03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How To Cope With Massive Anxiety

Dear Christine,

"I can't seem to concentrate at work. I'm going through a break-up, fighting with my roommate, and I found out my grandmother is going in for surgery. Meanwhile, my mother is breathing down my neck about my future when I am struggling to get through today. I feel totally overwhelmed, like one of those cartoon characters when steam starts coming out of its ears. I need some space, some time, but what about work? Can I take a personal day or should I just suck it up and go on? I don't want to be seen as a slacker, especially since it seems everyone at my company pushes the fifty hour work week barrier. I can't seem to keep thoughts and concerns about my personal life out of my head at work - how do I stay professionally focused and still juggle everything I'm going through?!" -Sinking Fast, 24, San Francisco

Dear Sinking Fast,

Life can definitely be overwhelming, and the struggle for work-life balance has been getting more attention over the past few years as fifty and sixty hour work weeks become the norm. You have a lot of emotions and stress to deal with right now, from your relationship to family and work. You are experiencing what many people can relate to: work-life balance feeling more like a balancing act than a sustainable possibility.

The more you push yourself at work to avoid dealing with your feelings and/or to keep up with the office status quo, the faster your overall well-being starts to drain away. At the same time, maintaining your professionalism at work and performing well is critical to your career success. You can't afford to spend another day distracted and emotionally over-burdened at work.

So what do you do? Sucking it up isn't the way to go as things will just continue to suck at home and at work. Right now seems like a good time for you to put yourself first and take a day off. You are going to be far more valuable to your company if you take a day to refuel rather than going in completely distracted. Smart companies recognize the value in giving employees time to attend to personal matters. In fact, a company in Japan just announced they will be giving employees "heartache" leave when going through a break-up or divorce. The older you are the more days you get off as they figure it takes longer to recover from heartbreak when you're older. Will American companies catch on to this idea? It certainly may curtail bringing personal drama into the office; however, will it inspire more calling into the boss with "I got dumped" excuses? But I digress, back to you...

Discuss taking a personal day with your boss. You do not have to give specifics for why other than, "I have some personal things to attend to that require me taking a day off." Many employees, women in particular, tend to compulsively apologize and explain. Going into the dramatics of your personal life is inappropriate to do with your boss - especially if you are on the verge of tears. Assure him/her that you will attend to anything that is urgent, and if appropriate, see if someone can cover your workload for the day. Then set your "I will be out of office today and returning emails tomorrow" email response, and for at least one whole day totally check out from work.

It's important that you don't slack off on your personal day! Use it to attend to your personal issues, not just as a day to catch up on errands and watch Oprah. Make an appointment with your counselor if you have one, a friend, or mentor and do things that support you in dealing with your emotions so you can be more focused at work. This is also a perfect day to have a heart-to-heart with your mother, and ask for space and understanding. Perhaps put a boundary on her calling you at work. Make it day one of closure with your ex. If you still are in communication, it's time to cut it off - completely. It's harder to heal and move on from a break-up if you are still in a relationship, and any kind of communication means you are still relating!

Going forward, schedule some "me time" into your days to help you feel more balanced. Maybe it's journaling in the morning or going to a Yoga class three times a week. Build in structured time in your schedule to deal with the things in your life that you can't (and really shouldn't be) dealing with at work.

If a personal day and some new coping skills do not alleviate any of the smoke coming out of your ears, is the amount of focus your job requires reasonable? Take into consideration some information and advice from Sylvia Hewlett, economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and author of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success: "Our Extreme Jobs research showed that never ending treadmill of constantly working is not sustainable. People's personal lives suffer tremendously under the pressure to be constantly working. We found that 65% of women and 61% of men said that their extreme job interfered with their having a strong relationship with friends and 46% of both men and women reported that their job interfered with their having a strong relationship with a spouse or partner. Taking time to deal with what is happening at home is key to keeping everything in check. Look into you company's flexible work options or try to talk to your boss about taking more time to sort things out. If the argument is positioned as a way to make you more productive, thereby benefiting the company, it will be hard to argue against it."

You have to define what work-life balance means for you and then create it. It's important for all of us not to lose ourselves and jeopardize our personal lives for work. But it is also our responsibility to attend to our personal matters outside of the office so that when we are on the clock, we can be focused and productive. - Christine

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