(By Steven Berglas)
“Acting in non-anxious ways can help you conclude “I’m capable of handling this.” For instance, you might confront your fears with a determined “game face” — holding your head high with a laser-focused gaze, or assuming a power pose. Once you learn to do this across a variety of situations, your emboldened behavior will not only lead to diminished anxiety but, in addition, yield myriad interpersonal rewards from colleagues who appreciate these manifestations of strength.“
No one in a position of responsibility wants to confess to “the jitters” or “sweaty palms.” Dislocate a shoulder and you can cry for sympathy all you want. But if you’re worrying incessantly about the quality of your work, letting on about it can feel risky — and generate even more anxiety.
In my experience with executives, nothing about anxiety is as disruptive as its propensity to pop up when least expected, or in contexts where anything but anxiety seems appropriate: after a positive outcome like a promotion, a plum committee assignment, or stellar quarterly results. Unfortunately, those who don’t know how painful these bouts of anxiety are usually trivialize them: Women suffering anxiety after success were, until recently, diagnosed with a “fear of success.” When men suffered these symptoms it was called “happiness anxiety.” Actually, it’s neither.
People forget that good news is often a double-edged sword, stroking egos and enhancing status (not to mention financial rewards) with one edge, while imposing performance demands and social isolation with the other. I’ve seen newly promoted managers declare they will stop climbing the career ladder rather than risk falling victim to The Peter Principle – their pay-packages be damned.
Over 2,000 years ago, a brilliant Greek philosopher identified the cause of most anxieties and mood disorders: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.” The approach of this early “therapist” — the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus — today might be classified as “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” (CBT), a highly effective treatment for pit-in-the-stomach malaise and comparable symptoms. Knowing, for example, that a recent promotion has you fretting about every piece of work you do, a therapist certified in CBT can help you “think straight” about performance expectations and rid yourself of anxiety.
Another approach is adaptive therapy, where behaving in adaptive ways converts negative thoughts into positive ones. Interventions of this sort are as grounded in empirical science as CBT is: The so-called James-Lange theory of emotion, developed independently by two 19th century psychologists, William James and Carl Lange, demonstrates that emotional reactions are responses to a behavioral experience, not the cause of them. The classic example: “I know I fear the bear because I’m running away from it.” Or, to take a work example that stems from good news: “I know I’m afraid of my new boss because ever since I got this promotion, I always go to lunch from 1:30PM-2:00PM when he does his daily walk around the office, so that I don’t have to deal with his drop-in.”
Acting in non-anxious ways can help you conclude “I’m capable of handling this.” For instance, you might confront your fears with a determined “game face” — holding your head high with a laser-focused gaze, or assuming a power pose. Once you learn to do this across a variety of situations, your emboldened behavior will not only lead to diminished anxiety but, in addition, yield myriad interpersonal rewards from colleagues who appreciate these manifestations of strength.
Forcing yourself to live through — in your imagination — the worst possible consequences of your fears is another tactic for reducing anxiety born of irrational fears. Take that new boss you hide from by planning your lunches with NASA-like precision. You’re avoiding a feared encounter with imagined negative consequences. But avoidance doesn’t improve your ego strength or on-the-job competence.
A more adaptive approach would be to address your anxiety as follows:
- Grab a pad and provide as many answers as possible to the question, “What would happen if my new boss drops into my office?”
- Don’t stop “answering” until you have 5 possible consequences.
- For each outcome you’ve listed, do the “yes, but” test to see if it’s real or a fantasy. For example, you tell yourself, “Well, he could tell me my new team has been complaining about our revised budget goals, and he’s really disappointed in me…” Using a “yes, but” counter-argument you would be forced to say, “Yes, he could be disappointed, but even if he is, isn’t it better to know it now than to find out later?”
If you repeat this over and over – listing fears and “yes, butting” them out of your life— you might never look forward to a drop-in from the boss, but you’ll be able to eat with colleagues and not get ill in anticipation of an unwanted visit.
Another self-help technique you can use to rid yourself of “crazy” anxiety is to put yourself back in control with the, “Who’s to blame?” test. It works like this:
You know you act in a manner that others call “paranoid”— you worry that important people dislike you or are out to get you. Perhaps you reached out to said boss about said budget revisions and he hasn’t replied to your calls and emails. Now you’ve got the “no news is bad news” jitters big time. When you are feeling anxious about an ambiguous situation, go through this checklist that I call S.T.O.P.:
S. Who do you know who feels the same as you do? Most of us would be anxious in this situation. Realizing that can help allay your concerns. Conversely, you might realize that you’re worrying about something not a lot of people would fret over, which can also help you gain perspective.
T. Are you torturing yourself over this issue? Ask yourself if the amount of energy you’re expending worrying over the issue is proportionate to the seriousness of the issue itself. If you’re not sure, ask a trusted friend for a reality check.
O. Is this anxiety ongoing? Is there a pattern here? Do you always freak out when you don’t get immediate feedback? If so, you bring anxiety to your interactions with the person you want to hear from. He is not doing a thing to upset you.
P. Do you pester people to allay your fears? If so, this is a likely reason why they do not communicate with you in ways you want them to (i.e. quickly).
If you reach letter “P” in this analysis, you’ll likely be in a position to start asking yourself, “Why am I doing this to me?” which will position you to stop needless worry about this issue. To address others, just extrapolate from this model to fit the instigator and content (e.g. “Co-workers think I’m stupid”) of your anxiety.
The beauty of these techniques — essentially mechanisms for helping you realize that you are catastrophizing about events— is that they work infinitely better than “self-talk” in which you tell yourself you are strong and can cope. The reason why is that such self-assurance often feels disingenuous. Analyzing realistic worst-case scenarios and assessing the level and source of your anxiety is a logic-driven method for concluding, “I’m making myself go mad!”
Mark Twain once observed, “I’ve had thousands of problems in my life, most of which never actually happened.” Take an active approach to relieving anxiety, and you’ll stop being haunted by problems that will likely never come to pass.