Does Work Make You Nervous?

OK, true confession time here: One of my fantasy jobs is to be a back-up singer to Tina Turner. Uh, ain't never going to happen. One, I'm completely tone deaf, two, well you know, I don't have the legs and three, I could never - ever - evah (!) get up on a stage in front of thousands (or even a dozen) people. I'm just not a performer. I can barely get by without breaking out in a cold sweat when I have to make a presentation before a room full of my colleagues.

Work Makes Me Nervous
Work Makes Me Nervous

And I know I'm not alone.

Millions suffer from some sort of anxiety - in fact one out of every eight of us suffers from social anxiety.

AND - the causes of many of those anxiety are most intense in the workplace.

Being on the job means being bombarded with all sorts of so-called anxiety "triggers": Meetings, fear of being laid off, brainstorming, deadlines and most commonly - public speaking.

In the new book, WORK MAKES ME NERVOUS Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed, authors Jonathan Berent and Amy Lemley offer a psychotherapy-based program for conquering public speaking and other workplace anxieties.

In the book, they offer a personal coaching system that they say will, over the course of 21 days, teach you new exercises to overcome anxieties by using four key steps:

  1. Clarify your motivation - Why do you want to change? Is it to get a better job or improve your health?
  2. Diagnose your anxiety symptoms and use them to create change - Do you blush, sweat, stutter or feel sick?
  3. Develop a high performance mind - High performers are proactive / anxiety suffers are reactive
  4. Master the five step adrenaline control technique - The authors say their guide will help you "surf the wave of adrenaline that comes with anxiety and control it within seconds."

Want to know more? Check out the Guest Author Blog they've written up for Bullish readers and continue on reading for an excerpt from Work Makes Me Nervous


Guest Author Blog: High-Level Executives and High Anxiety: Fight-or-Flight Gets Excessive as Workplace Pressures Rise by Jonathan Berent, LCSW, and Amy Lemley Authors of Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

Never let them see you sweat. Good advice, but it’s getting harder to follow. Fiscal losses, impending layoffs, rapid promotions, mergers and acquisitions, and the possibility (or necessity) of seeking new employment are among the significant challenges causing workplace anxiety.

A variation of performance anxiety, workplace anxiety is an overreaction to stress. In high achievers, it’s often prompted by excessive perfectionism—the same perfectionism that has allowed them to succeed.

Worldwide, the number one fear is public speaking, ranking above death. That fear goes beyond making speeches to include any monologue situation: It’s your turn to talk, in a sales meeting, a conference call, or webcam conversation, and all eyes (and ears) are on you.

Workplace anxiety sufferers have one thing in common: a fear of being noticeably nervous. Some anxiety symptoms are more apparent than others, such as blushing, sweating, a quivering voice, and poor eye contact. The worst fear for many is that their minds will go blank (think Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s 16-second brain freeze during the October debate). Other symptoms are almost imperceptible to onlookers: shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, difficulty swallowing and gastrointestinal upset, for example.

One top-rated investment manager panicked during a Christmas Party raffle for one million AmEx points: “All I could think about was how, if I won, everybody would be looking at me, cheering, maybe even expecting me to say something. My mind was racing. I was short of breath. I just wanted to get out of there.”

Work Makes Me Nervous
Work Makes Me Nervous

The president and CEO of a Fortune 500 company froze during a board of directors meeting when someone asked her a question she hadn’t anticipated. “My mind just went blank,” she says. “I later thought, What if that happens during a TV news interview? The stock of the company would go down.”

Yet most high achievers who suffer anxiety or panic at work are extremely adept at covering it up. “I live behind a curtain,” says a senior vice president of a media company who supervises 2,000 people. “People would never know I have this problem.”

A hedge fund was his company’s go-to guy for public speaking. Only his wife knew that he would obsess for months before an important presentation, giving in to depression that harmed his relationships and compromised his effectiveness at work.

Typically, anxiety leads to avoidance of the stress trigger. If you fear you stammer or stutter, you quickly steer questions toward someone else. You text, IM, or e-mail rather than walk across the hall for a quick chat. You screen your cell phone calls, let your voicemail pick up, and avoid listening to the messages. You depend excessively on your staff to follow up when you are the most appropriate person to do so. And you procrastinate—which can be habit forming.

Technology has made avoidance easy in some ways. But the constant inflow of information and the expectation that everyone is “on” all the time has increased the pressure to think on your feet. Rehearsing remarks and relying on note cards or PowerPoint have gone by the wayside in favor of rapid-fire Q&As, the expectation of an instant reply via e-mail, and so on.

We see avoidance addiction all the time, on all rungs of the corporate ladder. Avoidance becomes the default, despite its long-term consequences.

When pressed, many anxiety sufferers will say, “This is just the way I am.” But anxiety is a learned response—adrenaline flow causes a visceral reaction you have deemed negative and come to fear. It does no good to hope you won’t experience adrenaline; instead, you must accept it as a source of power—surf the wave.

"I live behind a curtain...People would never know I have this problem." -From, "Work Makes Me Nervous", Media Exec

What you have learned, you can unlearn. With practice, you can balance your “mind states” so that your thoughts are not dominated by messages like “You must be perfect,” “You don’t have anything to say,” and “Everyone can tell you’re nervous.” You can’t stop those thoughts, so invest in letting them go. Instead, focus on balancing them with positive messages that will cause your critical inner voice to recede.

Nurturing, objective, and open-minded thinking will dial down that negativity. Feeling like a deer in the headlights when the CEO asks you for an update? Remind yourself that your company hired you for a reason; acknowledge your success. Objectively summarize the facts in your mind: The boss wants to know x. And open yourself up to new ways of handling requests and locating information. Practice responses such as “I’ll get back to you”; offer a time frame; and live up to your promises.

Integrity is an important piece of the puzzle. When you compromise your integrity with avoidance, you become angry with yourself, feeding your anxiety.

Over time, balancing your mind states will become second nature. Your anxiety will recede. The adrenaline flow will become a prompt for action. And you’ll have the freedom to succeed.


Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc.( from Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed by Jonathan Berent and Amy Lemley Copyright (c) 2010 by Jonathan Berent

Your Critical Parent Mind State

The Critical Parent mind state is energy that represents authority. It makes rules! It teaches “shoulds”! It evaluates and analyzes. It passes judgment and criticizes. And that can be a very good thing. When your parents told you not to touch a hot stove, that was good criticism. You need your Critical Parent for guidance. The Critical Parent serves many important purposes: It keeps our primitive urges in check. It allows us to consider how we performed and how we might do better (For example, I have taped hundreds of my television and radio shows and analyzed and critiqued them for the purpose of improving my performance.) For society as a whole, the police represent the collective Critical Parent, because without them our primitive urges would overtake us and there would be chaos.

Work Makes Me Nervous
Work Makes Me Nervous

But when our Critical Parent gets too loud, it no longer serves us positively. Often the critical script with performance anxiety goes something like “You’re going to get nervous,” “You will screw up,” “You will make a fool of yourself,” “People will see who you really are,” “People will not get to see who you really are because you will screw up,” “You’ll embarrass yourself,” and so on. Not very helpful, is it? These are obviously negative suggestions. This is a state that must be decreased.

Here’s something to remember: It’s wonderful to be involved in the pursuit of peak performance. It’s absurd to be paralyzed by fear of not being perfect.

Who is perfect? Nobody. The fear of not being perfect is an example of excessive internal critical script, which is often a part of perfectionism. While the critical script is important in facilitating achievement and success at work, its excessiveness is a major cause of performance anxiety. Look again at the Unbalanced Mind States graph. See the twin towers? If you suffer performance anxiety, the Critical Parent is a primary cause of your problem because of its unrealistic expectations.

The Critical Parent is a learned script—but it is your own internalized script, not merely the voice of the parents who raised you. It is a product of your values, your parents, your teachers and authority figures, your peers, your culture, and society. It is acquired through experiences that you then interpret as good or bad. For example, Shelly was the CFO of a billion-dollar company. She had experienced a panic episode during a board of directors meeting about a year before she contacted me. Since that time, she had been obsessing that this panic could occur again. As she said to me, “What if I go on television and have a panic attack? The viewers will obviously think there’s something wrong and the stock of the company will go down.” I did not disagree with her, but I did disagree when she said there was no reason for her anxiety.

When we explored her background, I gained insight into her critical script. Together we began to map out a way to balance her mind states. Shelly’s father was a very successful businessman who was also an avid hunter. I’m not an advocate of hunting, but the story has an interesting and important point. When her father went hunting, he took one bullet with him. His thinking? If he could not get the animal with one bullet the animal deserved to live. How’s that for a perfectionist challenge? This kind of thinking integrated itself into Shelly’s internal critical script and prompted her own endless quest for perfection. That drive to be the best led her to become tremendously successful in her career. But it also caused her anxiety problem.

"It’s wonderful to be involved in the pursuit of peak performance. It’s absurd to be paralyzed by fear of not being perfect." -Authors, "Work Makes Me Nervous", Jonathan Berent & Amy Lemley 

Again, I ask you: Who is perfect? Nobody. When a person tries to achieve what is impossible, anger and frustration result. Anger, when repressed, recycles. It is a force that drives anxiety and obsession, among other problems. Anger is deep-rooted and may not even resonate on the surface because of detachment. People with anxiety don’t want to feel that anger—and so they don’t feel it consciously. They are so busy operating in the Adapted Child mode that they don’t allow themselves to feel it, and they haven’t been conscious of its development. Instead, they stuff it down into the unconscious. It is hidden, but it is by no means gone.

TUNE IN: Take a long slow deep breath in through your nose now, 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . and slowly exhale for 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . What’s the temperature of your hands now? Warm? Cool? Again, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some vasoconstriction going on right now given that you are currently attaching to potentially highly emotional content. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

It is often our observations, not any words we actually hear while growing up, that help to form our internal critical script. Though Ethan owned a successful construction supply business with 25 employees, he was unable to enjoy his financial success. Looking at his upbringing, he remembered his parents as always “flipping” houses, never staying in one place for too long and always working. He never remembered his parents having fun or enjoying things. Over time, he internalized the message they seemed to be giving him: Work hard, but don’t have fun. It’s not as though his parents told him directly, “Don’t have fun and always work.” But this is the script that he learned through osmosis during his growth and development.


Excerpt continued.....

As I have mentioned, our Critical Parent script is not only the voice of our actual parents, but also something we ourselves devise based on a number of different experiences and interpretations. The messages can come from anyone, anywhere.

Remember Carol, the ovarian cancer survivor who said anxiety was worse than chemo? When Carol was in 10th grade, her Spanish teacher called on her. In front of the class, the teacher said, “Oh, look, you are blushing.” For some people, this might not be a big deal. For Carol, however, being singled out in that way caused humiliation and shame that was paired with her blushing. The result was that she hated her blushing and tried to avoid it at all costs. This sequenced into her repressing her curiosity and spontaneity (NC) and her objective understanding that asking questions was sometimes necessary (A); she was that much afraid of being the center of attention. She gave up the career in medicine she really aspired to. (You can hear Carol’s interview at, “Public Speaking Anxiety and Blushing Resolved: Carol: Ovarian Cancer Survivor.”)

Work Makes Me Nervous
Work Makes Me Nervous

It’s wonderful to set your goals high, strive for perfection, break records, or make a discovery.

If your goals are high, it’s crucial to deal with frustration and anger. It’s vital to learn from mistakes and reposition your definition of perfection as a requirement for success. The closest you can get to perfection is learning to expect the unexpected. When you can “go with the flow,” you are in control—not operating from a rigid script. It’s those too-rigid scripts that cause emotion that turns into a temper tantrum of anxiety (more on that later).

Trust in being yourself. The more you learn this, the more you will be in control. The pursuit of perfection is a never-ending learning process. Fear of not being perfect kills creativity, which is crucial to high performance. Productive performers learn from mistakes. Any other thinking, especially that one should never make mistakes (and believe me, I have worked with many people who have this belief), is dysfunctional thinking. Who’s perfect? Nobody.

Perhaps nowhere is failure more visible than in sports competitions, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser. John Madden, the NFL’s most popular, now retired commentator, is legendary for his Yogi-isms: “If Dallas has more points at the end of this game, they are going to win.” How do athletes cope with failure? Take a lesson in letting go from the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team—well known for being the underdog winners of the 2008 American League Eastern Division Championship and winners of the American League Pennant, beating both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. After a loss, the team would gather in the locker room for a 30-minute debriefing in which they looked closely at what (and who) went wrong. And then, after 30 minutes—they just let it go. On to the next game! This is an example of engaging the positive Critical Parent mind state.

"It’s wonderful to be involved in the pursuit of peak performance. It’s absurd to be paralyzed by fear of not being perfect." -Authors, "Work Makes Me Nervous", Jonathan Berent & Amy Lemley 

Amy has a perfectionist streak that is both good and bad. She says: I see perfectionism in two ways: First, it is the reason I am successful at what I do. But it has also kept me from moving out of my comfort zone or even shooting for something I really wanted, but had no idea whether I could be good at. Writing sitcoms, for example. Or working for a big-time advertising agency. I am feeling anxiety symptoms right now just admitting to those long-ago dreams. I sometimes say that “I am so ambitious I can’t even leave the house.” What I mean is that I want to do big things and to do them so perfectly that I am afraid to even begin, to even step out into the world and try something. Listening to my internal critical script has, to a great extent, robbed me of the ability to dream big. It always seemed like the cost of failure would be devastating.

Amy is not alone in this. Many people with workplace anxiety don’t set their goals high enough because of the critical script that says “You are not capable,” “Why bother, you won’t succeed anyway,” “You are not worthy enough,” “Be very careful about what people think of you,” “Bad things will happen if you make a mistake,” “Avoid what makes you uncomfortable,” “Taking risks will screw you up,” or “You will regret trying.” These messages kill the learning process as well as one’s self-esteem. They breed frustration, resentment, and anger. Andrea began working as a temp for a luxury real estate agency and quickly demonstrated her ability to manage the marketing tasks at this exclusive firm. The owner offered her a permanent position; one year later, he let her know he was giving her a promotion to team leader. She took the news quietly, then went in to work the next morning and quit. “I couldn’t handle being in charge of other people,” she explained. “I was awake all night saying that I didn’t deserve the new job, that the other people in the department knew I was a fraud, that I had no right to try to tell other people what to do. It was too much. I didn’t want the promotion. Looking back, I can see that I really did want it. I just could not handle that internal critical script. It didn’t seem like it would ever go away, so I had to!”

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc.( from Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed by Jonathan Berent and Amy Lemley Copyright (c) 2010 by Jonathan Berent

About the Authors:

Photo Credits: Jonathan Berent: Jon Reed | Amy Lemley: Christopher David

Jonathan Berent, LCSW, and Amy Lemley are coauthors of Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed (Wiley, September 2010) as well as Beyond Shyness: How to Conquer Social Anxieties.

Berent’s pioneering social anxiety treatment has helped thousands.

Lemley, who once suffered from workplace anxiety, is a freelance marketing copywriter and senior editor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. For more information, visit

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks