Butterflies

How to make anxiety your friend

Anxiety is something we’ve all experienced to a greater or lesser extent. Through the pandemic, it’s probably touched everyone.

This article contains advice on how to deal with anxiety on both a practical and a mindset level.

Disclaimer: I’m talking here about general feelings of anxiety. This is different to having an anxiety disorder, which is outside the scope of this article.

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.”`
Anonymous

Overview

Anxiety is your body trying to help you. It’s like an early warning system. It’s not something to avoid, it’s something to embrace – to listen to, so that it can guide you.

Your comfort zone may feel a comfortable place to be, but nothing grows there. If you try to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone, you are less likely to take risks and grow.

Next time you’re feeling anxious about something, reframe it as ‘useful information’. When you are feeling interested and curious, you will become less afraid.

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It is thinking all the time, and all your feelings come from your thoughts.  For example, recognise that anxiety about the future comes from your imagination. Your imagination gets its information from memory. Your memory contains everything that’s ever happened to you, films you’ve seen, books you’ve read, and things you’ve heard about. Your imagination therefore has plenty to play with when you’re faced with a new situation to worry about.

But thoughts aren’t real – you’ve made them up. The past is over. Your memories may not be accurate. And some will be based on fiction. So, invite your imagination to create something useful instead. (This comes from the Three Principles understanding. In this article, you’ll discover more about it: How to empty your busy mind.)

For another angle on resolving anxiety, John Cremer is an improviser who talks about the gap between goals and reality. He says this gap is where discomfort and stress often live. His advice is not to get too fixed on your goal. Point yourself in that direction, yes, but recognise that reality will no doubt diverge – and that’s OK. Enjoy the release of the playfulness that can be found in that state of uncertainty. (See our ideas about how improvisation helps with innovation and team effectiveness.)

“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.”
William S. Burroughs

What the scientists say

Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College, New York.  She defines anxiety not as fear (which triggers the fight-or-flight reaction) but as apprehension about an uncertain future.

She says a little bit of anxiety can make us more persistent, creative, innovative and socially connected. However, the more you try to avoid and repress anxiety, the more it tends to spiral out of control.

Anxiety triggers a release of oxytocin, in fact, this social bonding hormone shoots up! The reason is that social connection is one of the best ways of managing anxiety. So, if you feel anxious, it’s reminding you to reach out for connection and support.

She recommends treating anxiety as information telling us something could be dangerous or that we care about it. If you don’t feel slightly anxious about, say, giving a presentation, perhaps it doesn’t matter much to you.

We’re in a VUCA world where everything is uncertain and it’s likely to stay that way, so we need to get used to it! Thinking of anxiety as something useful will help you navigate uncertainty.

The evidence

In a 2013 study by a group at Harvard, researchers set up two groups of people suffering with social anxiety disorders.

One group was taught that anxiety could be helpful, that butterflies in the stomach and a racing heart allow the body to do well, be brave and be persistent.

The other group were not told any such thing.

It may be no surprise to discover that the first group did better, with lower blood pressure and heart rates. As you can imagine, over time, making friends with with anxiety is really good for your health.

Feeling butterflies in your tummy is no bad thing. Getting those butterflies to fly in formation is the general idea!

“Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.”
Plato

Coping mechanisms

Dr Olivia Remes, author of The Instant Mood Fix, is a mental health researcher at Cambridge University.

She studied over 20,000 women facing disadvantaged circumstances, and arrived at three coping mechanisms which help. Those who practiced these three things remained healthy and free of mental health disorders, while the others went into a downward spiral.

Source: British Medical Journal

1. Feeling in control of your life

Even if you are uncertain about which course of action to take, doing something is better than doing nothing (even if it ends up being the ‘wrong’ decision).

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time”
GK Chesterton

Don’t procrastinate. Make a decision and take action.

2. Forgive yourself

People with anxiety focus on the negatives. They feel bad, mulling over what they’ve done ‘wrong’.

To get out of this state, have more compassion for yourself. Recognise that we’re not perfect. We’re human beings. We can’t live our whole lives without making mistakes.

(Going back to improvisation as mentioned above, it’s impossible to get it wrong! Mistakes are celebrated. It’s a great skill to practice and a useful organisational culture to develop.)

3. Include purpose and meaning in your life

Research shows that having purpose and meaning in your life is really valuable, especially when other people need you. This could be as a parent or caregiver, by volunteering in your community, or by mentoring junior colleagues and sharing your knowledge.

You don’t have to set yourself a grand purpose, it might just be a direction. For example, wanting to spend more time with family and friends, or to be a kinder person. Something that feels attainable.

You could even focus on doing something where the end result might be invisible to you but which may benefit future generations, such as planting a tree. You won’t see the tree at its most mature and magnificent, but you could plant it for the next generation.

You might be interested to watch Olivia’s 15-minute TEDx talk about how to cope with anxiety.

High-functioning anxiety

If you appear as if you’re in control of your life on the outside, but inside you’re full of worry, you may be struggling with high-functioning anxiety. Individuals with this often lead successful lives – they may appear to have it all. They’re high achievers, driven to succeed. But the inside (below the waterline) may look something like this:

Anxiety iceberg

Do you recognise yourself in that diagram? On the outside (above the waterline), people see you as a high achiever, and that’s indeed what you are, but on the inside (below the waterline), you’re actually dealing with all kinds of anxieties.

“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.”
Jodi Picoult

What you can do

Here’s a process from the NLP point of view (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – one of the approaches I’m qualified in. This will help you shift your way of thinking from the problem to a solution.

  1. First, be clear about what you want
  2. How will you know when you’ve got there? What will it do for you? Visualise what it will look like, sound like and feel like when you’ve achieved it
  3. Ask yourself what’s stopping you from doing it? Keep asking yourself questions until you get to the root cause. It might be self-limiting beliefs, for example. You might want a work buddy or a coach to help you with this (you can contact me for support)
  4. Find someone who has done this well. What was in play? What can you learn from them?
  5. Then make a plan – and take action. Remember, even taking baby steps is better than being paralysed into inaction.  Who can help you? Look outside your immediate frame of reference, as you might find support in another setting

Remember why this goal is important to you. This will give you the motivation to get started and the persistence to stick with it.

Other techniques and activities that work are:

  • Mindfulness and meditation (including focusing on your breathing)
  • Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Hobbies and activities that you have to concentrate on
  • Writing a journal – sometimes writing out a problem reduces its power
  • Adopting healthy eating habits (and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, junk food etc.)
  • Have a regular sleep routine. If you wake in the night, worrying, tell yourself that now is not the time to think about this, now is the time to rest. (Keep pen and paper by the bed and make a note if need be, so the worries are captured and not whirling around in your head. Don’t use a phone or tablet for this, as the blue light from the screen will wake you up even more.) You can then deal with the issue in the daytime

“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important.”
Natalie Goldberg

What organisations can do

Mental health is becoming less stigmatised these days, and a lot of leaders create space for their people to have open conversations about how they are feeling. It’s also important to have a formal, macro-level approach as an organisation, because you can’t put all the burden on the leaders.

This links to my articles:

Further reading

If this topic is relevant to you, here are even more links you might find useful:

Susan Jeffers’ book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway might also be helpful to you.


Next month

In line with my advice about the importance of rest, relaxation and holidays, we’ll take a break for August and will be back in September with more leadership insights. I hope you enjoy the rest of the summer.

Cogs

Team Charters: Are they still worthwhile?

What’s your experience of Team Charters? Is it a document that’s rarely or never referred to? Or is it a useful guide to improve team spirit and work efficiency?

In today’s work environment, teams are often more fluid than before, maybe forming for a shorter time and with team members coming and going. Creating a Team Charter might therefore seem old-fashioned, overly bureaucratic and a waste of time. However, in my view, Team Charters are worthwhile because they create clarity so that people know what’s expected – that’s still important today.

When I meet teams who skip this step because of their more temporary nature (or because the Team Leader thinks it’s not necessary), team members tell me they are confused. They don’t want to ‘tread on people’s toes’, they don’t know what their accountability is, and they are frustrated because people work in silos and/or decisions aren’t made.

This article explores best practice around Team Charters, whether you’re a more recognisable, stable team or one that is more fluid – both have moving cogs that need to work together smoothly to create value.

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Attachment

The science of attachment and its effect on relationships

This month’s article is inspired by the book Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find – and keep – love.

This topic might seem as though it’s not strictly work-related because it deals with romantic relationships. However, as well as giving you insights that might be useful for your personal life, it also covers behaviours you might recognise from the work setting.

When you have someone you attach to, they become the anchor on which you can build your life. You can be vulnerable with them. Without attachment, you only have yourself to rely on – this might seem the safer option, but it may also mean you miss out having someone to lean on and share life with – the joy, the sadness and the journey.

This analogy could also be stretched somewhat, to apply at work – relying on colleagues helps you learn, feel good and create something better than if you went alone (as an old African proverb offers: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”).

When you understand the traits you see in yourself and your colleagues, you will have more compassion for yourself and others, and can adapt the way you work so that you, and they, feel more secure and can thrive.

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Quiet leadership

Quiet leadership

When thinking of classic ‘great leaders’, many people would define them as confident extraverts who bring a lot of energy into a room, articulate their ideas, and can rapidly change tack because they generate new ideas while they’re talking. However, many successful leaders are/were introverts, such as Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and Bill Gates.

Rather than just value this one-size-fits-all style of leadership, it’s important to appreciate diversity in style, so let’s explore the qualities of a quieter, more considered approach.

Note that the traits discussed in this article are not exclusive to introverts. Extraverts can harness these qualities too, so it’s useful for all of us to be aware of them.

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Signpost

Self-motivation and wellness for your people

Failing to focus on employee wellbeing can cost your business dearly:

  • Average 15% to 20% of total payroll is lost in voluntary turnover due to burnout
  • $20 million lost opportunity cost for every 10,000 struggling or suffering employees
  • $322 billion global loss of turnover and productivity due to employee burnout

Source: Gallup

It has been shown that how you engage employees has a powerful influence on their wellbeing.

When you make an emotional connection with them, you will get to know them and understand what motivates them. Then you can create the correct climate for them to thrive – one that’s linked to their values and purpose. That way, they can be themselves, minimise their stress levels, and are more likely to do their best work.

This builds on my recent articles Skills and mindset for the future world of work and How is your self-motivation and wellness?

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Happiness

How is your self-motivation and wellness?

As the pandemic becomes endemic, self-motivation and wellness has emerged as a key leadership trend for 2022 – for us as individuals, and as leaders. This topic is linked to last month’s article: Skills and mindset for the future world of work.

For this month, we focus on what you can do about your own self-motivation and wellness. Next month, we’ll revisit the topic through the lens of a leader.

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Skills and mindset for the future world of work

Skills and mindset for the future world of work

What skills and mindset will you and your people need for the future world of work?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to replace many basic cognitive skills, while the need for other skills will grow, such as those relating to technology, social and emotional intelligence, and higher cognitive abilities – this is what separates us from the robots.

McKinsey did a survey last year to explore this topic. They studied 18,000 people in 15 countries to help governments around the world identify what skills would ensure their citizens become employable, and remain that way.

This article covers what you can learn from their findings so you know what to focus on, both for you as an individual and as the leader of a team or organisation.

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Face your flaws

Face your flaws so you don’t fail

Imagine you’re at the start of your career and you make a big mistake in your first role. You will probably lose your job.

Now imagine you’re the CEO of a large organisation and you make a big mistake. Chances are, everyone loses their job.

When you’re a leader, your actions have high impact. There can be a lot at stake when things go wrong.

Having said that, we’re all human. We all have our own strengths and flaws. By raising our awareness and working on ourselves, we can make a choice about how we want to show up in the organisation, and optimise our positive impact.

This newsletter explores how flaws are made, three common flaws, and how to address them. It’s just one way of looking at this topic, and I hope it gives you food for thought.

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Aging well

Aging well

AgeWith advances in medicine and technology, we are typically living longer than we did 100 years ago. Even as recently as 1960, the average life expectancy in the UK was 71; today it is 81. That’s a lot of life to live and make the most of, and around half of those years may involve being in work.

When we reach our 50s and 60s, we might have made some choices about the work we do. We may be considering retirement, or planning for it. We still have a lot of energy, but also have wisdom and maturity. We may be more comfortable in our skin than we were in our 20s and 30s. Any children may have left home, and we may be more financially stable, giving us more freedom.

I have a lot of clients in this age group. Some are wondering if they want to ‘keep playing the game’, particularly if they are going through yet another round of reorganisation. Yet, those who can afford to give up work might not want to. They still want to use their brain, play a part in society and be part of social networks – work is one way of doing this (and our identity is often closely linked to our work).

“Age only matters if you are a cheese”

We can’t prevent aging, so how do we age well? This article looks at how to make the most of the age we are and the body we’re in.

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Procrastination

Addressing procrastination

Do you find yourself reluctant to get started on certain things? Do you regularly miss deadlines? Or work long hours because you waste too much time?

This month, we look at what procrastination is, analysing why we do it and what we can do about it. If procrastinating affects your productivity, it’s worth thinking about. But procrastination isn’t always bad, so we also explore the benefits.

Procrastination: the action of delaying or postponing something

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