Even a simple meeting can be source of stress

Accentuate the positive to offset anxiety

A surprising number of employees can become anxious over an office activity as innocuous as a staff meeting, says an expert in social anxiety. The key to helping them overcome such anxiety, he advises, is to help them put a positive spin on the upcoming event.

"Some of my research looks at how moods are regulated with social interaction. Some socially anxious folks focus on negative emotions when they interact with other people," notes Craig Holt, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Iowa and Iowa City Veterans Medical Center in Iowa City.

"Often, what these people do not focus on is that there can also be an increase in positive emotions. What’s occurring may feel uncomfortable, but we get some social benefit from interacting with other people."

A common problem

Social anxiety is not some rare, esoteric affliction, Holt notes. "What we find, is that upwards of 70% of all people will disclose themselves as shy — if not what we call socially anxious," he observes. "I see this as a normal stress of interacting with people."

Like any other form of "mental" stress, this anxiety will affect the physical well-being of employees. "They will have a heightened awareness of physical sensations like an increase in heart rate, shallower breathing, slight sweatiness, and a sense of not being as clearheaded as they were prior to the onset," says Holt.

Thus, he notes, anxiety over an upcoming meeting can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because under these conditions, the employee will not be able to perform at an optimal level. "If they have shaky hands, if they’re slightly sweaty, tired, and fatigued, they clearly won’t be at the top of their game," Holt emphasizes.

A matter of perspective

Being nervous about a meeting or a presentation is common to all employees, Holt notes. What makes some of them handle the situations more successfully is the way they deal with that nervousness. "People who are not socially anxious have many of these same feelings, but they focus on something more positive — such as the fact that they want to make an important point," he explains. "In people who are anxious, their focus on their nervousness tends to spiral. They are more likely to be tongue-tied and focus on that, rather than on getting back to the point."

As a wellness professional, you can help employees focus on more positive aspects of a given situation, says Holt. "The way we approach interactions is often based on previous feelings and assumptions. You should help the employee to think productively — what is it that they want to accomplish? If you help them to evaluate upcoming interactions based on those productivity goals, they are less likely to notice more adverse situations. Ultimately, they are then more likely to perform more adequately in those situations."

Mentally rehearse the behavior

Holt’s research has also shown that people’s moods tend to go up as they disclose more about themselves. "In an office situation, I’d suggest that you encourage employees to talk more themselves, rather than trying to present an image," he advises.

Holt says that often employees know how they should act; they just need help empowering themselves to perform successfully. "Employees know how to interact on a committee, but when they get into the actual situation, they’re not doing it," he says. "One thing they can do to get optimal performance is to mentally rehearse the behaviors of an ideal or positive outcome. If they do that, these behaviors and outcomes are more likely to occur." This, he notes, is a more positive application of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stress management programming can also be used to help employees overcome anxiety, Holt says. "Have them imagine themselves being in a stressful situation, and then have them imagine accomplishing the goal of that situation," he recommends. "It’s just like visualizing an athletic feat before you attempt it."

Such techniques are "highly applicable" in work situations, says Holt. "A lot of times employees are worrying about the bad things that might happen. We have to help them prepare for positive performance," he concludes.

[For more information, contact: Craig Holt, PhD, University of Iowa, 2130 Medical Laboratory, Iowa City, IA 52242-1181. Telephone: (319) 338-0581, ext. 6000. E-mail: craig-holt@uiouwa.edu.]