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Anyone (not) Feeling Stressed? Overwhelmed? Anxious?

The Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting changes in our lives are stressing most of us. Whether you call it overwhelm, stress, nervousness, tension or any other such term doesn’t matter. It is a manifestation of some level of anxiety. 

Here are quotes from coaching calls with real clients from just the last couple days:

“I DON’T LIKE THE PERSON I’M BEING! One of my trusted co-workers told me that no one wants to talk to me because I snap at everyone….and I didn’t have a clue I was doing that!!” 

“I’m not cut out to be a stay at home Mom, and work full time, and I don’t know how to reinvent the way we deliver services all at the same time. I feel like I’m failing on all fronts.”

“Everyone is coming to me with requests…demands and everything needs to be done RIGHT NOW! Then when I do what they ask, they get mad at me because there are unanticipated consequences…I feel like I can’t do anything right!”

“I feel so isolated, disconnected from my team. Like I don’t have control over any aspect of my life right now.”

“I don’t know how to help my people deal with outside voices that are hateful, negative, and only looking for what is wrong…”

I have a lot of experience with anxiety. Although I was not aware of it early in my life, it was nonetheless ever present. It is something I have been consciously learning to manage for about 30 years now. Over those years, I have read an untold number of books, attended numerous workshops, employed 6 psychologists, one psychiatrist, and 4 professional coaches. That has informed my coaching practice with real world experience which I share with clients regularly. 

One of the first things I learned is that if we are to deal effectively with anxiety, first we must understand it. One of my psychologists told me that “anxiety is a generalized fear.” It’s like our brain fills up with fear, and like water in a bucket, it gets so full that it overflows. Different people react to the overflow in different ways, none of which are fun for them or for those they live and work with: Some get impatient, angry and irritable; some withdraw and become passive or passively aggressive; some talk non-stop, others isolate themselves; and yet others become hyperactively energetic and try to fix everything on all fronts at once (don’t get in my way when I get like that!). 

Here are five broad strategies and methods I have found useful:

  1. Accept anxiety as a necessary ally.

  2. Identify the fear.

  3. Dissipate the fear.

  4. Manage your reactions.

  5. Change the root cause.

Let’s examine each strategy and some of the tactics or methods to execute on each.

Accept anxiety as a necessary ally

My friend Bob Flewelling says, “Anxiety is your friend.” It is the mechanism that helps us muster courage and a plan of attack for any big challenge. Even after 28 years of doing this, I get anxious before every workshop I lead. That anxiety leads me to think through all the scenarios that might unfold and develop a plan to respond… by the time the workshop begins, I have thought through my approach and am fully prepared. In fact, one time recently I didn’t get anxious and walked into the workshop unprepared and flatfooted. As soon as I realized it, anxiety kicked in, and I stared planning and pulled it from the jaws of failure. In our culture, we see anxiety as a bad thing. So, we end up getting anxious about being anxious and it spirals out of control. If we can just accept that we are anxious, embrace it and look for the lessons that derive from it, we can keep it from overflowing our bucket. As Melissa Gilbert says in her book “Big Magic” invite your friend anxiety along in your car ride, just put the anxiety in the back seat and don’t let him drive!

There are no quick fixes so be sure to extend a lot of grace to yourself during these challenging times.

“Have patience with all things, but first of all, with yourself.” ~ St. Francis de Sales

Identify the fear

When my bucket is overflowing, it is really useful to put my conscious brain to work to answer the question “Just what am I afraid of?” That is usually more easily done by talking it out with my wife or someone else I trust. Like right now (during the corona virus pandemic), I am afraid that we will not get any new clients for the next year because no one will meet in person. The real fear that underlies that is that I won’t be able to make a living, and neither will my business partner Tom; then he will quit, and I will never make a living again… as soon as I get that out in the light of day, I realize that it is a silly premise. We are already using video conferencing in place of face to face meetings and have several prospective clients coming to us to help them through this crisis. Just identifying the fear allows me to dismiss it as irrational and unfounded. And most of the fears we deal with are exactly that… irrational and unfounded.

Dissipate the fear

Fear produces chemical and hormonal reactions in us and therefore has a physical aspect to it. If we can dissipate or neutralize those physical reactions, our emotional state changes. We feel better. Here are some of the methods I have found useful:

  • Breathe. When we get anxious, we frequently stop breathing. This robs our brain of the ability to cleanse itself, and of the oxygen it needs to fuel conscious thought. So, our unconscious emotions become even more dominant. Conscious deep breathing is extremely effective. Try it now. Breathe in as deeply as you can for a count of 4. Then breathe out to the count of 8, emptying your lungs as completely as possible. Then breathe in again. Repeat these 5 or 6 times and pay attention to how you feel. This is a simple and very effective practice that can be done at home, at work, before or during a meeting… anytime you are feeling anxious.

  • Aerobic exercise. When I get stressed, I get on my bicycle and ride for a minimum of an hour as fast as I can. Some people run, some walk. Do whatever your physical fitness level will allow. Aerobic exercise is a wonderful forced breathing protocol and it releases emotion cleansing hormones that leave you with a feeling of well-being, even euphoria. And it allows your unconscious mind to go to work on whatever problem is stressing you. Many times, I return from a ride with an idea that directly addresses whatever problem I am wrestling with.

  • A calming practice. Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, or a phone app like Calm can be used to intentionally quiet the fear producing voice in your head. The objective is to stay in the present moment; to stop your mind from traveling to the future, creating disaster scenarios, or to the past to exaggerate and beat yourself up about some mistake you think you made.

  • Laugh. Watch a funny movie, listen to something funny, tell a joke. Laughter is cleansing in and of itself.

  • Play. Most of us adults suck at playing. Do something you think is fun. I rollerblade and play with my grandkids. Some people do puzzles, or paint, or knit, or play a sport, or build something. Whatever you find fun, or used to find fun, do it. 

  • Eat & Sleep. We all know the benefits of healthy eating & sleeping, and it’s especially important to give our bodies what they need during stressful times.

Manage your reactions

The unconscious, emotional mind reacts in hundredths of a second. Faster than we can even be aware of. That is extremely useful if someone or some animal is physically attacking us. It allows us to react defensively without thinking and is a great survival mechanism. However, this same mechanism gets triggered when someone criticizes or disagrees with us. In which case, our reaction can be totally inappropriate. In those situations, try one of these:

  • Count to 10 before responding. The unconscious mind reacts with emotions in hundredths of a second. The conscious mind takes from 5 to 10 seconds to form a thoughtful response. Bite your lip, cover your mouth, anything to give yourself up to 10 seconds to think through your response.

  • Buy yourself some time. In a meeting, I might say; “I need a few seconds to think about what you just said.” Or to one of my clients I may say, “I’m having a reaction to what you just said, and I want to think through my response.” I find that people appreciate it and are very willing to wait for me to think.

  • Take a deep breath. You get the benefit of breathing, plus it takes time. Inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds.

Change the root cause

Our deepest fears get triggered when we are under extreme stress. This is where my use of psychologists, coaches, reading and self-help workshops have proven useful. You may or may not agree with this, but I assert that we are all afraid on some level that we “are not good enough.” Some are afraid they are not likeable, some that they are incompetent, some that they are dumb, some that they are uncaring…all are manifestations of “I’m not good enough.”  One version of this phenomenon has been given the name “The Imposter Syndrome”. First coined in 1978 it refers to the feeling that a person may be succeeding but is worried that they will be found out…that they are not really competent. It is so prevalent that one study found that it effects 85% of all in the workforce.

That voice in our head is constantly criticizing us in some fashion. It says terrible things to us, and we believe it like it is the arbiter of reality! Think about it; if someone you work with said the things to you that your voice (you) says, you would not put up with it. You’d fight, walk away, maybe even end your relationship. Getting in control of that voice is critical.   I do so by picturing old cartoons where there was an angel on one shoulder of the character and a devil on the other shoulder. The angel would say “oh, you’re great, you can do it” and the devil would then chime in with “go ahead sucker, you’ll screw it up.” When I notice that I am undermining myself, I literally think of the devil on my shoulder and say to him “ thank you for sharing now shut up! Sometimes I even slap him…actually slap my shoulder. It allows me to make a joke about it and reminds me that it is not real.

When anxiety gets completely out of control, it can cripple us, cause us to freeze and guarantee failure. I wrote myself a reminder on the blackboard in my office years ago that says: “don’t let your friend, anxiety, turn to pessimism.” It reminds me that I tend to do that. 

My friend Al Killeen gave me a great list of actions to follow when this occurs. He calls it A Prescription for Dread:

  • God; Give your fear over to a higher power.

  • Gratitude; Make a list of what you are grateful for daily.

  • Get going; Do something, yard work, clean, anything to get moving.

  • Projects; Design, then execute a project to address what you are afraid of.

  • Patience; Remind yourself that it will take time.

Learning to manage anxiety is a necessary step in our personal development and one that effective executives work on consciously and continually. If you don’t, your progress in your career will be thwarted. 

Oh, and by the way, if you are looking for a funny movie to make you laugh try Mel Brooks classic “High Anxiety” (for you youngsters, that is a real movie)!


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