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There should be a word to describe that unsettling, anxious feeling you get when you return to work after a long break. It's like the "Sunday Scaries," amplified; perhaps in the week leading-up you feel nervous, the night before your mind starts to race, and the morning you return to work you can't understand why your heart is thumping.
This phenomenon isn't unusual—in fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that about 40 million people struggle with anxiety, and work is one of the most common stressors. "Many feel anxious after taking a vacation from work due to worry over job expectations upon your return and tasks that may have been left undone," explains Chris Kernes, family therapist and founder of on-demand mental healthcare app LARKR. "One major reason for this issue is that people do not take as long of breaks as they really need, so stepping away is more of a stressor than a relief. How the break goes affects anxiety as well—did you get to relax and actually enjoy the vacation or was it also stressful?"
Instead, it's important to "re-connect with what is meaningful and exciting about your work," explains Philippe Goldin, Ph.D., who serves on the scientific advisory board for mindfulness app Stop, Breathe & Think. With a few simple practices, it's possible to feel prepared and energized to return to work. Here's how to deal with work anxiety, according to mental health experts.
Step 1: Recognize Your Feelings
The first step is to recognize the way you feel and know that there's nothing wrong with it. "The biggest misconception is that anxiety is bad," says Goldin. "Anxiety is a signal, and like each type of emotion, a source of information about your outer and inner current state. Slow down, and notice the anxiety-related bodily sensations and thoughts, and bring a sense of curiosity and equanimity to the present moment," he says.
The signs vary from person to person, but Goldin says there are some key indicators that you're experiencing back-to-work anxiety. "Experiencing feelings of dread, being less engaged, having problems focusing, and experiencing physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and sweating when approaching your workplace" are all signs.
That doesn't mean you should ignore or try to resist these feelings, though. By changing the way you think about anxiety, he believes it's possible to shift your response. "Anxiety (as well as fear, anger, jealousy, etc.) can be befriended. You might even smile, laugh, and remember that you know this emotion or thought, like an old friend. Anxiety and worry are habits of mind that can be modified, released, and befriended," he says.
Step 2: Adjust Your Routine
If you've experienced back-to-work anxiety before, consider adjusting your vacation routine before returning to the office to help mitigate that last-minute panic. "If traveling, it's also important to give yourself enough time to transition back to normal life," says Kernes. "Don't return to work the day right after traveling. Give yourself at least one day of just relaxing at home beforehand."
It can also be helpful to incorporate yoga into your routine, says Jamie Price, co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think. "Yoga has been proven to reduce anxiety and is a great way to feel grounded and present, which is a natural antidote to the getting caught up in the worries that lead to anxiousness," he says.
The night before returning to work, adjust your evening routine so that it supports rest and reflection. "Despite the allure of alcohol, try to not drink too much at night, as it interferes with solid sleep. Preferably, if possible, read poetry or prose that you enjoy, take a bath, have a meaningful conversation with your partner, [and] get off your devices," says Goldin. Writing in a journal can also help you reflect on your vacation and ready your mind for the coming day. "Write in your journal reflections of your days, aspirations for tomorrow, or just allow a mind-dump with no evaluation of good or bad," he recommends.
Step 3: Practice a Breathing Exercise
You've recognized your emotions, adjusted your vacation schedule, followed a calming routine the night before, and still arrived at the office feeling scattered and stressed—now what? Goldin says a simple breathing exercise can help quell anxiety at your desk.
"In your chair, lean back, close your eyes, and massage your neck and face. Then breath in, raise your shoulders to your ears, hold your breath and muscle contraction for five seconds, and then let go," he says, and repeat three times. "Then place the palms of your hands over your chest and belly, and begin to slow down your breath. Breathe slowly into the palms of your hands. Fully focus your attention on the rise and fall of your chest and torso, and let your mind settle on the sensations and rhythm of breathing."
Another exercise that helps relieve feelings of anxiety is following the "finger mantra," which Kernes swears by. "Many of my clients have also benefited from using the finger mantra, which includes touching one finger at a time to your thumb while repeating a powerful mantra, such as 'I am one with time' while taking deep breaths."
If negative thoughts or physical sensations are intense or start interfering with your daily life, both Kernes and Goldin agree that it's smart to reach out to a professional. "It is normal to a have back-to-work apprehension to a certain degree, but if you are not able to function as you used to or are overwhelmingly preoccupied with your worry, you should seek help," says Kernes. After all, you're not alone and letting others in is the first step.
Thinking of incorporating yoga into your routine? Start with these yoga poses for anxiety.
About ADAA. Facts & Statistics. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 2020.