Anxiety and Career Exploration: The C/AAP Framework Applied to Two Cases
By Michelle Tullier
Twenty-four-year-old Alana was so wracked with anxiety after being laid off that her parents did not think she could engage in a full career counseling process. Instead, they enrolled her in an intensive outpatient treatment program for anxiety disorders and sponsored her for only two career counseling sessions, assuming she would not be able to follow through with more.
Forty-year-old single-father James lost his job as a commercial real estate project manager during the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolated at home with two young children and mounting anxiety, he frequently missed career counseling sessions.
An estimated 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders, the most common mental illness in this country (ADAA, n.d.). The World Health Organization (2022) reported anxiety disorders were leading contributors to a global mental health crisis before 2020 and rates have increased by 25% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adults exploring new career fields or preparing to job search may be so mentally paralyzed by anxiety that they delay starting, struggle during, or drop out of career counseling/coaching sessions. One tool for career practitioners aiming to help such clients is this author’s Career/Anxiety Alignment Protocol (C/AAP). The C/AAP framework utilizes career counseling/coaching approaches and theories that most closely relate to effective mental health treatments for anxiety. While C/AAP is a multi-faceted approach, four of its essential elements are described and applied here: understand anxiety disorders; reframe unhelpful career thinking; encourage one step at a time; and employ the “as if” technique.
1. Understand Anxiety Disorders
Career practitioners do not diagnose or treat anxiety unless they are also credentialed mental health professionals, but they should have a basic understanding of the differences between anxiety disorders and routine stress. Both can cause nearly identical symptoms: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability (APA, 2022). Clinical psychologist and anxiety expert Dr. Taylor Wilmer says, “It can be helpful to think of stress as situational or ‘normative’ anxiety—a helpful emotional reaction that motivates us to take action, while an anxiety disorder is distress out of proportion to the perceived threat and may impede productive action” (personal communication, July 21, 2021). The National Institutes of Mental Health summarizes the various types of anxiety disorders recognized in the DSM-5, such as generalized and social anxiety.
To aid understanding, career practitioners can ask clients questions such as:
- Have you talked with someone about the stress you are experiencing?
- Have you been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder? Which type(s)?
- If yes: Are you receiving treatment? May I talk with your therapist (or other provider) to ensure we are supporting you collaboratively?
- If no: Would you like a referral to someone who can help?
- What would be helpful in our sessions so your anxiety doesn't increase?
Asking unemployed, single-father James some of these questions nudged him to start working with a therapist, who encouraged him to continue his career counseling concurrently.
2. Reframe Unhelpful Career Thinking
When anxiety disorders present as negative or irrational thinking, career counseling/coaching approaches grounded in theory can relieve some of the pressure clients may put on themselves.
When James’ industry crashed during the pandemic, he needed to make a career shift and job hunt. “But what if I make a mistake choosing a career direction since I need to do it quickly?” he worried. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common approach for treating anxiety and aims to reframe the “what if” questions and dispel worst-case-scenario thinking. Similarly, career counseling/coaching grounded in Happenstance Learning Theory (Krumboltz, 2009) helps clients who are anxious about picking the perfect career. James can reframe his thoughts from “I must pick the perfect career” to “As long as I generally know what I want in a career and how I’d like to make a difference, I can seek experiences that fit who I am and who I want to become.” Moreover, the Chaos Theory of Careers (Bright & Prior, 2012) helps reframe indecisiveness as open-mindedness, encourages preparation not planning, emphasizes adaptation over deciding, and aims for flexible goals (Mesaros, 2019). James expressed relief when he learned that he could simply strive to connect with those that could use his versatile skill set.
These approaches were also a relief to Alana who felt panicked about needing both to choose a career direction and secure a new job quickly. She knew she wanted to work in the tech industry but struggled identifying which role fit her strengths, values, and interests. Through the Happenstance approach, she felt enabled to embark on a multi-pronged networking and job application process, and motivated to go beyond the initial two sessions to receive more substantive career support.
3. Encourage One Step at a Time
A common behavioral response to anxiety is avoidance, often treated with exposure therapy (a form of CBT)—confronting and overcoming fears by moving gradually from easier tasks to more difficult ones. In the Bridges Transition Model (Bridges, 2009), the middle stage— “Neutral Zone”—can be particularly anxiety-producing. Armenta (2019) recommended not rushing the process, instead taking small steps, helping the client understand that internally they are processing and adapting even if external change is not visible yet.
James dove into his career exploration process the way he had successfully tackled complex work projects in the past, not realizing how challenging it would be to grapple with the identity shift that a career change necessitated. He became overwhelmed when clear solutions did not emerge from his ambitious efforts and began postponing career counseling sessions. A call with James to reschedule included normalizing feeling overwhelmed, stuck, and frustrated, particularly with pandemic isolation and children home all day in remote schooling. He agreed to return to career counseling to map out a more manageable plan with bite-sized steps. By chipping away at research and networking, James identified opportunities for remote contract work that would use his project management skills in other industries.
4. Employ the “As If” Technique
Clients who feel anxious when trying to design their futures may benefit from Adlerian counseling approaches, including the “as if” technique (Buttitta & Cavallaro, 2019). This technique involves helping a client imagine success in handling a pretend situation and reflecting on the imagined positive outcomes to gain confidence for the actual situation.
Alana’s anxiety flared up when anticipating networking for information on roles in the tech industry. She was experiencing anticipatory anxiety—anxious feelings that go well beyond what is typical prior to something new or out of one’s comfort zone (Fritscher, 2020). Helping Alana identify strengths she demonstrated in the past when interacting with strangers to gather information for a college research project enabled her to imagine using those strengths in a career exploration conversation. Then, during mock networking scenarios, she acted “as if” she were a strong, confident communicator, capable of achieving positive outcomes. When the time came for actual networking conversations, she expressed fewer anxious feelings and conducted meetings that provided valuable information to target her search.
Applying the Familiar to Address the Unfamiliar
Both clients in the above cases successfully obtained new positions. Serving clients with anxiety disorders requires career counseling/coaching approaches that are especially relevant for challenges the disorder may present. The elements of the C/AAP framework described here enable career practitioners to mix and match familiar career counseling/coaching techniques with established theoretical perspectives when facing the more complex, and often less familiar, challenge of working with clients whose stress and worry go beyond the ordinary into the realm of anxiety disorder.
American Psychological Association. (2022, February 14). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? http://www.apa.org/topics/stress/anxiety-difference
Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Facts and Statistics: Understanding Anxiety and Depression is the First Step. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety
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Bridges, W. (2009). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Da Capo Press.
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L. Michelle Tullier, PhD, CCC, CPRW, is a career counselor in private practice with a specialization in complex cases involving ‘failure to launch,’ anxiety, substance use disorder recovery, and other challenges. She is the Careers and Recovery columnist for Psychology Today.com and author of the Idiot’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination. Michelle is the former career center executive director at Georgia Tech where she was also on the Honors Program faculty teaching multidisciplinary perspectives of purposeful work. She held prior career coaching and leadership roles with global outplacement firm Right Management. Michelle is a member of Maine Career Development Association, member and former board member of the Georgia Career Development Association, former associate editor of Independent Practice for Career Convergence, and author of three prior articles in Career Convergence. She is a Certified Career Counselor through NCDA and a Certified Professional Resume Writer through PARWCC. She can be reached at www.CareersUncomplicated.com and www.linkedin.com/in/michelletullier/.