How can you lead with authority and strength when you feel anxious? How can you inspire and motivate others when your mind and heart are racing? And if you hide the fear in an attempt to be leaderlike, where does it go?
We are no longer prey to tigers and mastodons but to damage to our self-esteem, ostracism by our group, or the threat of losing out in the competitive struggle. The form of anxiety has changed, but the experience remains relatively the same. In other words, even though humans today aren’t chased by predators, we are chased by uncertainty about the health of our loved ones, whether we’ll have a job next week or next year, whether our company will go bankrupt — worries that provoke the same neurological and physical responses.
Anxiety is a reaction to stress. Anxiety is fear of what might happen in the future. Sometimes that fear is rational and sometimes not.
Data from the National Institute of Mental Health has indicated that about 30% of Americans experience clinical anxiety at some point in their lives. Globally, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an estimated 284 million people had an anxiety disorder as of 2017, making it the most prevalent mental disorder worldwide. And recent workplace data from Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics suggests it’s widespread on the job: Nearly 37% of workplace respondents reported symptoms of anxiety in the past year. These numbers will only increase in the wake of the pandemic.
The good news for those of us who have managed anxiety for a long time is that we were made for this moment. Data shows that anxious people process threats differently, using regions of the brain responsible for an action. We react quickly in the face of danger. We may also be more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. When channeled thoughtfully, anxiety can motivate us to make our teams more resourceful, productive, and creative. It can break down barriers and create new bonds.
So anxiety isn’t useless. In an economic crisis, the anxiety that keeps us up at night may help us fathom a solution to keeping our businesses open. But left unchecked, anxiety distracts us, zaps our energy, and drives us to make poor decisions. Anxiety is a powerful enemy, so we must make it our partner.
Whether you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder or are having your first dance with this intense emotion, you can still be an effective leader. But I’ll be blunt: If you don’t look your anxiety in the face at some point, it will take you down. This isn’t easy, but doing it will change your life and your ability to lead others for the better.
So today, in this especially anxious moment, let’s begin. The first stage is learning to identify your anxiety: how it manifests itself and how it feels. The second stage is taking action to manage it both day-to-day and in challenging moments. The third stage entails making smart decisions and leading others in anxious times. Finally, the fourth stage involves building a support infrastructure to help you manage your anxiety over the long term.
Acknowledging and Accepting Your Emotions
A common coping mechanism for leaders is to push through stress, fatigue, and fear. But that’s succeeding in spite of your emotions when it’s far better to thrive because of your emotions. You have to learn to accept your anxiety — even though this may seem uncomfortable or counterintuitive.
LABEL WHAT YOU’RE FEELING
No one has to hear you say it. This is for you. Take the time to wallow in your thoughts. Let yourself experience the discomfort of fear and anxiety. Play out worst-case scenarios in your head. Allow your imagination to go wild with catastrophe.
Decades of research on emotional intelligence have shown that people who understand their own feelings have higher job satisfaction, stronger job performance, and better relationships; are more innovative, and can synthesize diverse opinions and lessen conflict. And all those things make people better leaders.
If the word “anxiety” feels wrong to you, label it whatever you like. Call it “unease” or “temporary uncertainty” or even give it a silly name. I think of my own anxiety as a separate character who travels with me. She doesn’t have a name or a face, but I know when she’s present.
The best way to deal with uncomfortable feelings is to welcome them in. Think of your thoughts and emotions as trains coming in and out of a station, he advises. Watch them arrive and depart without attachment. This technique actually will help you build distance from the negative feelings in your mind.
Sometimes it may be impossible to get rid of your anxiety, which can feel frustrating.
“The goal is not to magically make things perfect. The goal is to learn to surf the waves of distress successfully. Give yourself credit even if things don’t feel all the way better.”
Once you’ve labeled your anxiety, you can start pinpointing when it appears and why. Nature helped us learn to do this. When you feel anxious, take note of your physical reactions — what nature calls the “early warning system” that anxiety might be taking over.
Your triggers might be small. You might notice a stomach flip and a spark of dread when you see someone’s name pop up in your inbox. Or they might be bigger. When unemployment numbers skyrocket, you might feel nauseous and unable to focus even though you still have a job.
When an interaction or a situation sets you off, examine why. You might be hesitant to delve into issues from your childhood, but “unresolved business” from your past, as Colonna puts it, is very much present in — and relevant to — how you lead. He notes it can be a relief to truly understand how your old wounds inform your present behavior. When I realized that my near-constant worry about going broke stemmed more from my childhood than from my current financial situation, I was finally able to proactively manage my money, after years of avoiding it and piling up debt. I broke a damaging pattern.
It’s also good to understand how you react when triggered. I call these anxiety “tells.” The social worker and therapist suggest asking yourself, “How did I respond to that anxiety at that moment? And were those behaviors helpful or not? Did those behaviors fuel or alleviate my anxiety?” Glass says that writing down your fears will help you examine them. Keeping a journal of your anxiety — when it happens, what triggers it, and how you reacted — is a great way to develop self-awareness. Your tells may not always be negative behaviors, though; for instance, many of us find ourselves connecting with friends and family more during stressful times. When I’m very anxious, I cook and freeze meals!
Many successful leaders react to anxiety by working harder, holding themselves and others to an impossibly high standard, or trying to control things that are beyond their power. For them, it’s hard to imagine not fussing over every project and detail in their work lives, not taking responsibility for everything or always giving their all. “People respond to anxiety by trying to be more perfect and more in control”. “They not only have a Plan B but Plans C, D, and E.” In many societies, those behaviors are rewarded. We think of it as a “good work ethic,” but often perfectionism and overwork only cause further anxiety — in yourself and others.
Imagine a CEO who is terrified by the economic news surrounding Covid-19. He jumps into the problem in the way that’s worked for him in the past: making detailed projections on all aspects of the business. He buries himself in these charts while constantly consuming news about the crisis. Some of his team might wonder what he’s up to or feel unsettled by his visible yet unspoken panic. Are the charts he furiously creates accurate? Who knows! But the deep dive into worst-case scenario planning gives him the illusion of control.
Your tells may also be physical. Anxiety can manifest itself as tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, clenched jaw muscles, frozen shoulders, gastrointestinal symptoms, skin breakouts, appetite changes, and radical shifts in energy. When I recently had a panic attack, for example, I was convinced it was heart failure — even though I’d had panic attacks before.
To help you identify the ways anxiety may be physically affecting you, try this two-part exercise:
First, sit upright in a chair. Put your feet flat on the floor, and your hands on your lap. Keep your chin neutral. Note which part of the body you can immediately feel. Then, with your eyes closed, scan through the following:
- Your head
- Your jaw
- Your neck cords
- Your shoulders
- Your wrists and forearms
- Your chest
- Your upper back
- Your lower back
- Your stomach
- Your hamstrings and rear
- Your calves, ankles, and feet
Note which ones feel tight, and to gain some relief, breathe into the areas of tightness or pain.
You can also pay attention to what’s happening with your body at different points during the workday, when specific events occur, or when you make certain decisions:
- How do you feel at 9 AM, noon, and 3 and 6 PM? Does your body change over the course of the day?
- If you get stressed, does a particular part of your body react?
- How often do you rely on a drink, drug, muscle relaxant, or over-the-counter pain relief over the week?
- Does your body feel different after you exercise? Do your shoulders feel lighter?
- How does your body feel on the weekend or when you’re doing something you enjoy?
SORT OUT THE PROBABLE FROM THE POSSIBLE
Once you understand your triggers and tells, you can start developing a new relationship with your anxiety.
Remember, some anxiety is rational and helpful. In an economic downturn, it makes sense for a leader to feel anxious. You might have to lay people off. Your business might fail. But you might find that you get stuck in a negative thought loop that prevents you from moving forward; you start obsessing. Boyes points out that some leaders get so focused on the worst-case scenario and overwhelmed by scary possibilities that they become frozen.
So how do you avoid being stuck? Here I turn to advice from Colonna: “Differentiate what’s possible from what’s probable. It is possible that everyone I love will die of a pandemic and I will lose everything I hold dear. But it’s not probable that everything that we love and hold dear will disappear.” Try to distinguish your worst fears from what is likely to happen. This will help calm you and give you space to move forward. So when a catastrophic thought comes into your head, such as “My partner and I are both going to lose our jobs” or “I’m definitely going to get sick,” remember that you’re an unreliable narrator when you’re anxious. Check-in with someone else you trust and ask for that person’s help in telling what is likely to unfold from what is a long shot.
Focusing on what’s probable also takes flexibility — the future won’t be what you thought, and that hurts. When my preschooler really wants to keep coloring, but it’s time for dinner, I ask her, “Please be flexible. You can color later, I promise.” I’m now trying to do what I’ve taught my kids for years: to handle the disappointment of things not going the way I expected or wanted. These disappointments are real, and sometimes the changes are grave. Acknowledge the grief and anger you feel (at least to yourself) and then make adjustments, identifying the aspects of your vision that may still work, and focus on what’s probable.