Dear Businesslady: How Do I Sequester My Stresses?

Advice for the anxious (and aren’t we all the anxious?)

Photo: olivierbxl/Flickr

Dear Businesslady,

I would really like your advice on how to separate my feelings about work (unhappy and frustrated) from my feelings about my relationship (happy and fulfilled) because work feelings keep spilling over into relationship feelings.

My job unhappiness is largely based in frustration about poor management, which includes misdirected or absent planning, failure to listen to staff feedback and a general sense that the workplace is a sinking ship. It is extremely frustrating and, unfortunately for me in particular, hits on some anxiety issues that I am working through.

This week I became extremely anxious to the point of bursting into tears several times over my work. This has been the worst my anxiety has been in about two years so a lot of my normal coping strategies of doing art and exercise aren’t helping as much as they usually do. The anxiety became displaced onto my still-early-days-but-very-promising relationship and I have been struggling with fears that my anxiety will be “too much” for my partner.

I am attempting to find a new job, but the job market in my area is extremely slow and extremely competitive so it may be some time before I can escape. In the meantime, what can I do to keep my feelings ring-fenced?

— Stress/Life Balance

Dear Stresslife,

I love this letter. I hope I can do it justice, and I also wish I could give you a hug.

It’s so important to recognize that your work experience can have an impact on your partner — and/or family and friends. There’s a section on this in my book, but it’s more general than your question, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the emotion-management aspect…so much deeper, in fact, that this turned into a long-ass single-question column. (Anxiety, as it turns out, is a very complicated topic to address! Especially when you’re trying reasonably hard to avoid spiraling into meta-commentary on your own personal demons.)

Where I’m Coming From

Before I dive in, I want to issue a disclaimer of sorts, in light of that aforementioned complexity.

My general position is that the feeling we call “anxiety” is on a spectrum, where one end is “I’m a happy-go-lucky person who once had a spasm of worry” and the other is “I’m plagued by intrusive negative thoughts that I treat through therapy and medication.” If you’re toward the latter end of this continuum (with regard to any unwanted/seemingly unwarranted emotional state) and not yet under the care of a mental health professional, consider this a gentle nudge in that direction.

But whether you just have sporadic blips of anxiety or struggle with it constantly, I hope that what follows will be helpful. I’d welcome additional suggestions from the hive-mind as well.

While I’ve never been anointed with a clinical diagnosis in this area, I know what feeling anxious — too anxious — is like. I know that it sucks, and I know that it’s only made worse by the sense that a stronger, better person would be able to control their emotions. It feels weird to write that out, because part of the advice-giver persona is calm rationality in the face of any problem. But on the other hand, how could I possibly offer suggestions for managing anxiety while pretending I’m immune to it myself?

Moreover, I don’t know anyone who isn’t occasionally consumed by worry. It’s just something a lot of us are trained not to talk about — except among those we trust. (Or on social media, in a breezy, if-I’m-joking-about-it-can-it-really-be-that-bad sort of way.)

Anxiety and Your Inner Circle

All of this means that when you’re going through a tough time — professionally or otherwise — you’ll inevitably import some of that agita into your conversations with whoever’s closest to you: they’re the primary outlet through which you can process those feelings. (Even if you have a therapist, they’re not available 24/7.) And you’re completely correct that this can be hard for the support-system folks to manage. It’s not as though saying “just be in a good mood already” is going to be effective — nor is it particularly kind to verbalize, however relatable the sentiment may be.

But although stressful periods are a trial for all involved, you can’t avoid them entirely. If you deny those feelings, they’ll just end up getting displaced onto something else — most likely, your partner, probably stirring up even more negativity in the process. It’s fine to try to redirect your thoughts on the off chance that you’ll be successful, but if you find yourself fixating on something, own it. “Ugh, I can’t focus on [recreational activity at hand] right now, I can’t stop thinking about [dumb work thing].”

I say this as someone who’s been the “AAAAH, EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE” partner, inadvertently ruining a fun night. I’ve also been the “it’ll all be fine, just chill” partner who’d like to get back to playing videogames. I occupy both positions with approximately identical frequency — I may even end up reprising both of those roles by the end of the month, depending how things go! So each side gets equal empathy from me.

And even though this is supposed to be advice for the anxiety-ridden, I think approaching this issue from two angles is the right strategy — especially since your question is specifically about protecting your relationship from encroaching work stress. Let’s start with the partner part, and then conclude with some techniques for keeping your worries in check on your own time.

The Care and Soothing of You

First and foremost, you need to figure out what’s most useful to you in times of crisis and convey that to your support system in a calm(ish) moment. Or, put another way, figure out what’s never useful to you and make a note of that. This isn’t always easy to pin down — and it may change based on your current situation — but working through the general contours might save you from snapping at someone for doing “the wrong thing” when they had no idea it was unwelcome.

It’s also possible that your partner’s instinctive response will be that “wrong thing” anyway, despite your best efforts. Still, by discussing that upfront, you’ll have a framework for navigating your different communication styles. Remembering that someone’s trying to help can go a long way.

Even if you wander into worry-dump territory without this kind of preliminary conversation, keep in mind that “here’s what I need from you” is something you can, and should, articulate to the best of your ability. If you’re worried about your feelings being “too much,” this is a way to mitigate that concern, because you’re offering specific ideas of how to fix the problem.


Of course, there are in fact limits to how much support any single person can offer, particularly if they’re fighting their own mental battles. At the same time, most of us genuinely want to help our loved ones through their low points.

It’s much, much easier to find a balance between those two realities if the listener feels empowered to pause the conversation once they start feeling overburdened. Not only does it prevent burnout on the part of the vent-ee, it also allows the vent-er to trust that they’re not overdoing it. Without this escape hatch, there’s a lot of opportunity for misunderstandings and unspoken concern or frustration — which can have catastrophic repercussions when you’re already tense (or at least it can feel like that in the moment).

Obviously it’s not productive if your partner just stops you to say, “we’re done now.” But once you’ve established those How to Comfort Me ground rules, they can soften the request for a hiatus.

The first half of this sentence is some version of “I think we need to put this topic aside from a while,” (with “because I’m getting exhausted by this conversation” implied). Here are some examples for the second half:

· If you’re soothed by plans-having: “…you’re going to [implement series of corrective steps] tomorrow, which should resolve things.”

· If you crave substantial distraction: “let’s [watch TV/go out for a walk/start making dinner/tackle that one complicated project].”

· If you enjoy pampering or alone time: “how about I run you a bath and put on some music?”

Given human fallibility and all that, sometimes your other half won’t quite hit the mark when they offer an alternative activity. In those instances, do your best to fill in your own blank with something that you think will help: “Got it, you’re hitting your limit. Can you help me refocus on _____ instead?”

Just You Wait

Here’s the thing about freak-outs: they subside. They may not go away entirely, and they may last interminably long, and they may recur (especially if the catalyzing conditions don’t change). But you will always have moments of reprieve, from which you can look back and say, “I am less upset about that now than I was before.”

Everything you do — and everything your partner does — should be in the service of ferrying you to that spot of diminished anxiety.

Back to You

Waves of negativity won’t always hit while you’re ensconced within the warming embrace of your support system. What about when you’re alone, or your usual sounding board is dealing with a higher-order problem of their own, or it’s the middle of the night? (For me, post-bedtime is when my brain loves to decide that some irreversible choice I made was unequivocally Wrong and that I am The Worst for having made it.)

As you start feeling those emotions coming on, remember, again, that “anxious” is not a permanent condition. That’s what I tell myself when my mind starts whirring away on some nonsense. Treat yourself to some deep breaths and a mini-mantra of “this too shall pass.” Even if you’ve seized on an actual problem, you can either fix it in that moment, if possible, or else resolve to put it aside until it’s actionable. In the meantime, think about that future self — the one who’s not as worried anymore — and try to become that person.

What Else Is There?

After that internal pep-talk, the next step is diverting your attention to something besides what’s bothering you.

You say your usual coping methods include art and exercise, which both sound like great ways to get your mind away from work-related worries. But if they’re not as effective these days, then perhaps your routine could use some tweaks.

One thing I wonder is: do those activities require too much preparation to jump into immediately? I’ve definitely fallen victim to the phenomenon of “I really want to do X, but first I should do Y, and before that I have to do Z.” And if “X” is “engage in relaxing hobby,” that puts a lot of distance between you and your happy place.

So instead of working on a bona fide art project, maybe just grab a sheet of paper and start doodling (or grab some shelf-stable clay and start kneading it, or whatever makes the most sense in terms of your typical practice). Instead of starting up a full-on workout, just get up to do some stretches, and walk around for a bit to the extent that your setting allows — even if you’re homebound, transporting yourself to another room counts as bodily movement.

My own preferred self-distracting strategies include reading something immersive, or putting on a podcast while I burrow in to some mindless but complex domestic task. Feel free to import those into your own repertoire, along with anything else that comes to mind in a similar vein.

We’ll Fight This Thing Together

Finally, trust that a compatible relationship will be able to weather eras of increased tension and hair trigger tear-bursts. Trust also that an incompatible relationship will dissolve eventually no matter how sunny the circumstances. If you’re feeling happy and fulfilled in your personal life, that’s a good sign and you should take it as such. (As for surviving your nightmare job until you find another one, there are some tips in my last column.)

I’m guessing you’ve shared your “too much negativity” concerns with your partner, but in case you haven’t, I’d encourage you to do so. Even if you have, some reiteration can’t hurt — simply saying it out loud reminds both of you that the anxiety is an external invading force and not actually a part of your relationship dynamic. Repeat as necessary: “I’m so sorry I’m in such a shitty mood; you’re being completely wonderful and it’s not about you at all.”

Sometimes (if you’re anything like me) you might be so annoyed by the fact that you’re feeling anxious that you’ll refuse to acknowledge it. Which might mean you end up lashing out at your unsuspecting and innocent companion. Please preemptively forgive yourself for this, and don’t take it as a sign that you’re unfit for romantic partnership. Accidentally being a jerk to a person you love is an inevitable side effect of intimacy. As long as it’s not happening too often, occasional flare-ups can be smoothed over via apologies and resolutions to do better in the future — both of which should be clear-eyed and sincere.

How do I know this? I’ve been with my spouse for more than 15 years, which means by this point we’ve helped each other through bouts of anxiety that I no longer even remember. Some of those happened early in our relationship too, and yet, here we are. May your happiness — professional worries aside — be similarly enduring.

— Businesslady

Want more advice? Preorder my book! This is your last chance before it’s available for straight-up regular ordering.

Questions? Email me!

Previous columns can be found here and the deep archives are here.

Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. Her career guide, Is This Working?, comes out April 4th.

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