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Is Anxiety Derailing Your Career Search?

Ruthie Kalai, LCSW
Ruthie Kalai, LCSW
January 9, 2023
is anxiety derailing your career search

It’s a new year and maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “it’s time I start looking for that dream job.” Or perhaps you’re in a rut at your current job and want to begin exploring other career options. Great! Perfect way to start the new year. Five minutes into your Indeed search you sense your anxiety growing. Self-doubt is filling your head. All of a sudden, that motivation you had to find the “perfect job” starts to wane, your anxiety increases, and you think to yourself “hmmmm, maybe my current job isn’t so bad.”

Sound familiar? Many of my clients find themselves unhappy with their current job and desperate to find something that they love. Or they’re biding their time in an underwhelming job waiting to “figure out” what they want to do professionally. But almost all of them tell me that they get so anxious trying to navigate the career search process. Either they have no idea what they want to do professionally or think they’re under qualified for the jobs that are out there. The idea of reaching out to ask for help feels paralyzing. Even updating a resume or a Linked In profile feels impossible.

There are so many reasons why anxiety might arise during your career search. The possibilities are endless. Let me be the first person to reassure you that this is SO normal! In my 20+ years of counseling individuals, navigating one’s career is up there with one of the most anxiety producing issues. There are so many emotional layers to careers. Not only is a job necessary to pay bills, but often, it is such a part of one’s self-worth and identity. Therefore, if you’re not happy with where you are professionally, you can find yourself really struggling to feel  good about yourself. We spend the majority of our waking hours at work so if you’re dissatisfied, it can make for a depressing situation.

If I had to name the biggest contributing factor for anxiety it would be negative thought patterns. Anxiety stems from worrying about things that haven’t happened yet (and probably won’t). Your brain thinks “if I can just worry about this enough, I’ll be prepared if that terrible thing occurs. Or, your brain thinks it can control the outcome by over thinking about something enough. The irony of it is that the more you try to over think and imagine the worst case scenario, the more anxious you will actually become. In other words: the thing you’re doing to make yourself feel less anxious is actually the thing that is making you feel MORE anxious.

Here are some of the most common issues I see causing anxiety in the career exploration process:

The What-Ifs

“What if I can’t find a job I love?”

“What if I sound stupid when I have that networking Zoom call?”

“What if taking that new job is the wrong choice?”

Ugh, there are so many “what ifs”! The possibilities are endless. It’s easy to go down the figurative rabbit hole thinking of all the possible things that could go wrong. I can’t guarantee that those “what ifs” won’t happen However, I can guarantee 2 things:

  • 99% of the time, none of those “what ifs” ever happen. They truly don’t. Think of all the things over the years that you have worried would happen. Did the majority of them actually occur? It’s probably safe to say that they didn’t happen.
  • If it just so happens that this is the 1% of the time that one of those happens, guess what…you’ll be ok! I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic but you are so much stronger and more resilient than you think. Look back at some of the hardships you’ve endured in the past. Did you get through it? I bet you did. And I bet it taught you some pretty important lessons that you still carry with you today.

The Fears

“I’m afraid to ask my friends for help.”
“I’m afraid that I can’t find the right path for me.”

“I’m afraid to make a career move.”

There’s nothing like a job search to kick up a multitude of fears; some you didn’t even realize you had. The fears are endless: fear of networking, fear of interviewing, fear of being judged, and fear of asking for help. That’s just to name a few. Putting yourself out there can really take a toll on your self-confidence.

  • Think of a time, career related or not, where you faced something that you were really scared about doing. How did it go? Did you get through it?
  • Looking back now at that experience, I’m sure you were really proud of yourself for not only doing the thing that scared you, but probably doing a really great job at it as well!

The Unknowns

“How do I know this job is right for me?”

“How do I know what I should be doing professionally?”

“How do I know what my quality of life will be at this new job?”

Ok, so you’ve landed that “dream” job and soon the excitement of it all wears off and you’re faced with terrible fear of what to expect. Your mind starts racing thinking about all the worst case scenarios that could occur at this new job. Or perhaps your career coach has you reaching out to total strangers to interview them about their career. You’re not sure what they’ll say when you reach out to them. Maybe they’ll ghost you or worse–they won’t even reply.

Unknowns are scary. Left to our own imaginations, our minds create all types of terrible outcomes. We’d love to have a crystal ball to tell us how something will turn out. However, I’m here to remind you that you’re more resilient than you realize. You’ve faced many unknowns before and you’ve gotten through each one; some more successfully than others. Try not to assume that the unknown will turn into a worst case scenario. As I said previously, most of the time the things we worry will happen, generally never do.

  • Are you facing an unknown right now, either professionally or personally? I’m sure you’ve imagined all the terrible things that could happen but have you tried to picture it being a success?
  • Spend a few minutes imagining how well this unknown can actually turn out. Picture all the positives that could result from facing that unknown. I know you probably won’t believe it, and that's ok, but try it anyway!

There are many ways to tackle anxiety and one size doesn’t fit all. But here are some of my favorite ways to tackle the anxiety you’re feeling during your career exploration.

1. Change your mindset: As I discussed earlier, so much of what causes anxiety is a persistent negative thought pattern. Worrying about what may happen (but hasn’t) or rehashing things that have happened in the hopes that you could have done it differently. You replay situations in your head over and over again so that you can feel better. I use the analogy of building a muscle: the more you work out a particular muscle, the stronger it gets. Negative thoughts only build a stronger, negative mindset “muscle”.

It’s difficult to go from a negative mindset to a positive one–I’m not suggesting you try to make that leap! But see if you can catch yourself when you are going down the negative “rabbit hole” and redirect your thoughts. Either get up and go for a brief walk or talk to yourself in a calm way, reminding yourself that you are resilient, competent, and are worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. And as I mentioned above: even if they did happen, you’d be ok!

2. Journal about it: Have you ever been so worried about something but then as soon as you get it out of your head, you feel better? It’s as if the problem became just a little smaller. There’s a reason why journaling can be extremely helpful. When you let anxious thoughts swim in your head endlessly, they seem to grow exponentially. Somehow, the simple act of putting those thoughts out on paper, makes them shrink in size.

Journaling doesn’t have to be a lengthy activity. You don’t need to go out and buy an expensive and fancy journal (although you can if you want to!). Spend five minutes listing the things that are causing you anxiety. One of my favorite journaling apps is Daylio because it’s user friendly and is great at showing you the patterns of your emotions.  I often tell my clients to email me during the week if something is causing them anxiety. They all report to me that once they wrote out their thoughts, they felt better.

3. Talk to someone: whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, talking to someone drastically reduces anxiety you’re experiencing. It’s similar to journaling in that somehow, just getting the thoughts out of your head can make you feel better. In addition, you might often get suggestions, advice, or just a new perspective that can help you feel more at ease.

I know it can be difficult to tell people what you’re experiencing. There’s often a fear of being judged and it can be hard to ask for help. But you’d be surprised how many people have experienced something similar. One thing I’ve learned over my years as a therapist is that so many of us, including yours truly, experience anxiety at one time or another. We all have fears. Talking about it doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human.

4. Make a list of your strengths and accomplishments: I once had a business coach give me the assignment of writing down one thing I was proud of each day. It could be something professional or personal but it had to be something that highlighted a strength or accomplishment. At first, I balked at this idea. However, after 30 days of doing this simple activity, I was amazed at how much more confident I felt about myself and my abilities. In addition, going back over my previous entries reminded me just how many positive things I had done.

You don’t need to do this activity for 30 days to start feeling its benefits. Take 30 minutes and sit down somewhere comfortable. Think back as far as you can and take an inventory of all of your accomplishments. You can focus solely on your career or broaden it to include other areas of your life. Get creative! Don’t just stick to “I did well in school” but explore every possible accomplishment.

The next step is to list all of your strengths. We’re really good at identifying our weaknesses so take some time to identify the areas that you excel. Get creative here too. I make a killer chocolate cake so that would be on my list of strengths! Keep these lists handy, perhaps on your phone or on your desk. The next time you are feeling anxious or insecure about your job search, go back and review these lists. It’s a great reminder of all you have done.

5. Take a break: Do you find yourself spending hours at a time trying to do as many career related activities as possible only to find yourself unable to concentrate? The thought of stopping only increases your anxiety because in your mind you HAVE to spend hours doing this. Take a break! Go for a walk, take a nap, or watch a fun Netflix show. I know the thought of taking a break from all of your hard work feels counter productive. But trust me when I tell you that taking shorter, more frequent breaks can actually help you increase your productivity. Don’t let the anxiety of taking breaks prevent you from giving your brain a break.

Research has shown that not only is walking helpful in reducing stress and anxiety but the actual left/right movement of your arms and legs while walking has been shown to help regulate your nervous system. There’s a reason why people suggest you take a walk when you’re upset. It’s actually been shown to help calm one’s nerves. Even a 5-10 minute walk around the block can be very helpful in reducing stress and anxiety.

6. Practice mindfulness: we’ve all heard the word “mindfulness” being tossed around with the promise of it helping reduce anxiety. But what exactly is it? In my clinical experience, I find that many people over complicate this word and therefore, find themselves intimidated by it. To me, mindfulness is very simple: it’s all about keeping your brain in the present moment, the “here and now,” and not in the future or the past. When your brain is not thinking about the past or the future, you don’t fuel anxiety.

Meditation is often the most common form of practicing mindfulness. However, there are a few very common misconceptions that prevent people from really benefiting from this practice:

  • “I can’t meditate because I can’t shut my brain off.” That’s right, and you probably never will! I’m serious. Meditation isn’t about shutting your brain off. It’s about recognizing that the thoughts are there in a nonjudgmental manner. Imagine you were on the side of the road watching cars go by. That’s what you should do with your thoughts when you meditate. Unfortunately, you will never be able to stop thoughts from entering your brain but you can control what you do with those thoughts.
  • “I tried meditating once or twice and I didn’t notice any difference.” Meditation is not a reactive practice but a proactive one. The only way to benefit from meditation is to develop a regular, daily practice. After a while, you will notice yourself reacting to things differently. What might have stressed you out in the past suddenly isn’t so bothersome. You’re able to tolerate triggers better without letting the anxiety take over. Unfortunately, meditation isn’t something that will help you after doing it once or twice.
  • “I don’t know how to meditate.” Good news-there are apps to teach you! I’m a big fan of guided meditation because it takes the mystery over how to meditate. Some of my favorite meditation apps are Insight Timer, Ten Percent Happier, and Calm. Each does an excellent job at teaching you how to meditate and how to develop a regular meditation practice.

7.  Simple deep breathing: If you don’t have the time to reap the benefits of meditation but are feeling especially anxious, simple deep breathing exercises can do the trick. There are many reasons why deep breathing helps reduce anxiety but in general, it helps calm the part of the brain (sympathetic nervous system) that controls anxiety. You’re giving a signal to your brain that lets it know it's safe and can relax.

Just as there are many forms of meditations, there are many ways to practice deep breathing. I’m a fan of the 4-4-4 method or “box breathing”. It is a slow inhale of 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, and then a slow exhale for 4 counts. Repeat this process 4-5 times or until you notice yourself feeling calmer. Don’t forget that you can do this literally anywhere: your car, subway, even the work bathroom.

These are just a few of the many tools that can help you manage the anxiety that arises during the career exploration process. Try out one or all of the ones I listed above and see which work for you.  Do you have a tip that has helped you? I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to reach out to me at ruthie@ruthiekalai.com or through my website, www.ruthiekalai.com. Don’t let anxiety derail you from finding the right career path.

Is Anxiety Derailing Your Career Search?

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Ruthie Kalai, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over twenty years of experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. She have always loved helping others. Her passion for working with people in their 20s and 30s stems from years of working with children and adolescents in schools. She has helped students find their own path into adulthood and sees her current work as a continuation of offering that guidance and support. Previous clients describe her as very kind, empathetic, non-judgmental, and caring. Counseling is in her blood, it's all she has ever done and feels as passionate about it today as she did when she started.

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