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Dealing with Job Search Anxiety: Career Stress Management 101

             By Dr. James Pann, President of Counseling & Educational Consulting




I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time. – Charlie Brown


    Let’s face it. The job search process can be nerve racking.

    Imagine the following scenario.  You walk into an interview; there are three people waiting to greet (evaluate) you. After having sat in the reception area for half an hour your hands are cold and sweaty, and you are nervous. The interviewers get to know about your sweaty shake before they get to know about you.  You attempt to ignore this but you can’t help but notice their grimaces. As you begin to respond to their questions, you notice the clicking sounds emanating from your mouth, which is as dry as the Mojave Desert. This only serves to make you more self-conscious and diminishes your level of concentration further.

    Must I go on? You know the rest of this story. It does not always have to be this way.


Stress and Anxiety Primer


    When it is comes to networking, interviewing, and other stressful job search events, many of us experience at least some of these signs and symptoms. When faced with significant physical or psychological stress, your body reacts with what is termed the “fight or flight response.”  The response prepares your body for physical action through sympathetic nervous system arousal and an increased release of corticoids, which are stress hormones. Virtually all the systems in your body are affected, including the circulatory, pulmonary, immune, and nervous systems.

    The physical symptoms associated with this state include quickened and shallow breathing, stomach disturbance, muscle tension and increased pulse rate. The psychological symptoms that are associated with this stress response include concentration problems, worry, self-consciousness and loss of a sense of humor. 

   We tend not to want people to see us in this state of heightened stress or anxiety.  Our options are to hide in the bathroom at networking events, thereby defeating the purpose, or apply stress management techniques that can mitigate the effects of stress.  Usually, once the perceived threat has passed, the fight or flight response becomes inactivated and stress hormone levels return to normal, a process known as the relaxation response.  But while the threat still looms large, the following stress management techniques will help.


Belly Breathing


    Your lungs and heart are cleansing machines: with every breath they expel carbon dioxide and take in oxygen. Breathing is a rhythmic, mostly unconscious activity, but when placed in psychologically stressful situations people often begin breathing shallower and faster. This serves to maintain a high state of arousal and counters any effort at relaxing

    Watch an infant breathe. They innately use diaphragmatic breathing or what is commonly referred to as belly breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle located between the chest and the abdomen and works in concert with the intercostal muscles to enlarge the chest cavity and cause air to flow in and out of the lungs. Belly breathing can be an effective way to counter the body’s stress response because it induces the relaxation response.

    In diaphragmatic breathing the idea is to relax your abdomen. As you breathe in, expand your abdomen outward as the diaphragm pushes down on it from above. When you breathe out, your abdomen goes in as your diaphragm rises. And so goes the cycle. When you breathe this way your lungs actually fill with more cleansing air than just breathing with your chest. It is often helpful to lie down and place your palm on your stomach in order to monitor your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Don’t do this in the interview room; it might be misunderstood.

    It requires practice, so know that you will probably slip into chest breathing as you learn this technique and that it may be frustrating at times. Start by practicing 5 minutes at a time and then gradually increase to 20 minutes. You can use this technique prior to and during stressful events.  Remember that just taking the time to notice your breath can be relaxing by itself.

    If you have a physical condition please consult a physician before initiating this exercise.




What we steadily, consciously, habitually think we are, that we tend to become. – John Cowper Powers


    Your imagination is an effective stress management tool. Your thoughts and inner-dialogue help to define how you feel and act. Just as we can negatively, automatically expect and imagine difficulties and limitations in our lives, we can also use our thoughts and imagination to create ideas and mental pictures that are positive and help to yield the outcomes we desire. Visualization is used in a variety of medical settings, including pain and cancer treatment centers and has been proven effective in treating many stress-related and physical illnesses including headache, muscle tension and anxiety disorders.  It is also used by sports teams to increase the performance of their athletes.  Similarly, visualization can be utilized to decrease stress related symptoms that emanate from the job search process.

    There are several types of visualization. One of them is called programmed visualization. It is quite powerful but also requires practice.  Start by sitting or laying comfortably somewhere you will not be disturbed. Monitor your body for muscle tension and relax those muscles as much as possible. Be aware of your breathing during the exercise. You can initially utilize belly breathing to relax.

    Let’s use a job interview scenario as an example of how to use programmed visualization. Create a mental image of the interview, abundant with sight, sound, smell and feeling. Imagine the interview in detail from beginning to end, as you would like it to unfold. Imagine driving to the interview and walking into the building. Use all of your senses as you picture what the surroundings will be like. Create a mental picture of yourself meeting the interviewer. Visualize yourself feeling composed and calm, and your palms being cool and dry. Feel the presence of your sense of humor and the building of rapport between you and the interviewer. Hear the questions that the interviewer might ask and give your responses in a crisp and eloquent manner. See the interviewer respond favorably to you; feel confident and comfortable.

    The visualization can take as little as a few minutes or can be more drawn out, depending on what is comfortable to you. Finish the exercise by making positive statements regarding the desired outcome. In our example you might say, “The interview went well and the organization wants me to be their executive director.”  Clearly imagine yourself in the desired job engaged in the required duties.


Preparation is Key


    Use these techniques, but if you are not prepared for an interview they will only go so far. There are lots of articles and books written that can be helpful.  Be sure to read “Never Let ‘em See You Sweat: Preparing for the Interview” on this site.


Professional Help


    Anxiety disorders are common. About one in four people develop one in their lifetime. If anxiety is a problem for you, consider getting help from a trained mental health professional, perhaps in the form of talk therapy designed to address the thoughts, feelings and actions that lead to your anxiety. In addition, you can discuss with a physician the appropriateness of anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications, which are designed to reduce these problem symptoms.


    Good luck!


Dr. James Pann is a licensed psychologist and the President of Counseling & Educational Consulting (CEC), a firm specializing in career psychology and development, psychological assessment and program evaluation .  In addition, Dr. Pann serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Miami, and has taught courses in career planning and development as well as research design and statistics. CEC has offices in Miami Beach and Coconut Grove, Florida, and engages in personal, Internet and telephone-based career counseling.  He can be found online at