Back in college, I had my first panic attack. I vividly remember it. My heart was racing and hurting, and I was sure that I was having a heart attack so my friends took me to the emergency room. They ran a ton of tests to make sure I wasn’t actually having a heart attack, and I was, in fact, not. I was having a classic panic attack. I had been burying my anxiety, and whether I liked it or not, anxiety was going to make sure I paid proper attention to it. Unfortunately, it did so in the emergency room.
Anxiety has been a part of my family history. Generations of my family have struggled with it, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since I was a teenager.
Until recently, I’ve hated my anxiety. Deeply, deeply hated it. After everything I’ve worked on, I couldn’t believe that it was still such a large part of my life as an adult. Meaning, I’ve gone to counseling and coaching for a lot of the past 16 years. I’ve worked out. I’ve meditated. I’ve prayed. I’ve surrounded myself with an amazing community. I’ve had good rhythms. I believed that if I did all of these things, my anxiety should go away.
But, it never did. It kept rearing its (“ugly”) head. Still, all I ever wanted it to do go was just go away.
Changing the Tapes
Fortunately, something has shifted for me around my anxiety thanks to a few friends who pushed me to think about it differently. It has helped me reframe something that I always thought was bad into something that is now a (positive) part of my personal identity. Here’s how my thinking on anxiety has changed over the past few months to drastically help me run my companies and be much more present at home.
Realizing Anxiety Has Been Necessary for Human Survival
There is a reason we all have anxiety. If we didn’t, we would have been eaten by a bear or a tiger thousands of years ago. Anxiety has kept us alive from physical threats. Even as we’ve transitioned into work and lives where we aren’t about to be attacked by an animal, that anxiety is still keeping us alive.
When I think about this, it puts me at peace. We are all born with anxiety. To some extent, we all have it. Part of what it means to be human is to have anxiety.
Realizing That Anxiety Can Drastically Help Me Be Better at My Job
If there’s something that has been most helpful for me in the past few months, it’s realizing that anxiety cannot only keep me alive (see above), but it can actually help me do my job better. Here’s an example.
For the longest time, hearing something that could be a threat to our business would put me into a tailspin. There may be someone who is starting something similar, and my brain would go into all of the reasons why we’re going to go out of business because of a supposed threat. Yet, we have a growing, solid company that’s been around for over eight years. The belief wasn’t or isn’t real. Even so, my anxiety was alerting me to something.
Anxiety is my body telling me that something is happening that I need to pay attention to. For instance, in the example above, my body was letting me know that there’s an existing threat. It may not be a big one (or even one at all), but my body was informing me that there’s something to pay attention to. Without that anxiety, I would have never given that threat the time of day.
Or, if I’m going into a tough conversation with a colleague, I will probably have anxiety. Why? Because my body is getting me ready for the fact that this conversation is going to be tough and to prepare for it. Without it alerting me, I may not be as prepared for the meeting as I should be. The anxiety is telling me that this conversation will probably be hard and that I should prepare for it appropriately. Without anxiety, I may be caught flat-footed in the conversation.
Or just this past weekend, I experienced a lot of anxiety around a presentation for an angel investor training I’m hosting in a few days. There was a reason for that. My anxiety alerted me to the fact that I was behind schedule and I need to get to work on it. My body is telling me to get my act in gear. Without the anxiety, I wouldn’t have been reminded that I need to work on the presentation ASAP in order to be ready for Wednesday.
Realizing That Anxiety Has To Be Harnessed To Be Effective, Especially at Work
Finally, I’ve always believed that it was necessary to devote all of my attention to the anxiety I was experiencing—to give it all the attention it wants. I believed I needed to obsess over what might be going on because, once I do that, my anxiety will magically go away. I just need to “figure it out.” That’s been the basis of me going to coaching and counseling—the belief that those sessions will take my anxiety away.
Yet, as I’ve just mentioned, anxiety can be very good and very helpful. It can motivate me. It can alert me to danger. But, very importantly, I’ve also realized that I can’t let it have all of my mind, all the time. If that happens, I will actually lose energy. The anxiety will stop being my friend and become a foe. It truly has to be harnessed to be effective. So I’ve started to do a few things to help me keep my anxiety harnessed. Here’s what I’m doing.
- Listen to my anxiety. Anxiety is always telling me something. It may be a real danger or something we’re making up. Either way, anxiety is alerting me to some danger. It’s then up to me to listen to what the anxiety is telling me.
- Working through the anxiety on my terms. Instead of me believing that I have to listen to every thought, every time it comes up, I’m keeping an anxiety journal. When a thought comes in my head (especially one that emerges a few times over a day or week) I write it down. Then, later on, when I have the time and energy, I’m processing the anxiety. I’m asking myself what’s really going on there. Is it a real threat or just one I’m making up? If it is a real threat, I’m giving myself the time (usually early on a Saturday or Sunday morning) to figure out what I’m going to do to take care of it.
- Working on my mind. Unless I take the time to work on my mind, my anxiety will take over. This means meditating, praying, getting at least seven hours of sleep, working out and drinking (a lot) of water. If I’m not doing these five things, my anxious thoughts tend to take over. And, I’m trying to do these things not so the anxiety goes away, but so that I can actually hear my anxious thoughts and then say to myself, “This is really important to pay attention to, but I’m going to do this later.” Those practices allow me to appropriately hear my anxiety and tell it that I want to explore it later at a time that works for me.
I hope you find this encouraging and helpful. From personal experience, I can tell you that anxiety can be your friend and incredibly useful. I hope you do as well.