By Professor Lynda Holt
If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, you’ll know just how debilitating and all-consuming it can feel. Yet it is your body’s natural response to fear, threat, and the unknown.
It is designed to trigger your fight/flight response, physiologically preparing you for what you might be about to face. You might feel your heart pounding, your palms sweating, or your stomach churning – all a normal response to an adrenaline surge.
Physiologically, that response is designed to be transient, you respond to the threat, and when the threat has passed your neurochemistry returns to ‘rest and restore’ mode.
Think about it like this, an antelope is grazing on the plain, out of the corner of their eye they see a lion approaching, the antelope literally runs for their life. While running the antelope notices the lion has dropped back, and seems interested in something else, as soon as they are at a safe distance the antelope goes back to grazing on the plain.
That is what we are designed to do too, except we face a number of challenges that make us susceptible to more prolonged anxiety. Very simply put, the human brain has three levels of function, the basal ganglia, responsible for most of your autonomic functioning like breathing, required for survival, the limbic brain, responsible for emotion, memory, and perception and the neo-cortex or logical brain.
These work in a hierarchy, the functions that keep us alive both work faster and get prioritised. So much as you might like to think you are a logical person, the chances are your limbic brain – or emotional responses, are responsible for most of the decisions you make, especially when under pressure.
Our big brains create feedback loops, so we constantly analyse, replay, and run scenarios for things, even ones that haven’t happened yet. This, together with persistent stimulation from our busy, always-on, lifestyles, prevents us from being like the antelope and going back to grazing once the threat subsides.
Unchecked it creates a state of mild anxiety because you never return to your rest and restore baseline. The pace, and sometimes the culture, of our work environments can compound this, turning something designed to help you stay safe under threat into something that feels like it threatens your very being on a daily basis.
Of course, anxiety takes many forms, most start when your threat regulation system is persistently triggered, giving you excess adrenaline and cortisol, which draws your processing resources away from your logical function.
While the physiology may be similar for each of us, the experience can be wildly different. You survive by learning how to stay connected with who you are and by having some ‘go-to’ strategies to help you when you need them.
Here are a few ways to manage anxiety at work:
Many leaders are happy to acknowledge anxiety impacts the workplace, but most are far less likely to say that they are the ones feeling anxious. Awareness is the starting point for any healing, make it ok to talk about mental health in your team. This might start with conversations about acceptance and reducing the stigma at first, it may take a while for people to open up about how they feel.
Mental toughness is over-rated, treating busyness like a badge of honour is costing people both their mental and physical health. Consider what you can do to ensure you, and your people, reduce the ‘always on’ perception. You might consider how much digital exposure and access is expected out of hours, as well as deadlines and workloads, and remember in the longer term anxiety is bad for productivity as well as well-being.
Pay attention to how you feel, what you are doing, and how you treat yourself, both physically and psychologically. We can be pretty brutal with our self-talk, or feedback loops, often without us even noticing what we are saying. When you can learn to focus on what you can control, even if that is your self-talk, your attitude, and how you show up, a sense of control will start to calm your nervous system. Sometimes staying connected is about rituals and habits you create to help you in the moment – anything from mantra, to smell, to sound, whatever makes you feel like you or grounds you.
Finally, if you find yourself overtaken by sudden anxiety, if you feel worried, afraid, or if you can’t switch off your thinking, you may want to think about your physiology. Most of what you are feeling is caused by a surge of neurochemicals designed to help you run away from sabretooth tigers.
One of the best strategies for reducing your anxiety is to burn up some of those chemicals, you might choose to do a few laps round the work carpark, but you probably don’t need to go that far, any movement will help recalibrate your nervous system, so a walk to the loo, or the coffee machine – for a decaf of course.
Take a breath is a long way from rhetoric, it is physical movement, that calms your nervous system, slow deep breaths absolutely reduce anxiety.
You can absolutely lead well and experience anxiety, and while this can make you feel very vulnerable, remember you also get to choose what you share and who with.
Start small, where you feel safe.
About Professor Lynda Holt MA, RGN, DipHE, CPBP, FinstLM, FRSA
CEO, Health Service 360
Lynda is a prominent leadership voice, author and change activist in the healthcare sector. She established Health Service 360, an award-winning development consultancy, back in 2001 and spends her time helping leaders and health professionals to lead courageously, make tangible change, value themselves, and empower their people.
She believes it is each of us, not big organisations, religions, or governments, that change the world, – little action by little action, and as a Professor of Social Leadership at the University of Salford, Lynda helps to equip people with the skills and mindset needed to act and create social change.
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