It’s not as if anxiety is a new phenomenon in our environment. Well before the COVID crisis, rates of diagnosis for clinical anxiety were on the rise. But with the arrival of a life-threatening pandemic, we can all be forgiven for feeling emotions ranging from edgy to straight-up panic.
Unfortunately, managing anxiety has become an area of expertise of mine. This is not an area of focus anyone chooses. For me, it was a matter of self-preservation. It’s likely I was hard-wired from birth to have a “special relationship” with anxiety. But my career choice, working in broadcast news for nearly 20 years, sealed the deal. Anxiety has been my lifelong companion.
After decades of managing anxiety, I can say I have come to peace with it. Not that I am ‘cured’, but it no longer plays a leading role in my life. Now, as an executive coach, what I have learned about managing anxiety has become valuable as I work with leaders who, perhaps up till now, have enjoyed a more casual relationship with the emotion.
Getting Smart about the Brain
There are many reasons to be hopeful. First, learning the basics of brain function enables us to make conscious decisions about how we use our brain, and this in turn, allows us to actually change how we use our brains. (For a “handy” and simple explanation of how the brain works, see Dr. Dan Seigel of the University of California Medical Center in action here.)
Just as cardio exercises strengthen the heart, Siegel and his colleagues in the field of neurobiology have learned there are things we can do to strengthen and re-wire the neuro pathways of the brain. In his book, “Mindsight,” Siegel shares case studies and approaches he uses with his patients to help them better “manage” their brains.
These approaches rely on one of the most basic principles in neuroscience: neurons that fire together, wire together. In other words, it is possible to literally re-wire our brains – to create new circuitry by thinking new thoughts and practicing new habits. Overtime these circuits are reinforced, become stronger through frequent use, and eventually grow into neural superhighways.
So what are the practical steps you can take to begin to master anxiety?
1. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to. If your anxiety is high, the odds are good that you have a noisy roommate taking up space inside your head. These roommates chatter away with an incessant dialog reminding us of all the “reasons” we “should” be anxious. Take note of that voice. Recognize that it’s likely there, just trying to keep you safe and secure.
2. Notice that anxiety is almost always future focused. If you peel it all the way to the core, you’re likely to find your anxiety ruminating on how you will manage some challenge in the future.
3. Stay in the present. Here and now, chances are good that you’re safe and secure. In this present moment is where we can take action to build resilience and a sense of equanimity. In fact, now is the only time we can take action.
4. Exercise. It burns stress hormones and improves your mood.
5. Reach out to someone with whom you have an uncomplicated supportive relationship. Invest in that connection.
6. Pursue things that you enjoy for the novelty or simply because it’s beautiful. Enjoy nature, a stroll through an art gallery, a scented candle. I love to knit; I enjoy the feel of beautiful yarn in my hands and the joy of creating gifts for friends.
7. Perhaps most importantly, develop mindfulness practice. Research indicates that just a few minutes a day can make a difference in your ability to build resilience and neuroplasticity.
Ghandi certainly wasn’t a neuro-scientist – but he was on to something when he observed:
Your beliefs become your thoughts.
Your thoughts become your words.
Your words become your actions.
Your actions become your habits.
Your habits become your destiny.
Important: Anxiety and depression are tough customers. If you have been wrestling with these emotions unsuccessfully for any period of time, you should talk to your health care provider. There are plenty of root causes that yield to good treatment. If this has been a persistent issue for you, I urge you to see a professional. Therapy and medication play a central part in the journey for many of us with acute anxiety. I highly recommend the application of both, along with massive amounts of patience and determination. It takes time.
Loretta Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Wheelhouse Group. She is an ICF Certified Executive and Team Coach (PCC) and an accomplished consulting professional with more than 12 years of private and public sector experience. Loretta comes to consulting after nearly two decades in network broadcasting. As an award-winning, Washington-based, National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, Loretta (aka Lauren Rogers) had the opportunity to observe leaders in every sphere of influence – political, government, corporate, activist – and learn from their strategy successes and failures. She is married, the mother to two fabulous young men (just ask!), and enjoys long walks, jet skis, good books, and knitting.