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Action to Manage Anxiety

Once you make your way through these three steps, you can start to manage your anxiety daily in ways that allow you to grow as a leader and be more resourceful and productive.

The following tactics can help ground you.

CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN

Many faith traditions teach us to accept what we cannot control, without preoccupation or panic. But in the middle of an anxiety attack at work, you probably don’t have time for philosophy. So here’s what to do when things feel completely off the rails.

Structure your time. A solid body of research shows that improved “time management disposition” — meaning your attitude toward how you organize and value your time — has a positive impact on mental health. And it’s especially crucial when you’re gripped by anxiety.

First thing in the morning, create a to-do list and a detailed schedule for your day. I like to do it while having my coffee. You might use 30-minute increments to spell out when you’ll shower, take a lunch break, make a phone call, or tackle that report that needs to get done. This is what many experts call “timeboxing.” While you’re at it, try to avoid what cognitive-behavioral therapy terms “cognitive distortions.” These are the catastrophic thoughts, self-judgments, and all-or-nothing ideas that often accompany anxiety.

Be careful not to overschedule or overestimate your productivity; instead, focus on the critical work and leave time to take care of yourself.

Take small, meaningful actions. During the first few weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, traffic dropped drastically where I live. The local department of public works took that time to repaint all the crosswalks. For a week, roads were halfway blocked off as DPW crews painted. It wasn’t a big deal because our normally bustling town was quiet. And each time I slowed down to drive past one of the crews, I smiled because it struck me: This is their small, meaningful action.

When you feel anxious, an immediate task can easily become overwhelming. Take running a cash flow analysis for your business. When you open up the accounting software, your mind might go to a dark place, and all of a sudden a month’s worth of figures have spiraled into the business tanking and you losing your home. To break that mental spiral, take a small, meaningful action. If running a cash flow projection terrifies you, organize some receipts or clean up some file folders until the panic subsides.

In general, focus on the near term whenever you can. You may not be able to tell your employees what will happen next year — or even three months from now. You can’t promise everything will be OK. But you can help your people be safe this week. Focus on that, and then deal with the big questions when you feel calmer or when you can get input from trusted colleagues. Sometimes you have to turn off the future for a little while and just manage through the present.

DEVELOP TECHNIQUES FOR SITUATIONS YOU CAN’T CONTROL

Of course, it’s not always possible to turn off the future. What if your board needs those cash flow projections in the next 30 minutes and you’re in a downward spiral?

Here you’ll want to have tools that help you calm down quickly so that you can get your job done.

Find a mindfulness technique that eases your acute anxiety. Neurologist Victor Frankl famously said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This is mindfulness in a nutshell. Even if you are high on anxiety and short on time, you can claim the space in between.

There are lots of ways to do this; the key is to find what’s most effective for you. One option is to focus on your breathing. Belly breaths are a classic technique. Others prefer what’s called “the 4-7-8 method.” Either is simple to memorize and subtle enough to do at your desk. When you deliberately slow your breath, it sends a message to your brain to calm down, and your brain then sends the message to your body so that many of the physical symptoms of anxiety — such as increased heart rate and higher blood pressure — decrease.

You can also shift your attention. Focus first on your anxiety, and then slowly turn your attention to something tangible, something you hold in your hand, like a book. By concentrating on an object in the present moment, you can turn the volume of your worry down until it’s background noise.

Compartmentalize or postpone your worry. Sometimes I talk out loud to my anxiety, saying, “Sorry, I’m going to deal with you after I finish my work.” You may want to write the worry down and save it for a specific time — maybe later that day or your next session with your therapist.

In times of crisis, you may actually find that things that worried you in the past fade into the background. The urgency of what’s happening at the moment takes over. To stop your anxiety from sneaking into the foreground, you might tell it, “You can stay where you are. I’m part of the solution here, and I need to get this task done.”

Make a connection. Connecting with others can break the negative thought loop that often accompanies anxiety. Instead of focusing on yourself, you turn your attention outward.

“Being a good neighbor is surprisingly simple — it’s just about connecting on the human level,”, “Do you say greetings to your neighbors? Have you asked how they’re doing or if they need anything?” Also be connected digitally with people in the field, who support one another and contribute to causes they care about. In your own life, think about performing a quick, generous act. You might check in on a former colleague via text message. Or ask a family member how you might help. When you might feel anxious, go in praise of God and “like” creations developed by Him or write up an endorsement of His work. This gets you out of your head and makes you focus on something more positive.

Finally, if anxiety is persistent and hampering your days, you might consider consulting a therapist or mental health professional. Talking to someone trained in helping others manage anxiety may give you additional coping mechanisms to address debilitating symptoms.

Limiting Anxiety’s Impact on Your Leadership

Once you have a better sense of how you experience anxiety and how you can manage it daily, it’s time to turn to how it affects your leadership and management abilities.

MAKE GOOD DECISIONS

Anxiety can impair our judgment. It can cause us to focus on the wrong things, distort the facts, or rush to conclusions. Ideally, we could postpone critical decisions until we’re in a better frame of mind, but that’s not always possible.

In anxious times it’s important to proactively set yourself up to make good choices. Much as you do when separating the possible from the probable, start by acknowledging that your emotions can make you an unreliable narrator and that you will likely be prone to negative thoughts. Let’s say you’re prepping for a speech and the last time you spoke to a group of a similar size, you felt that you bombed. You may even have a long-held belief that you’re a terrible public speaker because a middle school recitation drew snickers. Ask yourself: Are you being objective? If you’re not sure, check whether your memory is correct, perhaps by asking a colleague who was in the room for feedback.

Of course, you need to ask the right people. Boyes suggests you find a trusted adviser with a decision-making style that differs from your own. If you’re impulsive, consult someone who is methodical and conservative, for example.

Ultimately, every leader should develop a team of “real talk” peers: people who will provide their unvarnished opinions. You can fill this role for others, too. You can still offer them clarity and insight even if you’re an unreliable narrator of your own experience.

PRACTICE HEALTHY COMMUNICATION

One of the most dangerous aspects of anxiety is that it’s contagious, and leaders set the tone.

If you’re not admitting that you’re anxious but instead emitting irritability or distraction, you’re not doing your staff any favors. But how can you be honest with your people in a way that doesn’t strike fear in them? What degree of emotion is appropriate to express?

Ultimately, how much you disclose is a personal decision. As an owner of a business and the host of a podcast about anxiety and mental health, I tend to be an open book. But I know that most leaders don’t share their demons. Few feel comfortable starting a staff meeting with “Wow, I’m anxious today.”

But self-aware leaders know when it’s appropriate to be vulnerable. And here’s the thing: Your staff needs you to be transparent and honest about anxiety and mental health, especially when the future of your company and their livelihoods are uncertain.

“It makes us feel normal if someone we respect and trust admits they aren’t all right. We think, ‘Thank you for being human,’ and We want to follow that person. What I can do is hold space for us to be together right now, to talk and figure some things out.”

Admitting “I’m anxious today” or “I didn’t sleep well” lets everyone else in the room breathe a little easier. (“Phew, it’s not my fault he is so tense.”) And remember, you don’t have to share details; just share the state you’re in.

The social psychologist tells us we need leaders who exhibit both warmth and strength. “Most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, but that is exactly the wrong approach,” they write. “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.” Nothing establishes trust more effectively than the emotional connection fostered through empathy and shared humanity. This is why being open about your own anxiety can be so powerful. It builds trust when you can ask teammates, “How are you?” and they don’t feel as if they have to lie or put on a happy face, because they know you feel the strain, too.

This doesn’t mean that you fall into a puddle of tears during a videoconference, of course, or visibly lose control. And while your workers might want to know that you’re closely monitoring cash flow to make sure bills get paid, they don’t need to know that your anxiety is deeply rooted in your parents’ money troubles during your childhood. It’s possible to model taking care of your mental health without making people lose confidence in your competence.

Imagine you’re in an anxiety spiral from reading news about Covid-19, but you need to lead a staff meeting in 10 minutes. You could open the meeting by saying, “Obviously, the news is getting more upsetting by the minute, but I want us to put that aside for the next half hour while we go through this call.” Or you could be even more vulnerable and share that you’re working to contain your scary thoughts by giving yourself what we call a “worry hour,” when you allow yourself to indulge your biggest concerns before putting them away again and forging on.

If you want to encourage people to share but don’t want the conversation to slip into an anxiety fest, you can use a red-yellow-green exercise. Team members individually indicate where their moods are that day with one of the three colors, and they can expand on why if they wish. This allows people to share if they feel comfortable doing so and gives you useful information about the emotions of the group. You can then adjust your communication style and messaging accordingly.

And remember, while being positive is important to prevent emotional contagion, you don’t want to give anyone false hope. If you get tough questions like “Is my job safe?” or “Will we are in business in six months?” it’s not your job to divine the future. No one has a crystal ball, and so you can say what you know to be true at this moment and affirm the importance of working together and focusing on what each person can control.

Building a Support System

The final step in leading through anxiety is making sure you have ongoing support. This means not only surrounding yourself with the right people but also developing routines that help you deal with bouts of anxiety and lay the groundwork for maintaining your mental health.

SCHEDULE, STRUCTURE, AND SCENARIO PLAN

When you have anxiety, you need to be intentional about what your days look like, as I discussed earlier. The methods are basic: making lists, prioritizing and breaking work into manageable chunks. Chop tasks that make you extremely anxious into bearable pieces. I learned this trick from my own psychiatrist, Carol Birnbaum.

Also, use the detective work you did about your triggers to prepare for situations or events you know will cause you anxiety. If public speaking stresses you out, make sure you leave plenty of time to rehearse presentations. If you’re afraid of flying, mentally rehearse a business trip from “I’m going to pack” to “I’m going to order a cab and call my friend while I’m on my way to the airport” to “I’ll buy M&M’s when I get there because they make me happy.” And finally, once on the plane: “I’m going to take a Xanax, do a calming meditation, and survive.”

I get anxious when I’m working far from home and haven’t heard from my nanny or husband. I worry something bad has happened and get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing. To counter this I ask my husband or the babysitter to text me with an update every three hours. That way I don’t pester them when they might be driving with the kids in the car, for example. And knowing that they will keep me updated allows me to sink into my work.

KNOW WHO YOUR “SAFE TEAM” IS

Since you want to spare your employees the messy details of your anxiety, you need a place for those emotions to go. Make sure you have a “safe team” of people to whom you can confess scary thoughts. They can include a therapist, a coach, a mentor, a spouse or partner, and friends. It could be an intimate group of fellow leaders, online or off-line, who commit to sharing in confidence and making space for one another’s difficult emotions.

PRACTICE SELF-CARE

I don’t need to belabor this point. You know what self-care means for you, whether it’s sleep, exercise, hobbies, massage, spending time alone, or being with people you love. The point is, take it seriously as if your doctor had written you a prescription for it. It’s neither frivolous nor optional for you as a leader. And aspects of it you feel comfortable sharing can benefit your team: When you model good practices, others feel permission to take care of themselves, too. This could be as simple as letting people know that you don’t take your phone upstairs when you head to bed, that you’re taking an hour during the workday to exercise, or that you’re limiting exposure to news or Twitter.

Putting in place the support infrastructure to manage your anxiety will help you ride out setbacks and tough times. It’s a strategy for long-term success and sustainability as a leader. It means you’ll have better workdays, both when things are status quo and during transitions and tough times.

Ultimately, anxiety comes with the job of being a leader. The process of managing it can make you stronger, more empathetic, and more effective. It just might be bumpy along the way. So remember to treat yourself with compassion. Recognize that you’re doing the best you can, that your emotions are normal, and that the healthiest thing you can do is to allow yourself to experience them.

Far too many of us think it’s taboo to talk about mental health at work. I know many leaders who don’t feel as if they can walk into a staff meeting and say, “I’m anxious today.”

Why not? And why not now? These are not normal times, and acknowledging a universal emotion can help people understand that what they’re feeling is OK.

We’re in desperate need of better models of leadership, especially when society tells us that anxiety and depression are weaknesses. The data bears this out: A 2019 Mind Share report found that 86% of job seekers thought it was important for an employer’s culture to support mental health, but only 37% of employees saw their company leaders as advocates for mental health at work.

This time of crisis — in which those of us with a history of anxiety may be experiencing it acutely while others may be feeling it intensely for the first time — is an opportunity to change that perception.

You can play a role in telling a different story.

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