Fear makes you helpless, insults hurt you. Quality at work suffers. But others are not always to blame for these feelings - often old issues from the past are the triggers. A guide to self-help.

By Lisa Breit


He had recently completed his studies and started a new job, when fear gripped him. It crawled up his back and made his heart beat so loud that he was convinced that everyone else in the office could hear it. He felt like the ground was being pulled away underneath his feet.

That was three years ago. In the meantime Thomas M. talks calmly about this time, even if only anonymously. The trigger for the fear was his superior: a person with extreme mood swings who was friendly and interested one moment, and flew off the handle the next. Who often hit below the belt with her comments. Thomas M.'s impression: How well his work was rated depended solely on how well his boss slept or whether she had fought with her husband.

Everyone knows this feeling of fear. Rainer Gross, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Vienna, even calls it "the central negative emotional state in our lives". In his book "Angst bei der Arbeit - Angst um die Arbeit" he describes the biology of fear: In the distant past it protected primitive man from dangers such as predators or natural disasters. Our ancestors were on alert and could react and decide within seconds: Flee or fight?

Today, of course, the reasons for fear are quite different. One person's knees knock before the job interview, the other panics in case he makes mistakes. The triggers for fear vary according to socio-economic status, writes psychiatrist Gross. His therapy chair was used by a wide variety of people, from supermarket cashiers to management consultants. While the former have existential fears, are worried that they will no longer be able to keep up and even lose their poorly paid job, the latter are plagued above all by the panic of failure, reports Gross.

Fear can be helpful

The fear center in the brain is the amygdala, the amygdala core. "It is activated the moment one is confronted with anxiety-triggering stimulus," says Thomas Probst, professor at Danube University Krems. The head of the Center for Psychotherapy, Psychology and Counselling says: "Fear can be very helpful". Without it, people would probably have died out long ago. But even today it still warns us of danger, we are capable of peak performance and do not simply rest on our laurels. "In principle it therefore makes sense and it is positive to experience fear," said Probst. But only to a certain extent - and for a certain time.

Because those who are constantly afraid over a longer period of time can become ill. The reason is the constant stress in which the body finds itself. Psychiatrist Gross makes a comparison: "If I have an alarm system at home and it goes off when the evil burglar comes, it's great. But if I have one that howls with every little thing, it costs an incredible amount of electricity, it's annoying and it doesn't do anything. Analogous to that: If the human alarm system is constantly active, the cortisol level in the blood increases permanently, and an unnecessarily high amount of energy is consumed. The consequences manifest themselves physically in cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure and diabetes risk. But also psychologically, for example it can lead to sleep problems, exhaustion and depression. Possible effects are also alcohol or drug addiction. Patients try to kill the problem.

Also typical, Gross says: "You can't think of anything else but the fear trigger." Not surprisingly, the quality of the work suffers as a result. "You only have eyes and ears for information that tells you: Will the boss yell again? Accordingly, there are only a few cognitive resources left for other things."

Thomas Probst

„If, for example, you experienced a confrontation with colleagues or authority figures in the past, you may become afraid of further such confrontations.“

Thomas Probst

Grievances are subjective

In addition to fear, insults can also make the working day a torture. One is helpless, angry, defiant, feels devalued, disregarded, excluded, out of balance. Suffering can have many different causes: Colleagues don't let you participate in the office gossip, the boss always assigns the important tasks to other employees, and the project you poured your heart and soul into is torn to pieces. Not being promoted for years can also hurt.

Like fears, grievances are very subjective. "It is we ourselves who decide whether a remark, action or omission affects us negatively or not," says psychotherapist Bärbel Wardetzki. Wardetzki writes in her book "Kränkungen am Arbeitsplatz" that those who are offended see what has happened as a devaluation of their person: "With the grievance, a conflict shifts from a factual to a personal level". One can no longer separate one's function in the job from one's being as a person, self-esteem suffers. Even grievances can cause illness in the long run. And also massively influence the quality of work.

Fear and offence have another thing in common: they are mostly related to past events. "If, for example, you experienced a confrontation with colleagues or authority figures in the past, you may become afraid of further such confrontations," says Probst. When a person is offended, the trigger is often a long time ago, sometimes even in childhood, when someone felt that they had been ignored or excluded. These bad experiences, explains Probst, could then become a kind of basic conviction with which one goes through life. "Current rejections open old wounds and we experience the same old pain," says Wardetzki.


Learn to deal with the issue sovereignly

But how can fear be overcome? How do you manage to deal sovereignly with insults?

First, the experts say, by acknowledging them. Then it's about finding out where the feelings come from. Is the cause external or internal? "The choleric superior, for example, will make many people uneasy. But while one only shakes his head over him, he hits a sore spot with another," says psychiatrist Gross, who advises asking yourself: "To what extent am I co-architect of my own misfortune?

Talking to friends could help you recognize your own part in this. Gross admits that it is not always easy to take this step. "The worry quickly arises that one could be regarded as a loser. But talking openly about it is important in order to get an outside view of the problem. Coaching and counselling can also help, "if you want support with working on feelings that are perceived as crippling," says Probst. If you can no longer get a grip on your fear, you should definitely start psychotherapy.

"It is important that we locate and close with our old injuries," says psychotherapist Wardetzki. If you know what is hurting you, you can protect yourself better and don't have to relate the behaviour of others negatively to yourself. By preparing yourself for critical situations, you remain capable of acting - even if your brain freezes and you feel paralyzed. Wardetzki recommends listing and describing possible situations involving fear or grievance. What happened? How did you feel and behave? "Then write a new script," says Wardetzki. "Think about how you could have reacted differently. If necessary, study new sentences or behaviours in order to have them ready."

„You cannot and should not compensate for fear and grievance through others by yourself. “

Barbara Schober

Resilience as a protective factor

This strengthens resilience. Experts describe this characteristic as a protective factor against fear. You can also improve it by doing things that you enjoy. "Everything that is positive, healthy and meaningful - and not work - is good," says Psychiatrist Gross. For example, regular contact with friends and family is important, says Barbara Schober, Dean of the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna. "You can experience very personal esteem from them, so that you can recognize your own strengths. Professor Probst specifically recommends that you consider what other areas of life give you values or orientation: sports, culture or other hobbies. "It's essential that you don't just have the job to define yourself."

Probst is currently advising caution with self-help apps for the smartphone, which are becoming increasingly common. "Unfortunately, these are still rarely scientifically based. Other measures such as mindfulness or relaxation exercises are useful for self-help. "This is something many people roll their eyes at. But they work," says Gross. And they do so by raising awareness of the here and now, reducing stress and helping to view worries and anxieties in a more distanced way. Ensure serenity. Gross knows a simple exercise: turning the chair to look out the window at the clouds as they pass and doing nothing for ten minutes. The professor suggests that such mindfulness techniques could also be incorporated into everyday working life. He recommends, for example, regularly "doing a breathing exercise for a few minutes".

„To what extent am I co-architect of my own misfortune?“

Rainer Gross

Talk to your manager

And how should you behave towards colleagues and superiors? Should you get it out, show your fear, your grievance? Psychotherapist Wardetzki recommends staying professional. "There's no point in storming to your colleague in rage and throwing everything you've got on your mind at him." But when you realize that the conditions are no longer tolerable for you, "that it's not just a momentary personal hypersensitivity," you should talk to colleagues or superiors, says psychologist Schober. "It doesn't make much sense to deal with it yourself. You cannot and should not compensate for fear and grievance through others by yourself. An important prerequisite for being able to talk openly about problems is a corporate culture in which this is also possible, she adds.

Probst says you could also express your needs, "for example saying: I would rather not take on this task, I would rather do my others well. Many people can't say no and then feel stressed and afraid that they won't be able to manage everything".

After all, it is helpful in everyday working life to first of all undertake tasks in which one is good - in order to regain confidence in one's own abilities. Probst says, however, that the most scientifically researched and most promising way to reduce or prevent anxiety is to regularly face anxiety situations. However, it is important to take it slowly, not to do too much. "Be merciful on yourself," says psychologist Schober. "It is not necessary or even possible to be perfect in everything. You should always allow yourself shortcomings, too."

So if you know your sore points, create emotional shields and learn, you can tackle fear and offence more decisively. With Thomas M. it worked. After coaching, he managed to take the whims of his boss less personally. In critical situations he no longer breaks out in a sweat. After work he cooks or goes to the cinema, hikes with friends on weekends. M. now knows that there is a certain core in him that nothing and nobody can shake. Especially not a choleric boss.

Lisa Breit is an editor for the Standard newspaper, and writes about work and education.

Thomas Probst

Prof. Dr. Thomas Probst is University Professor for Psychotherapy Sciences at the Department for Psychotherapy and Biopsychosocial Health at Danube University Krems. He studied psychology at the University of Regensburg, completed his training as a psychological psychotherapist in the behavioral therapy guideline procedure and earned his doctorate in psychology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.


Rainer Gross

Dr. Rainer Gross is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Vienna.


Barbara Schober

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Barbara Schober is the Dean of the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna.


Bärbel Wardetzki

Dr. Bärbel Wardetzki is a psychotherapist, supervisor and coach. Born in Berlin, she is the author of the book „Kränkung am Arbeitsplatz. Strategien gegen Missachtung, Gerede und Mobbing“.


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