Anxiety Is a Double-Edged Sword
Many times over the years we encountered the belief that anxiety is an unproductive and harmful emotional state, and thus should be eradicated by any means necessary. A few times we’ve received pushback from those who believe that so-called negative emotions—such as anxiety, anger, distress, or sadness—are detrimental and do not serve us, and therefore should be eliminated (or somehow let go of).
None of us want to be in pain, and an unmanaged anxiety disorder is unproductive and harmful. It serves no one. And yet anxiety has gotten a bad rap, and that trying to eradicate or eliminate it—or any other difficult emotion, for that matter—will ultimately undermine your leadership and your mental health.
If you’re anxious by nature, this is just part of who you are. While you can learn to reduce anxiety’s harmful effects and respond to anxiety in healthier, more productive ways, there’s no intervention that will make this core part of your personality simply disappear. You don’t need to feel bad about who you are, and you don’t need to waste time trying to be someone you’re not. Maybe you have some things to work on—who doesn’t—but fundamentally, you are OK just as you are. You have contributions to offer the world that only you, with all your unique skills and hang-ups and experiences, can.
Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, is one of the leading voices in pushing back against the conventional wisdom that anxiety is always bad. Her work in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt in response to its environment—became the cornerstone of her research on how we can take control of our anxiety and make it a useful tool rather than a negative, unproductive feeling that controls us.
The key is to find a balance between this desirable state where we’re alert and poised to act, and the negative anxiety that compromises our functioning. “Good anxiety,” as Suzuki defines it, is the body-brain space where we’re engaged, alert, and we feel just stressed enough to maximize our attention and focus on what we want to do. “Think about when you performed the best,” she says. “For me, it was when I was nervous, I was a little bit scared.” In fact, before a big talk, if she’s not nervous, she knows that she’s not taking her preparation seriously enough. So instead, Suzuki actually welcomes her anxiety as “activation energy” to keep herself motivated and focused.
But what if you can’t yet locate that sweet spot between good, productive anxiety, and bad, unmanageable anxiety? What if your anxiety is so painful that you just want to run away from it?
First of all, cut yourself some slack. Experiencing unpleasant feelings is difficult, and it’s natural to want to run away. “We all need constant practice simply sitting with our feelings, sitting with the discomfort, and not trying to immediately mask, deny, escape, or distract ourselves,” Suzuki says. Sitting with the discomfort accomplishes two things: “You get accustomed to the [anxious] feeling and realize that you can indeed survive it, and you give yourself time and space in your brain to make a more conscious decision about how to act or respond. This is exactly how a new, more positive neural pathway is established.”7 We can, in effect, retrain our brains to respond to anxious feelings in new, more generative ways. If it’s easier, you can even practice accepting the anxious feelings and letting them flow through you without reacting to them. We can learn to accept that anxiety, while unpleasant, won’t kill us, and we can even welcome it as a productive force.
This will indeed take some practice, but “practice is precisely why those of us who suffer from anxiety have a clear advantage of developing this superpower,” Suzuki says. “Why? Because reassessment can only come when you are aware of what’s not working for you, and anxiety is the emotion that pinpoints exactly that.… There is no better motivator to tell you what you need to work on than your own array of anxiety triggers. They can be a path forward to some of the best realizations and shifts you can make in your life today.”
Uncover Your Triggers and Tells
Getting to know your anxiety will require you to tune in and take an honest look at yourself and your behavior. Approach this exercise with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. You may have an obvious form of anxiety, such as panic disorder or glossophobia (fear of public speaking). Or maybe you wake up every morning with a pit in your stomach and an undefined sense of dread about starting the day. You may have a fear of death or personal loss that impacts your business leadership. Whatever your experience, start right there, in the moment, and play detective with your experience.
Rebecca Harley, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, helped me learn to examine my experience, and it starts with turning inward and noticing what’s happening in the present moment. Like a detective who’s simply observing and gathering information, tune in to whatever is happening and see what you discover. Playing detective is a fact-finding mission. Your job isn’t to judge what’s happening or do anything about it at all. It’s to observe impartially.
Once you’ve observed what’s happening, see if you can put some words to the most prominent experience. It may be a thought (This presentation is going to be a disaster), a physical sensation (dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, racing heart, excessive sweating), or a behavior (mindless scrolling or snacking).
Note how you react when anxiety is present. The author calls this reaction a tell, and it can take many forms—from tightness in the chest or a stomach flip, to impatience or irritability, to insomnia or indigestion, all the way to a bout of depression (a loss of interest in life, for example). Your tells may not always be negative behaviors with harmful consequences. For instance, many of us connect more often with friends and family during stressful times. When the author is very anxious, he cooks and freezes meals. Others exercise or fidget or organize their workspace.
A physical experience is often the first tell for many people. This is because our bodies will register anxiety even if our minds aren’t consciously aware of it yet, or if we simply aren’t ready to admit our anxiety to ourselves.
Trigger is a term often thrown around colloquially to indicate feelings of discomfort, but in psychology a trigger is a stimulus such as a smell, a sound, or a sight that we react to. Triggers can make us recall or even reexperience feelings of trauma. Far beyond mere discomfort, triggers can spark feelings of anxiety and panic, and can sometimes cause flashbacks of a past traumatic event.
Marc Brackett, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, notes that leaders and managers are triggered all the time at work—which we may not even realize because so many triggers occur subconsciously. What sets us off could be anything: the way someone talks or acts, or the way a team member is habitually late. Over time these triggers build up inside of us and, as Brackett puts it, “accumulate in a debt of anger or anxiety.” That mounting debt can then show up in situations and in ways that, on the surface, have no apparent connection with the trigger: yelling at a colleague or a family member, drinking too much, binge-watching Netflix. But in reality, the reaction that seemed to come out of nowhere actually has an identifiable cause.
Many of us think we know what makes us anxious or stressed at work, and sometimes it’s abundantly apparent. But often what actually triggers us is specific and surprisingly small: An email from a client you haven’t gotten back to. A message from your boss. A news notification. A colleague who coughs too close to you. Or it might be bigger: A dip in the market. Rumors of a reorg. Or even something that isn’t likely to happen. When unemployment numbers skyrocket, for example, you might feel nauseous and unable to focus even though your job isn’t in jeopardy.
The key is to identify what situations make you anxious and how you feel when anxiety kicks in. Our goal is to move from feeling anxiety and reacting on autopilot, to understanding what triggers our anxiety and managing how we respond. Knowing what your triggers are can improve your ability to handle your anxieties, which research shows can lead to higher job satisfaction and stronger job performance, not to mention greater well-being all around.
It’s awareness coupled with action that makes all the difference. Psychologist and self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich cautions against only trying to figure out why you behave the way you do. “Why” questions, she says, can actually be unhelpful when it comes to increasing our self-awareness. That’s because we tend to come up with the wrong answers to introspective questions—we’re biased toward what feels like a new insight and often miss what’s objectively true. Further, why questions can invite unproductive negative thoughts and ruminative patterns rather than uncovering the objective information we need to propel us forward. “For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks, Why did I get such a bad rating?, they’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses,” Eurich writes.
Far more effective, she says, are “what” questions, which help us stay focused on objective information and actions that orient us toward future growth. They help us act and improve, rather than leaving us stuck and ruminating. So instead of asking why you got such a bad rating, ask, “What steps can I take to improve my performance and get a better rating next time?”
The Rapid Power Reclaim Method
Susan Schmitt Winchester developed a three-step strategy she calls the “rapid power reclaim method” for when someone is feeling anxious and overwhelmed at work. We’ll use a classic tough moment—receiving negative feedback—as an example. Here’s how to keep yourself from “spiraling down on that unconscious wounded career path,” as she says, and stop yourself from overreacting.
- Step 1: Create choice. Remind yourself that you have the power not to get lost in the trigger and to respond with old, automatic patterns—you’re an adult now and can choose how you respond. You can also give yourself the space to manage an intense response. If you’re in the middle of a meeting and get flooded with emotion, it’s OK to ask for a ten-minute break. When the meeting is over, Winchester recommends finding some way to purge the physiological and emotional energy you’re feeling so that you’ll be less reactive and see more clearly. Deep breathing, drawing or journaling the feelings, hitting a pillow—anything to get the emotion out of your system.
- Step 2: Elevate action. Here’s where you implement a new, healthier response. In the case of negative feedback, elevating your action may mean approaching the feedback with an attitude of open curiosity. “Rather than going into defense [mode], I’m going to ask questions to understand it,” Winchester says. “I’m going to really focus on what I can learn from this feedback versus beat myself up with it.” If you’re especially triggered, simply responding with “Say more” opens up the conversation and prevents you from shutting down. “What advice do you have for me?” is another way to elevate your action in the moment and respond in new, more productive ways.
- Step 3: Celebrate and integrate. Having a different response to an old trigger is worthy of celebration! Mark the occasion with a positive activity you find rewarding. Celebrating successes integrates this new response into your identity, Winchester says. The more you pair a new response with an old trigger, the less powerful that trigger becomes.
Count On Others
The truth is, anxiety makes you self-absorbed. You spend so much time fretting over your future, obsessing over what others think of you, fearing criticism and shame, worrying about a bodily sensation that surely means you’re dying, and losing sleep over the prospect of losing everything. The obvious and most effective counteraction is to turn your focus outward.
Harvard Business School professor and leadership expert Amy Edmondson told she thinks the reason we all yearn for psychological safety in our work and in our daily lives is that we want to contribute to the greater good, or the team, or the company retreat—but we fear being judged. “We want to be unencumbered by what people think about us,” she said. “It’s such an unhealthy thing to be tied up in knots about—‘How do I look?’ ‘What do people think of me?’—versus the healthier, and I would say more joyful, state of being—‘Wow, this is a really interesting project and I’m glad to be part of it, and I feel it matters.’ That’s what we want. I think we want to make a contribution.”
It’s OK to start very small. Focusing for just a few moments on anything external was a victory—the sound of a bird chirping outside my window, petting the dog, jotting down notes for a LinkedIn post. On other days I tried to imagine a more joyful state of being, or to remember, if only for a few moments, what it was like to be in the flow, contributing something meaningful.
This is where the people in your life are so helpful. Anxiety and depression can be so isolating, and they can severely narrow your focus. “When you’re in those very dark places, it takes a lot of trust and a lot of vulnerability to invite people in,” Wildfang cofounder and CEO Emma Mcilroy says. But it’s critical to do so, because “all you really have is this pinhole view,” and you need to get out of your head and rely on your team to help you make good decisions. “Other people can see even 10 percent of a solution that you couldn’t,” Mcilroy says.
The social psychologist Amy Cuddy says we need leaders who exhibit both vulnerability and strength. “Most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, but that is exactly the wrong approach,” she writes. “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.”
Being vulnerable builds trust and closeness, and nothing establishes trust more effectively than the emotional connection fostered through empathy and shared humanity. Leaders who model strength and vulnerability earn the confidence of their teams and create the environment of psychological safety that employees and organizations need to thrive.
If you’re reluctant to reach out to your team, try to frame it in your mind as a performance issue. Think about it: It’s in the best interest of everyone—team members, employers, shareholders, clients, customers—for you to succeed. And you simply cannot perform at your best if you don’t feel your best. Mcilroy captures this so powerfully. “When I’m happy, I can deliver 150 percent,” she says. “When I’m really sad and depressed, I can deliver 70 percent.”
Anxiety and depression will tell you that this is it, that you’re washed up and have no hope of getting better. They are wrong. Reach out to the trusted people in your life who can tell you the truth.
Leaders who have survived storms know they can steady the ship. When we’ve been through mental illness and have managed through it, we can embrace life’s complexities and lead our people through catastrophes. We can make sure our clients and employees feel seen, heard, acknowledged, and cared for, because we know what that meant for us when we were hurting and needed help the most.