Money & Careers

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: High Anxiety, and How to Calm It

Cecilia Ford Ph.DDr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she counsels a painfully shy women who is facing the formidable task of finding a new job at age 50.


3647045776_e8db7f3dd8Terrified of the job search—and of working with strangers.  (Image by rashmi.ravinray via Flickr)

Dear Dr. Ford:

I have always been painfully shy—and this has affected my life in so many ways. I never spoke up in class, and had a hard time answering questions that were presented to me in class as well. My parents were loving but somewhat reserved, and I was an only child.  I felt comfortable at home, and they liked having me there. I never moved out. They are both healthy and almost 80. We do things together, and I am not unhappy.

But I am now 50 and have just lost my job as an assistant to the director of the local tire company in my small city. My boss retired suddenly, and the new director wants to bring his own assistant with him, and there is no other job for me. I worked at this job for 25 years and was given only one month of severance. My former boss gave me a parting gift of enough money to pay for my health insurance through COBRA for the next 18 months; then I will have no insurance. I have been given excellent letters of reference and a month of help from a service that assists people who have lost their jobs and are looking for a new one.

I understand that it is a little late for me to fix my shyness, but I am now in crisis. I have to get a job that will give me benefits. I am not sleeping, because I can’t think of anything but the disasters that will happen to me if I don’t get a job. I am a college graduate with a degree in business. I appear competent, and know how to dress and act in a corporate environment. But I hate change and am terrified of being older in a new company where I will have to talk to people I don’t know.

I need a plan.  Can you tell me how to start?


 Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Desiree:

Yours is a painful dilemma, since you describe yourself as someone who is uncomfortable in new situations, and you are now being forced into one. This is not because of any fault or pathology on your part; it is, as you recognize, your nature to be shy.

Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Resesarch Institute, notes that 15 percent of babies are born with what is called an “inhibited temperament”—that is, they react stressfully to new experiences. Twin studies show that if one twin is shy, there is a high probability that the other will be too. In fact, the introversion/extroversion level is one of the few personality characteristics that have been shown to be inheritable—and you have indicated that your parents, like you, are reserved.

Shyness is not necessarily an indication of low self-esteem. Unfortunately, though, shyness can keep you from trying things that might lead to success. The shy person doesn’t always prosper in our competitive society, which rewards those who speak up and “put themselves out there.” However, there is a role for people like you. You have thus far worked with your nature rather than against it, and have been happily settled in a steady job.

Now that you’re confronted with the need to change, it is important not to “catastrophize” the situation, but rather to use cognitive psychology to reframe it. Looked at through a positive lens, your résumé is extremely attractive, and you have a record to be proud of: Nothing speaks better of an employee than 25 consistent years on a staff. You are just the kind of team player that all businesses need. So your first step is to realize that you are a desirable applicant.

Obviously, the harder challenge for you will be the job-seeking process itself, and then settling in to a new position. One strategy I recommend is role-playing the interview situation with people you feel comfortable with, such as friends or relatives. Try to give them a list of questions that you anticipate might make you nervous, and practice giving the answers in a relaxed setting until you feel you can do them by rote.

Another technique often prescribed by cognitive psychologists involves the following: Using relaxation techniques (widely available on the Web), induce a state of general relaxation and comfort. Once in that state, imagine the situation that makes you anxious, using a hierarchy that you have worked out ahead of time, going from less to greater anxiety. So, for example, you might initially imagine meeting the interviewer. Stick with that image until you can manage it without too much anxiety, then move up the hierarchy until you can go through the whole sequence of stressful situations

This exercise is also something that you can try with a friend—or, ideally, a cognitive therapist. Since you still have insurance, you might try to find someone to work with—as I said, not to alter your character but to maximize your potential.

In general, your aim should be to slowly and gently expand your comfort zone; thus, interaction with others may be crucial at this point. For example, doing volunteer work may be helpful in this interim period, for the following reasons. For one thing, it would keep you from isolating yourself, which many shy people have a tendency to do. Also, when people work as volunteers they tend to feel more comfortable because they don’t feel judged or evaluated. Finally, work with children, the elderly, or the handicapped can be easier if you are shy because they are less threatening than “peers.”

In fact, self-conscious people often choose helping professions, because working with the needy makes it easier to forget ourselves. You are clearly a warm and giving person with much to offer, and it might be interesting for you to change directions.

As to working from home, the Internet has provided many new ways to do that since you were last looking for employment. Still, I really don’t recommend this for you, tempting as it may be to avoid new situations. Try to remember that once you get to know people and feel comfortable in your surroundings, you adjust beautifully; you have done so in the past, and the past has always been our best predictor of the future.

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  • Diane Dettmann March 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Dr. Ford, Very helpful suggestions for reducing anxiety in Desiree’s job search situation. The strategies also apply to other anxiety producing events. I especially like the one about using successful past situations to help work through a current one. Whenever I have an anxiety producing event ahead of me, I tell myself that I’ve dealt with situations like it before and they worked out fine. Taking deep breaths helps too. 🙂 Wishing Desiree success in finding a new position that works for her!