Anxiety at Work Q&A

I recently reviewed Nick Dubin’s latest book Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Successful Stress management on –

The subject of anxiety is one of the most visited areas on my site and one which, therefore, I am always keen to investigate further. I have always admired and respected Nick’s views and work so I am delighted to say that he has kindly agreed to conduct a question-and-answer session on some of the issues relating to anxiety in a work context that his book raised.

MJ: You quote Hallowell who asserts that “psychological stress results when a person feels vulnerable when confronted by a source of power”. This is often the case in a work context and, I think is largely unavoidable.

You also go to say that this represents a loss of [personal] control. I believe this is also right. Much anxiety that I have experienced at work is what psychologist’s term “signal anxiety” which is where you perceive an impending threat and can be more pronounced as a result of having Asperger syndrome, (AS).

If such anxiety is unavoidable, what would you advocate a person with AS’s response to be in a work setting to such unavoidable anxiety?

ND: There are certain things we have control over and certain things that are out of our control. To worry about that which you have virtually no control over is not adaptable to any job setting.

All you can do is control how you respond to this “signal anxiety”, as you put it. Sometimes we may tend to overreact to the signal anxiety and perceive it as being much more threatening than it really is.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help with the task of becoming more centered so we can clearly discern reality from fantasy and how much control we have over the situation. But I always like to think of the Serenity Prayer for situations like the one you described which is:

“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”

MJ: You speak about “giving power away” to a superior manager. In many ways a work setting is an artificial one; there are always power imbalances and if someone is being unfair towards you, or takes a dislike to you personally, which can often happen with a person with Asperger, then you are immediately at a disadvantage.

From my experience if someone above you has a negative view or dislike of you then – realistically – there is not much you can do about it. Ultimately, there will inevitably be an occurrence whereby they will use the power they possess against you.

How do you reconcile the balance between the need to be assertive and excessively compliant or antagonistic towards the other party in a work context?

ND: It depends on the situation. As you say, work demands subordinate responses at times, even under circumstances where there is a power imbalance. It’s just part of playing the game. However, in the work setting, if the situation escalates to abuse, then assertiveness is essential. Abuse goes beyond a mere power imbalance. It is when one’s personhood is devalued to the point of embarrassment or humiliation. No one should have to put up with that, under any work setting.

MJ: You talk about the “flight or fight” mode when we are confronted or come under extreme pressure? I can resonate with this from my working life all too easily. There have been a few occasions when things have got very “heavy”!

I have learnt better how to deal with this. First and foremost, as you often state, is the need to not react under any circumstances and retain calmness and gravitas.

What I find difficult is when this happens in an acute/pronounced way, I find it literally physically impossible not to react. Do you have any thoughts on this and how it can be countered?

ND: If you must react, flight is better than fight in most instances. Simply take yourself out of the stressful setting (if the situation allows for it) and physically react somewhere in private. If the situation doesn’t allow for an immediate departure when you feel the need to react physically, do your best to contain it and at the next opportunity, excuse yourself.

MJ: You then talk about traumatic past events reoccurring and how they can induce unpleasant feelings. I have experienced this also.

I had a protagonist from a past career who seriously damaged my self-esteem and confidence. Even today – over ten years later – if the subject comes up it is disconcerting and upsetting for me.

Do you have any thoughts as to why this and how it can be overcome if this effect re-appears whilst at work?

ND: We are all the walking wounded. In some ways, we each carry with us different hurts from the past. The challenge is to depersonalize the behavior of others so as to not believe that every situation is repeating the past. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help a lot with this.

MJ: One of the key ways I have discovered to help overcome issues that are problematic to me as a person with AS, is to subject myself to a scenario or experience. In your book you talk about “facing the problem head on”.

There are times at work – in cases of conflict, bullying or where something else occurs that can be extremely self-damaging – this approach can be hugely anxiety provoking in itself. I dislike confrontation as my self-awareness of the shortcomings of my AS means that I am conscious of lower ability to deal with it.

Exposing yourself this way at work can be dangerous because of the potential consequences yet, at times, it must be done. Not confronting can be more damaging.

What would your strategy be to face a situation “head on” where you were consciously aware that the stakes were high and that the result could be personally highly detrimental; dealing with an accusation by a senior manager who has more power for example?

ND: Sometimes “facing the problem head on” doesn’t have to be as drastic as it sounds. Baby stepping is the key. I am not advocating that people should jeopardize their jobs as a way to prove to themselves that they can be assertive. What I meant by “facing the problem head on” is not running away from fear or anxiety, especially when being confronted by a new challenge.

So as an example, if you are reluctant to take on a new assignment because you didn’t feel you were capable, yet were excited about the prospect, challenging yourself would be facing the problem head on. And facing the problem head on is particularly relevant when one is in an abusive setting. If an unbearable situation, one where you were enduring daily or even semi-regular abuse was happening on the job, facing the problem head on would be taking action in some way, shape or form.

MJ: You refer to “appraisal theory” or how events in the outside world trigger anxiety. I can resonate with this, but find it very hard to strike the right balance between not reacting whilst being assertive when pressurized events occur unexpectedly.

I find it very difficult as a person with AS to discern whether a person has ill-feelings towards me as you discuss or, I suppose, to “mind read”. This issue is a pertinent one in corporate settings.

The approach I have adopted is to give the person the benefit of the doubt, not react and, basically, initially at least, ignore it. How effective or appropriate do you think this strategy is?

ND: I think this is a good strategy because it means you don’t make assumptions about other people’s behavior. Direct communication usually works best and that means checking out whether or not your perceptions are accurate before acting on them. This is good advice for anyone, neurotypicals and aspies alike!

MJ: I found your reference to the “secondary phase of perceived anxiety” interesting. Can you give some further insight into what you mean by this and how you actually overcome this? How would you block negative, cognitive distortions when you are in a work scenario that you cannot avoid and have to address?

ND: This simply means that after the initial stressor has passed, it is good to simply slow down and make sure that your reactions to the situation match up accurately with what actually happened.

Sometimes in a work setting, when caught up in the heat of the moment, this is hard to do. At work, we are often in “the heat of the moment” so it is hard to step back and relax. However, if after some time has passed I am still reacting in “fight or flight” this is not constructive. Secondary appraisal should be when one objectively assesses a situation and this cannot be done in stressful environments. That’s why I highly recommend meditation, listening to calm music, cognitive behavioral therapy or anything which helps one to view the situation with more clarity. It’s kind of like this…..a basketball coach will have his players watch a past game on videotape because during the actual game, it’s hard to note what patterns are being used by the other team to exploit weaknesses. Usually when watching the game, the players will be more relaxed than when actually on the court. Only when viewed on videotape “after the fact” does it become much clearer to the players, so this is the great advantage of the second time we appraise situations

MJ: You then move onto focusing on the “now” and how this is incredibly important whilst at work. I can find this really hard. What I find is that I have so many things on my mind that, when I am working on one task, my mind is already thinking about the next one that I “must get done”. This hypes me up and can be tremendously anxiety provoking and often means that I do not perform the task in hand as effectively as I could or need to. Do you have any thoughts or remedies?

ND: Read Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now.

MJ: You talk about being an “entertainer” or avoiding the 9 to 5 office scenario by doing something with variety for a career. You then say that working within the latter scenario may be necessary for a while to achieve the former.

However, not everyone can be an entertainer and moving up the career ladder to get a job that accommodates the irregular hours and requirements of a person with Asperger syndrome demands political and other inter-personal skills.

A number of people who visit are in traditional jobs that prevent them from avoiding anxiety. Are there any specific measures that you have found useful which would help them control, and keep on top of, their anxiety levels?

Socialization!!! If there is one area that I have come to appreciate is essential for someone with AS at work, it is the importance of engaging socially. You seem to agree with this but you don’t allude to any specific methods or techniques? Can you make any work-related suggestions in this area?

ND: I think you might have misunderstood. I didn’t limit what I said to “entertainers” per se, I said non-traditional jobs. This could be starting up one’s own business, perhaps something in the creative arts or simply having a dog walking service. The point is that many people with AS like to have their work be an extension of their talents and abilities and not just fit into a big machine as a cog.

As for work related suggestions, I suggest reading anything written by Dale Carnegie. Though some of his advice is dated and is geared toward neurotypicals, his writing is immensely beneficial as far as giving methods and techniques for successful socialization. I also think books written by Leil Lowndes and Steven Covey for the same purpose.

MJ: Nick, thank you for your time.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome