative impact of those struggles are the strongest descriptors of our lives. But when we change the phrases we use to describe ourselves and our struggles, we find that each of us has something unique to give because of, not in spite of, our challenges. It’s not that years of negative self-talk are erased in a single moment. It’s not that bits of positive erase all the negative. It’s that awareness is the first step. With that awareness, we can start an effective cycle where we use skills, habits, and lessons learned from struggles to benefit our careers and use what we learn in the workplace to combat the negative impact of our struggles. When you then take that awareness and apply what it reveals, you can turn your personal weaknesses into career strengths.

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