How to Deal with Work Performance Anxiety

By Arianna M. Aguilar

Beating heart. Sweaty palms. Shortness of breath. Butterflies in the stomach. These are some of the physical symptoms of anxiety. When experienced while working, these feelings can be debilitating. If left untreated, they can negatively impact your life and career.

Yes, anxiety can adversely affect the quality of your interpretation. The Counseling and Psychological Services Department of UC Santa Cruz explains that poor concentration or lack of focus and distractibility are symptoms of anxiety. This can negatively affect your short-term memory.

Yes, anxiety can adversely affect the quality of your interpretation.

For example, during consecutive interpretation, you may take notes, and because of anxiety, you may draw a blank when it is time to render the interpretation. In this mode of interpreting, the interpreter may feel especially vulnerable and anxious, since consecutive interpreting is done in full view of the attorneys, the judge, and the public. Feelings of inadequacy can increase when interpreting before attorneys or other participants who are bilingual. This can lead to feeling disappointed with yourself even if you haven’t made any mistakes, and/or to a loss of confidence in your abilities.

One of the most effective, simple, and fast techniques you can use to tackle performance anxiety is to practice mindful breathing. Shallow, fast breaths increase anxiety and uneasiness. According to Katherina Star, PhD, “Known as hyperventilation, this over-breathing causes carbon dioxide levels in the blood to decrease. Reduction of carbon dioxide can cause many physical symptoms, such as tingling and numbness, chest pain and dry mouth. Hyperventilation can also develop into feelings of faintness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and confusion.”

If we hyperventilate while interpreting, we will feel out of control and confused.  This feeling can cause panic to ensue: “She’s going too fast. I can’t possibly keep up,” or “I took notes but I can’t remember what this scribble means!”

Slow, deep breaths coming from the diaphragm have a relaxing effect. Although you may feel out of control, slow, controlled breathing will remind you that you have control over your breathing and your body. Pause for a moment to observe how your rib cage expands and contracts. Count to six as you inhale; count to six as you exhale.

This exercise can be done unobtrusively, or during a brief recess. If you are working with a partner, ask him or her to take over so that you can calm yourself using controlled breathing.

Another technique to combat anxiety is asking for help when you need it. Consider making reasonable requests of your interpreting partner, such as more frequent breaks (like switching off every 15 minutes instead of every 30).

In an article for Inc.com, Melody Wilding writes, “If you’re explicit about your needs, respectful of others’ time and schedules, and intentional about producing quality work, it’s likely your team will have no problem honoring your preferences.”

Another way to address stress is through grounding. Grounding techniques, like mindful breathing, are designed to get yourself “out of your head” and focus on the present, which has a calming effect. Doctor Sarah Allen explains: “Grounding basically means to bring your focus to what is happening to you physically, either in your body or in your surroundings, instead of being trapped by the thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel anxious. It helps you stay in the present moment instead of worrying about things that may happen in the future or events that have already happened but you still find yourself going over and over them in your head.”

A simple way of achieving grounding is to wear a rubber band on your wrist and when you feel anxiety snap it and tell yourself, “Stop!” This brief action interrupts anxiety before the thoughts become more negative.

Alyse Kalish, who writes for themuse.com, says that this technique (known as thought-stopping) is a way to deal with anxious thoughts. She says, “When a negative thought pops into your brain, […] you identify that thought and stop it from going any further. Instead, remind yourself that you’re good at what you do and shouldn’t be wasting your time and energy thinking this way.”

It is also important to talk to other people. Laura Greenstein, who writes for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says, “It may be helpful to talk to a trusted coworker as they can relate to and sympathize with your anxiety. If you don’t have a coworker you trust, you can talk to a friend, family member or mental health professional. Talking about anxiety with the right person can help you process these intense emotions and it can be validating if the person is supportive and understanding. They might also have ideas or suggestions to help you cope.”

The same article suggests that we release our thoughts by writing them down. This process is called “thought dumping,” and it involves writing down anything and everything that is on your mind, essentially using a pen and paper or an electronic medium as a thought diary. You sit down, center yourself, and start writing whatever comes to mind. If you don’t know how to start, just write that down: “I don’t know how to do this!” If you allow your mind to be free and non-judgmental as you write, you will get your feelings down on paper, and this will allow you to release your anxious thoughts. This exercise should be done when you have some time, and if done every day, will come to be a habit that reduces anxiety when you face triggers that produce anxiety.

If you have symptoms of workplace anxiety, it is also important to take care of yourself. For example, getting enough sleep is essential, since being well rested will make coping with stressors much easier.

Another suggestion is to take time off to relax. This can mean taking a few days off, or even just a leisurely lunch to decompress. Also, exercise can help release tension and stress. According to healthline.com, “exercise lowers your body’s stress hormones—such as cortisol—in the long run. It also helps release endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.”

You should also remember that we all have bad days. Yes, even certified court interpreters are entitled to have an off-day. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for excellence and accuracy. We should, of course! But remember that even in the testing we took to become certified we were allowed an error rate of 70% to 80%, depending on the test. That means that out of 10 words, three could be in error. But remember, you passed the test. That means you have the skills. Don’t doubt yourself every step of the way!

If you have tried all of the techniques used to cope with workplace anxiety, and you still are struggling, you may consider professional help. A counselor can help talk things out and provide other suggestions. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication to slow down the body’s response to stress. You don’t need to feel embarrassed to get professional help. This only means that we are human, and sometimes need a little extra support.

So the next time you have workplace anxiety, remember that you are not alone. We all have moments when we feel inadequate, under-prepared, or anxious. Honestly, people who say they have never had that experience aren’t telling the truth. Remember the techniques you can use to combat anxiety and stress in the workplace. If you do that, you can lessen the effect that nerves have on your interpretation in court.

[Arianna M. Aguilar has been interpreting and translating since 1999. She is a North Carolina master certified Spanish court interpreter and a Certified Medical-Spanish interpreter.]

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

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