How to Manage Anxiety When Returning to the Office

Story by Alycia Burant, MA, LPC, NCC | Healthy Minds Therapy, PLLC



Many of us are having to face the challenges of returning to physical workspaces. If you don’t have the option to continue working remotely, you may be noticing some stress, fear, or anxiety surfacing about your return to the office.


Uncertainty and the unknown have always been part of the human experience. 2020, however, has challenged many people with a whole new level of experiencing uncertainty. Some people thrive and do well with the unknown, while others become paralyzed with fear. Anxiety is fueled by the unknown. Our brains just want answers! When we don’t have answers, it leaves our brains to wander, often leading to worse case scenarios (in the psychological world, we call this catastrophizing).


As you start to prepare to head back in, pay attention to your thoughts. What are you really worried about? Is it possibly being exposed to the virus? Is it settling back into a more rigid routine? Or, could it be you have really enjoyed working from home and you don’t want to go back to the office? When we can identify the thought, it can be helpful in terms of discerning between a thought and an emotion. For example, perhaps you are not feeling as stressed or anxious as you think. If you realize you are having the thought “I have really enjoyed working from home and I don’t want to return to the office” perhaps you are experiencing the emotion “dread” instead of stress or anxiety.


If you do notice the thoughts you are having are causing you more anxious feelings, there are some very simple things you can do to help calm your nerves and feel more in control. Here are the top five things I recommend doing to feel prepared for your return to work and to continue to feel safe as you transition back to the office:

Plan for safety and communicate

Before returning to the office, address areas of concern regarding your safety. This could include having a conversation with your supervisor about working less popular shifts, allowing for less contact with others. Communicate your feelings and needs with your supervisor. If you would like an isolated desk or area to work, make sure to advocate for yourself. Ask for a modified schedule to allow for fewer days in the office, if reasonable, with some days still allowed to work from home.

Maintain safety protocols

Continue to follow state and federal guidelines when returning to work. Maintain safe physical distances from others while traveling to the office and working in the office. Continue to wear a mask in public spaces and while around others. Carry hand sanitizer with you and wash your hands often. Ask your supervisor what safety and sanitary precautions are being taken at your office. Having this knowledge may help you feel safer. Avoid common areas and high traffic areas in the workspace.


Focus on what you can control

Even though at times it can feel like we don’t have a lot of control over things, when we take time to slow down and focus, we often find that we have control of many every day choices. When transitioning back to the office, take time to focus on what choices you have over your health. For example, taking care of your health and well-being by exercising, eating well, going to therapy, advocating for your needs, and sleeping 7 hours per night will all help promote a healthy immune system. A healthy immune system can help fight off viruses and maintain stable mental health.


Grounding exercises to calm your nerves

This simple exercise will help relax your mind and body if you are experiencing acute anxiety. Simply engage your five senses and remember the number five. Before going into the office, or while sitting at your desk, take five minutes to “ground” yourself (i.e. orient yourself to your surroundings and de-escalate your emotions). Do this by looking around the room and observing five things you see, four things you hear, three things you touch, two things smell, and one thing you taste.


Challenging questions

To help ease some of those anxious thoughts, try asking yourself these questions when you find your mind going down “the rabbit hole.” What is the evidence that this thought is true? What is the evidence that this thought is not true? What would I tell a friend if they were having this thought? Am I confusing a “possibility” with a “probability?" It may be possible, but is it likely?


Often, anticipatory anxiety is the worst. This is the time lapsing in between knowledge of the event happening, and the event starting. Typically, the anxiety we experience during this time period is worse than the actual anxiety we experience during the event. Try to keep this in mind when preparing for your return to work.


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