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.”`



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.”

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.