This One 'Harmless' Work Habit May Actually Be Anxiety In Disguise

It's incredibly common — but there are ways to cope so you can thrive in your job.
Anxiety at work can manifest in many different ways, but procrastination is a common form.
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Anxiety at work can manifest in many different ways, but procrastination is a common form.

Do you catch yourself frequently putting off tasks on your to-do list at work? Instead of moving forward on a project with a looming deadline or being proactive about your overflowing inbox, you feel stuck.

It might not be you ― it’s your worried nervous system. Too often, procrastinating on a work assignment can get dismissed as laziness ― but the habit is actually one of the most common forms of work anxiety.

“The public is likely not aware of the role or extent that the nervous system plays in our day-to-day lives and how it informs our well-being,” said Chicago-based psychotherapist Cathy Ranieri. “In the workplace, when we feel overwhelmed, overworked, or nervous about our job ... the nervous system reacts by assessing it as a potential threat to our safety. For some, this kicks on the fight-or-flight response ... For many people, especially at work, it kicks on the freeze response: procrastination.”

Procrastination is one of the more under-discussed symptoms of anxiety because it’s often seen as a choice rather than a byproduct of a deeper issue. In reality, many cases of procrastination can essentially be avoidance ― a coping technique many people with untreated anxiety tend to engage in.

But experts stress it’s not a useful behavior. Putting off sending that one email can feel like a seemingly harmless act, but the more you avoid your tasks, the more that can actually worsen your anxiety.

“Watch out for your judgmental thoughts like 'I’m lazy' or 'I’m worthless' because these self-criticisms maintain the threat state.”

- Cathy Ranieri, psychotherapist

“Anxiety fuels procrastination by creating a ‘flight’ response,” said Jordan White, a licensed clinical social worker in Florida and Illinois who focuses on adults with anxiety. “Someone with anxiety will feel a need to avoid the topic or task because completing or thinking about completing the task creates a deep worry for them, whether it’s a thought that they would fail or whether it’s a thought of ‘I’m not good enough.’”

It’s not totally your fault if you do this ― this is typically how our brains react when we’re stressed. When you’re super anxious at work, procrastinating can become your body’s way to survive a perceived threat.

“When responsibility piles up, deadlines are approaching, and expectations are overwhelming, procrastination becomes part of the automatic response to the identified threat,” Ranieri said. “In the freeze state, the body is attempting to conserve energy to survive the threat which is why it often feels impossible to get things done. There may be low motivation, fatigue or a feeling of helplessness.”

You can manage anxiety and procrastination at work with a few simple habit changes.
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You can manage anxiety and procrastination at work with a few simple habit changes.

Tips For Tackling Your Anxiety And Procrastination At Work

In the end, avoiding job deadlines just ends up causing us more stress and anxiety. Here are some tips on how to address your procrastination anxiety so you can complete a task:

Create a schedule for your week.

Map out your days so you know exactly what you need to do. “By creating a schedule we are planning out our time and not creating a space to avoid anything,” White said.

Take a break so it feels less daunting.

“I also love to have a client take a break from what they are working on and come back to it,” White said. “Many find that by stepping away, they can come back with fresh eyes and try something a different way.”

Start with the smallest task first.

“Try to execute small tasks to get some easy ‘wins’ first that can both contribute to some momentum and allow you to move into a more parasympathetic nervous system state rather than living in threat,” Ranieri said. “You may start to feel more at ease in this state and therefore more capable.“

Or, if works better for you, do the hard thing first.

“Another way to avoid procrastination is by completing the task you want to avoid first,” White said. “By completing the task you want to avoid first, you aren’t giving yourself a chance to avoid it at all and instead are addressing it.”

Finally, be kind to yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up for the procrastinating you have been doing. Ranieri said to watch out for your judgmental thoughts like “I’m lazy” or “I’m worthless” because these self-criticisms maintain the threat state.

Instead, Ranieri suggested speaking to yourself like you would to a friend or loved one. “Use some self-compassion, like, ‘This is hard for me right now,’” she said.

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