Understanding and managing anxiety

I recently came across a BBC podcast on ways to stay calm, and an HBR article on a similar subject. For this month’s article, I’ve extracted the key points and added my perspective. Much of it focuses on the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism – this seems particularly useful at a time when anxiety levels may be high due to the ongoing pandemic and surrounding uncertainty.

The article covers what you can do if you’re feeling anxious yourself, as well as how you can support your team. The core message is that we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond.

As the Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard wrote in his book, Happiness: “Most of the time it is not outward events but our own mind and negative emotions that make us unable to maintain our inner stability and drag us down”.

Looking after yourself

Here are the key points:

1. Try to judge things objectively

Through my interactions with people both at work and socially, it’s clear we are all responding differently to the pandemic. Naturally, this depends on our own personal circumstances, but it’s also due to our personality. However, it’s up to us how we feel about any given event, situation or individual – and we can choose how to respond. By taking a step back and trying to view the situation objectively, we might feel calmer about what’s happening and from that place make a judgement.

“It’s not things that upset us. It’s our judgment about things.”
Epictetus (Greek philosopher)

This links to my article How to empty your busy mind.

2. Always look for the silver lining

When something happens to us that we can’t control, we should not only accept it, we should actually embrace it.

The Covid-19 lockdown means I can’t go out and see all the people I usually would. The silver lining is that a reduced social life gives me more time and space to think and “be”. I’ve maintained contact, thanks to video, but the pace has slowed down which has been rather relaxing.

I’ve also spent hours in the garden which I’ve found very therapeutic. In fact, I’ve learned more about gardening than I ever knew before. (That said, I’m not sure the garden would agree this is a good thing, as it’s been pruned to within an inch of its life!)

3. Use your previous experience to gain perspective

Knowing you can come out the other side does build your inner strength, resilience and confidence.

Remember other pain and hardships you’ve been through in your past, whether that was to do with relationships or health issues or losing your job. You’ve come out the other side so you know you can survive it, and even thrive. What did you learn about yourself that you can apply now?

Thomas Edison went through hardship, which gave him perspective. When his factory caught alight, he apparently said to his 24-year-old son: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”

4. Train yourself how to control your emotions

Be prepared for whatever situation may occur, because that will set you up to be successful or not. If it would help you deal with the situation, briefly allow yourself to wallow in fear and anxiety, to name it. Then imagine what is the worst that could happen… and plan what you would do if it did. What are your options?

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
Nelson Mandela

Here are some other ways to help you reduce heightened emotions:

Try to step outside your situation, detach a bit, and analyse why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Ask yourself ‘why’ five times to get to the root of the problem, then address that.

You might find a better perspective by imagining yourself as one step removed. Imagine a friend is expressing the emotions you feel. What advice would you give them?

An NLP technique is to picture the problem as a scene playing out on a cinema screen, with yourself as a member of the audience watching. If that is still too raw, then imagine yourself as the projectionist looking at the back of the head of the audience member who is watching the scene on the screen.

Talking it out with somebody can help. When you express your worries out loud, it can make them less scary than when they are all twirling around in your head. As a result, you might realise that the situation is not as bad as you think. (Much of my coaching work in the last three months has been helping people process and deal with their worries.)

Studies of Buddhist monks faced with a fight-or-flight situation show that they remain calm, no matter what. You may not think this is a good thing if it’s a life-or-death situation, but feeling calm allows them to make a calm judgement.

5. Ignore things that disturb or limit others

Don’t overly consume everything in the news and on social media. Follow the news enough to keep yourself informed, then switch it off. Give yourself the power to create your own ‘weather’ – don’t be overly affected by how others respond, unless it helps you feel better.

There’s more on this in my recent LinkedIn article Looking after yourself at this time.

6. Take things one step at a time

There is a saying: “You don’t eat an elephant all in one go, you eat it one bite at a time”.

With something like this which is so big, all you can do is focus on one thing at a time, or one period of time at a time. Think what you can do today, or this week.

There is a risk of over-analysing things. Life is a series of ups and downs. The pandemic won’t be this intense forever. It’s OK to live with the knowledge that “this too will pass”.

We all have good days and bad days, but all days last the same 24 hours. Sometimes, all you have to do is wait, and the next day will be different.

Find work and interests that boost your spirits. Think what you love to do… and make sure you do something like that every day.

Please email me if you’d like an activity that helps you work out how you typically spend your time, which things give you energy, and which things drain you (and what you can do about it).

7. Be thankful for what you have

Don’t compare yourself with others, because that creates a sense of haves and have-nots – it can only make you feel better when someone else feels worse.  In positive psychology this is known as social comparison, and has a negative correlation with wellbeing.

It can be very easy to fall into a state of “woe is me”, but that will only keep you wallowing in the anxiety and victim mindset.

Be grateful for whatever you have, whether that is a relationship or a garden or the sun is shining or you love your home or you enjoy spending time with your children or you like learning new things… (this is a bit like point 2 above).

8. Choose “alive time” over “dead time”

None of us asked to have a global pandemic. We wouldn’t choose to have our movement restricted. But we can choose to have “alive time”.

Use your 24 hours a day for something that’s good for you – it’s not just a chance to watch daytime TV, or disguise a 10am vodka as a cup of tea (I’ve seen those jokes too!), or eat so much that your clothes don’t fit. This is not an excuse to slob out.

Choose to come out of this stronger, with yourself and your relationships intact. Keep yourself fit and healthy – without too much pressure, recognising that we are in a unique situation with emotional ups and downs.

Think about who you could help.

9. Meditate on mortality

In stoic philosophy, death was a call to action.

“You can live life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor)

Seize the moment. Enjoy the moment. Don’t rush it.

If you have children at home, enjoy the time you have with them (even if they are driving you crazy). They are growing up every day, and this time won’t come again.

My firstborn has recently flown the nest, so I have a heightened awareness of how important it is to make the most of each stage you have with your children.

This links to my article about masks Being your authentic self

Looking after your team

If you’re a leader, here are some ideas about what you can do for your people who are feeling anxious.

Be honest about the situation, but also give them hope. By sharing facts, people are kept informed. This also helps them to trust you, because they know you’re not hiding information from them.

This Covid-19 situation is changing rapidly. So the only way to lead is step-by-step (see point 6 above). In the midst of this crisis, you can only plan for 2-4 weeks at a time. When things are more settled, you can look maybe 4-8 weeks further out, or even 8-12 weeks.

We can’t know how this will play out. Build and communicate your ever-evolving plan, so your team have clarity about how to deal with each stage. Set out the principles of how you’re going to respond, such as communication frequency.

This gives a sense of safety. It provides guardrails in what might seem an unsafe time.

It helps a lot when you create small routines for people. If something happens, and everything around you feels unstable, a routine can provide an anchor.

As well as giving them clarity and confidence, they need to know that you also have empathy:

  • A leader that has a clear plan but no empathy can look as though they don’t care
  • A leader that shows care but doesn’t have a plan means your people won’t know if they can trust you or put their faith in you

Listening to your people can be the greatest gift you can give. Don’t feel you have to fix all their problems. Sometimes “a good listening to” is all they need. If you know you’re not a great listener, accept that, and provide them with someone else they can talk to.

In summary, recognise this is a marathon not a sprint. This will help you to pace yourself. But it won’t go on forever. We will all be out the other side eventually.

Related articles

Further reading

Next month

How to re-boot your social skills and confidence.