What has been coming a lot in my coaching conversations with managers and executives in the last months is managing anxiety.
Indeed, there is plenty to be anxious about.
Ongoing pandemic. Messy return to the office. War in Europe. Energy, fuel and food prices are rising like the SpaceX rocket. Galloping inflation. A ruthless war criminal having access to nuclear weapons.
Enough to keep anyone up at night.
And on top of that we have the daily life: the work, the kids, ageing parents, our own health, mortgages, uncertain future….
Anxiety is persistent worry or fear that something bad is going to happen. In light of the current world events, these feelings have been amplified for many of us, but especially for leaders. We have that extra layer of anxiety riding on the fact that we have taken responsibility for the well-being of the people who work for us.
In times like these, it is important to understand that while normal levels of worry can serve us and keep us safe, persistent and constant anxiety can be painful and even disabling.
How can you as an individual deal with it, and how can you as a leader help others to manage their anxiety and fear? And should you?
The simple answer to the last question is yes, you should.
When we ignore our signs of stress and allow stress to become chronic and overwhelming, it can lead to mental health challenges such as depression, panic attacks, insomnia and many other mental health issues.
And from that place, nobody can function and perform well.
But when we understand the root cause of our anxiety, and when we get to know the sources of our stress, how we respond, and what helps us recharge, we’re much better able to prevent the negative consequences, stabilize ourselves, and return to our optimal levels of productivity.
The first thing to do is to raise your own awareness about what are your default anxiety settings. You can do this by exploring your hardwiring and your thoughts and feelings.
Consider these self-coaching questions:
- Did you grow up in a chaotic or dysfunctional family?
- Did you have a parent or caregiver who was a chronic worrier?
- Did you worry constantly about a member of your family or a close friend?
- Is there a history of anxiety disorders in your family?
- Do you have a tendency to ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts), e.g. catastrophizing?
The more “yes” answers you have, the more you may be conditioned for anxiety.
Be aware of this and know that you can change it.
The next step is to understand when you feel the most anxious. To do this, look for patterns: in your thoughts, your relationships, and your behaviors.
Consider these self-coaching questions:
- Are you more anxious around particular people? Who are they? How do they trigger your anxiety?
- What are your triggers? A work deadline? Social situations? The news? Conflict with colleagues? Looming difficult conversations? Confrontations of any kind? Uncertainty about the future?
- Are you more anxious at home or at work?
- How often do you experience anxiety?
From a psychological point of view, worrying over things that haven’t happened yet, or catastrophizing, does not help. It doesn’t influence what is going to happen and it doesn’t provide a solution or a contingency plan. It is simply wasted energy.
What can you do, and what can you advise your team members to do to manage anxiety?
- Make a plan for emergencies and remind yourself that you are prepared.
- Disrupt obsessive worrying. When your worry becomes a chronic habit, your body will flood you with the hormones of stress: cortisol and adrenaline. This is great in the short run, but damaging in the long run.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake. They are both diuretics, and used on regular basis they will disrupt your sleep patterns and this will spike your anxiety. Nothing fuels anxiety like waking up at 3 am and not being able to fall asleep until the dawn.
- Drink enough water. I know, you’ve probably never thought that this is a factor, but dehydration can mimic the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. After all, water is critically important to our well-being and our body will shock you into getting enough of it if it has to.
- Eat a balanced diet. Low blood sugar can make you feel tense, nervous, and irritable, so be mindful about fueling your body with healthy and nutritious food on regular basis.
- Maintain a good sleep hygiene. Latest research confirms that different people have different sleep needs, but most adults require 7-8 hours a night to function optimally. When you don’t sleep well, your body will go into a stress response, again releasing cortisol and adrenaline, rising your blood pressure and driving a host of other physical responses which are seriously unhealthy.
- Keep a journal: every day write down what’s been bothering you and what is your current biggest worry. Also known as the “mind dump”, this routine will help you analyze and understand your feelings, and this in turn should help you get control over them.
- Recognize what you can control, and what you can’t. Try this simple Serenity Prayer to remind you of your options and limitations:
“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
- Practice gratitude. If there is a magic bullet to manage anxiety, this is it.
You can do this in writing, or simply mentally list several things you are grateful for. We know from scientific research that you can’t feel fear or anxiety and gratitude at the same time. Choose gratitude over anxiety.
- Finally: if all of the above fails and you experience frequent anxiety and panic attacks, get professional help. You are not alone, and the trained professionals can help you stabilize your emotions and reactions so that you can return to functioning well quickly. That’s what they are there for.
Try these tips on yourself and share with your team members when you see that they are distracted, worried and anxious.
Let’s look out for each other, and let’s help each other stay well and healthy in this turbulent world.
With leadership greetings,