January 5, 2020
by: Sabina Nawaz
Zulfi, a coaching client of mine, is the envy of many of his peers. As the general manager of a large, successful business, his work is one of the CEO’s core priorities. He does good work and is well-loved by his team.
But Zulfi has a secret. He suffers from anxiety. It keeps him up at night, impacts his health, and takes a lot of time and energy to manage. When people praise Zulfi’s poise during a major customer presentation, they’re unaware that he survived the meeting by taking anti-anxiety medication. Zulfi handles two jobs each day: the one outlined in his job description and the other managing his anxiety.
It’s normal to occasionally experience anxiety, such as when we’re faced with a high-stakes meeting, a stressed-out boss, or a conflict with a colleague. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults are suffering from an anxiety disorder, and 31% will deal with a disorder at least once in their lifetime.
Mental health experts postulate that, when anxious, we tend to get trapped in false or limited ways of thinking. These thought patterns create a debilitating negative spiral that can take over our lives by convincing us of impending doom and further exacerbating our sense of helplessness. Anxiety Canada, a website devoted to supporting people who suffer from anxiety, lists a number of these traps and thought patterns. Here are the ones my clients, usually senior executives, most commonly experience and the kinds of things they say when in the grip of a specific trap:
- Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst possible outcome. “I will get fired if the presentation has any glitches.”
- Mind reading: Imagining what others are thinking. “I know he doesn’t like working with me because he thinks I’m dumb.”
- Fortune telling: Imagining what the future holds, but without data. “They will all hate me in the new group because I’m the only one who isn’t a physicist.”
- Black-and-white thinking: Considering only two possible outcomes. “I’ll either hit a home run or get fired.”
- Overgeneralizing: Painting all situations with a generalized outcome. “I presented to the CEO last year, and it didn’t go well. I never get things right or always fail when it comes to executive audiences.”
If one or more of these thinking traps has a hold on you, try these strategies I’ve used with my coaching clients to overcome them. While I’m not a psychologist or a medical professional, I do have experience helping my clients adjust their behaviors, change the way they think, and increase their effectiveness at work. These suggestions do not replace the need to consult mental health professionals for possible diagnosis and treatment for anxiety, but they can help you break your negative thought patterns, gain control over your anxiety, and allow you to listen to the chatter that really matters in your daily work.
Pause the pattern. Anxiety is often preceded by physical symptoms. Learn to recognize your physical cues of an impending attack: a churning stomach, sweaty palms, or flaring nostrils. These reactions are part of an amygdala hijack, causing your body to react with a fight-or-flight response instead of operating from your thinking brain. When you notice these reactions, consciously change your activities. Engage the thinking part of your brain, for instance, by doing math. But not something as simple as 2+2; try something that will challenge you enough to divert your brain away from your stressor.
Name the trap. Give your pattern a name, whether it is one of the traps listed above or something you come up with yourself. Naming converts the vague threat to something concrete. You regain power by realizing you’ve encountered it before — and survived. You can fine-tune your mitigation strategy based on the specific trap that’s ensnared you. Zulfi, for instance, had a better sense of the steps to take once he’d named his patterns and could distinguish between catastrophizing, mind reading, and fortune telling.
Separate FUD from fact. Create a two-column list. On one side list all your fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or FUD. The second column is for verified facts. Being able to compare the two can quell your fears and bring you back to reality.
For example, when Zulfi indulged in a mix of fortune telling and catastrophizing, he told himself, “Our key strategy is going to fail, and we’ll soon be out of business because our competitor moves faster, and our subsidiaries are located in places of political turmoil.” Entries in his FUD column included: Our competitor will out-innovate us and be faster to market; geopolitical events will spin out of control; we’ll have a great recession; and our best employees will burn out. Entries in his facts column included: We’ve beat the competition to market the last three times; only one of our 16 subsidiaries is in a politically unstable situation; economic indices are stable; and employee attrition is at an all-time low. Seeing the facts next to his fears helped Zulfi tone down his concerns. If you find your FUD column to be much longer than the facts, get others involved. Reach out to someone you trust, and ask them for their point of view. They may also be able to point to some realistic facts to offset your anxieties.
Tell more stories. We make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and tell ourselves stories all the time. Storytelling helps us get through life more efficiently, but it can also be limiting. When we’re anxious, we tend not only to believe our own stories, we believe the most extreme and negative forms of them.
Instead of curbing this reflexive habit, indulge it. Compose three separate stories and ensure they’re very different from each other. For example, when a client’s manager asked him to increase his technical depth, the initial assumption he made — in other words, the story he made up and told himself — was that his manager was dissatisfied with his performance. When I pushed him further, he developed two companion stories: “My manager wants me to showcase my technical depth further to have an even bigger impact in the group,” and “My manager wants my skills to be more easily transferrable, so as I become more senior, I have more places in the company where I can move for my next role.” Expanding the stories you tell yourself about a specific situation shows you there are multiple possibilities, many of them more positive than your initial hypothesis.
Walk your talk. Ask yourself what you’d advise others to do. When my clients are anxious, I ask them what counsel they would give a friend or team member in a similar situation. People who felt clueless a moment before are immediately able to provide sound guidance. If you find yourself saying, “I feel stuck,” “I don’t know what to do,” or “There’s no way out,” ask yourself, “If a colleague came to me with my predicament, what would I tell them?” This pause allows you to become more objective and loosen the thinking trap that has you in its hold.
While all of these strategies can help in the moment when you’re panicked, plans are hard to remember, much less execute. Write these tactics down and take them to your high-risk meetings. When you notice that familiar change in your heart rate or dryness in your throat, glance at your note and try one of these strategies to calm yourself.
After 10 months following these strategies, Zulfi started to notice changes. His anxiety attacks were less frequent, his self-talk changed from self-criticism to self-compassion, and he had more energy to focus on his day job.
It’s human to experience fear, self-doubt, and confusion. In the right dose these feelings can be helpful — they keep us vigilant, engaged, and productive. But when anxieties overburden our brains and undermine performance, it’s time to consciously choose the strategies that put us in charge of our internal dialogue and tune in to the chatter that matters.