Until age 30, mental health author Morra Aarons-Mele worked in high-pressure political and marketing jobs. And something was always off.
"I couldn't figure out why I couldn't succeed," Aarons-Mele tells CNBC Make It, adding that she was smart and qualified, but always ended up crying in bathrooms. "It felt like my temperament was just not a fit."
After a major depressive episode led her to quit her corporate job, she arrived at an "aha" moment.
"The fact that I'm a very sensitive person, that I'm highly anxious and sometimes get depressed, meant that I had to learn to work differently," Aarons-Mele says.
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Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the U.S., with over 40 million adults impacted, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And whether you have a formally diagnosed anxiety disorder or you struggle with anxiety periodically, it shouldn't have to be a barrier to workplace success, Aarons-Mele says.
Today, she uses her experiences to help others reevaluate the connection between their success and mental health with her podcast, "The Anxious Achiever." She published her first book on mental health in 2017, and has another one — with the same name as her podcast — slated to publish in April.
Here's how Aarons-Mele recommends turning anxiety into a strength, based on her own journey.
Be a detective
First, play detective. Notice when and where your anxiety shows up, and realize it might be coming from an unexpected source.
"I know people who can speak in front of 4,000 people on stage, and yet if they have to go to the cocktail mixer afterwards, they are simply frozen," Aarons-Mele says.
Take stock of how you feel about common sources of workplace anxiety. Do you get anxious before leading meetings? Are you nervous in one-on-one conversations?
"Really try to pay attention throughout the day, because small signals are going to happen," Aarons-Mele says. "You're going to feel it in your body."
Maybe you're feeling a kind of "good anxiety," like a rush of excited energy, ahead of an upcoming report. Other daily activities might make you want to run and hide in the bathroom. Pay attention to all of it, Aarons-Mele says.
Notice your reactions
After noticing what's triggering anxious feelings, take a look at your reactions.
When we get anxious at work, our brain "doesn't want us to be uncomfortable," Aarons-Mele explains, so it works to protect us. A lot of the time, that looks like avoidance. Maybe you get an anxiety-inducing email, and you simply ignore it.
Over time, these kinds of reactions can become habits, she says. Ignore one email, and your inbox starts to pile up into a mountain of unread messages that you'll never open again.
Your goal: Start tracking which of your knee-jerk reactions have become habits, Aarons-Mele says. Those are the ones particularly worth addressing first.
Beat 'anxiety trickle-down'
Once you know how you react to anxiety, you can question those reactions. That's "where the work really happens," Aarons-Mele says.
Often, anxiety doesn't happen in a vacuum. Say you're anxious because your boss is micromanaging you, for example. Maybe she's micromanaging you because she's anxious, too — especially if her own boss seems anxious, and she's feeling pressure to perform.
Now, you're anxious too — even though no one ever intended to make you feel that way.
Your solution involves communicating, Aarons-Mele says. Take a beat, identify what's making you anxious and talk it over with teammates or your boss. That way, you and your manager can come up with a plan to tackle what's really going on — and there's a good chance it'll be a more effective solution than whatever you were doing before.
"This is where the magic happens," Aarons-Mele says.
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