Embrace Anxiety. Really.

In A Note from the CEO by Christien Louviere

A Note From the CEO

Embrace Anxiety. Really.

Many of us in the C-Suite know what anxiety feels like–no matter how much we may want to hide that knowledge from our employees and our peers. I know the general consensus is that top executives are a self-assured and confident group. The truth is, we are no less susceptible to fear and anxiety than the rest of the population. I remember years of feeling restless and distracted, my mind racing, with a heaviness in my head and an emptiness in my heart.  I felt completely dissociated. Anxiety kept me up at night because even though my body was exhausted, my mind had never been more alert, arduously sifting through each detail of my day. Trying to make a decision—any decision—was painfully difficult. Even a choice as simple as what color shoes to wear to work that day became a major difficulty that threw my whole day off.

Fortunately, I eventually learned how to break the control that anxiety had over me. Not by fighting it, though…by embracing it. I am a better person, a better writer, a better listener, a better speaker, and a better leader through learning how to embrace the power of my anxiety.

The Vicious Cycle

Every executive becomes exhausted by intense demands and our sometimes-brutal schedules. The constant buzz of email, tweets, voicemails, and texts make it difficult to escape for even a minute. When we become anxious and stressed we often end up self-medicating with caffeine and energy drinks—which then leads to needing a sleeping aid at night. Eating healthfully (or at all) falls to the wayside and tempers grow short.

The pressures of executive level leadership can be staggering. Perhaps because of the nature of our business we are even more at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety, such as hypervigilance, fatigue, sweating, and restlessness. We routinely must make decisions of paramount proportions—often under dubious conditions–which affect countless people, organizations, and industries. Anxiety also makes it harder to effectively make a decision. High-stake decisions will always involve a degree of uncertainty, and anxiety diminishes our capacity to follow the normal decision-making algorithm we usually follow automatically.

Now most instances of anxiety stem from particular circumstances, and the feelings of terror and emotional turmoil will leave when the situation does. But what happens when anxiety starts feeding on itself–when you begin to fear the feeling of fear more than its cause?

Being afraid or nervous is a common symptom of anxiety, and it has a funny way of tricking our minds into a paralyzing cycle. Say my anxiety is triggered by being fearful about presenting monthly metrics to a large group. I worry about that upcoming event, but then one worry quickly morphs into multiple worries. I worry I will trip on the way to the podium, that people will notice I am sweating, and that I will botch the presentation. This heightened anxiety can actually cause physical symptoms—heart palpitations, dry mouth, or tingling in my fingertips, to name a few. My brain interprets these physical and mental symptoms as catastrophic, and my thoughts turn from “I am afraid I am going to fail” to “I am going to fail”.

That is a vicious cycle.

So, what happens when top executives let anxiety take over?

Heavy is the head…

Leadership generally attracts a specific personality type—those who are driven, perfectionist, and/or want to do exceptionally well. There has been considerable research done recently looking at executive level anxiety and the influences it has on job performance. A study by University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business found that C-suite job anxiety ultimately influences strategic decision making and judgment. When a CEO experiences continued anxiety, they tend to focus on potential threats of a situation rather than seeing strategic opportunities for growth. Despite the potential for significant profit, anxious leaders in this study chose to avoid excessive risks.

That isn’t always a bad thing, but avoiding risk too much can itself be risky, as it limits growth as the company misses essential strategic opportunities.

There is no denying that in the past I have dealt with some high levels of anxiety. But I always held steadfast that anxiety would never define me or affect my performance—until I read this study and realized my decision process had sometimes been affected the same way. I knew then it was something I needed to get a handle on.

Ultimately I believe that having a certain level of anxiety keeps me on my toes and is a driver of my success. Anxiety provides us with an emotional charge we need to take action. And having too little or no anxiety is just plain unrealistic. But it was essential for me to keep my anxiety in check so it didn’t become panic–or cripple my ability to take calculated risks that would help my business grow.

Open Mind and Open Heart

It started with developing an open mind and strengthening my self-awareness. This is also one fundamental of becoming an authentic leader. Working towards becoming whole individuals means accessing all our emotions—the good and bad. If we can look at and embrace a full range of emotions, whether they are positive or negative, we position ourselves to lead vulnerably and powerfully.

We must admit to ourselves and others what we can and cannot control. We are not defined by our negative experiences in life, but they do contribute to the whole of who we are. Anxiety, then, is as much of a contributor to our lives as is joy. Willingness to experience the anxiety and allow it to make its contribution, without judging ourselves for feeling it, goes a long way to mediating its painful and fearful effects on us. Becoming emotionally honest with ourselves allows us to achieve this resilience around anxiety. (I suggest the book The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Dr. Todd B. Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener, as a great resource for exploring this path further.)

Another large part of embracing anxiety is developing empathy and being cognizant of what those around us may be thinking and feeling–and when they may be feeling anxiety themselves. When we share our struggles and listen to other people’s burdens in appropriate situations, an authentic sense of commonality develops. And when we develop authentic relationships, both our anxiety and the other person’s decrease, leading to deeper peace of mind and stronger work performance. On a larger scale, this could take the form of employee well-being programs which invest in the employee’s personal growth and development, assist them in embracing their own anxiety, and ultimately result in sustainable productivity.

Anxiety need not be disabling. Honest mindfulness, resilience and empathy can turn our anxiety into productive energy and calm focus. We must be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in the face of uncertainty, pride ourselves on knowing our strengths and shortcomings, and continually improve ourselves by allowing both the good and the bad to contribute to our situations. The more we do these things, the better we’ll sleep every night.