On Anxiety

Let’s talk about anxiety. Specifically, let’s talk about the love-hate relationship I have with mine.

When I was in college, I thought of my anxiety as a superpower. I saw it as a motivator, an energy source, even an accountability partner.

I worked six jobs at one time, wrote two theses, and ran three student organizations at the simultaneously. For the most part, I didn’t see a dip in the quality of anything I delivered no matter how much I added. I met deadlines, landed major opportunities, maintained important relationships while strapped for time, and generally just kept on top of my game because my anxiety loomed in the background, whipping me into a frenzy if I even thought about procrastinating or eschewing some responsibility.

And so, I succeeded. Not only that, to other people I seemed together. They even said they wished they could hold it together as well as I did. Thank you, Anxiety.

Only those in my tight inner circle — my now-husband and my mom — saw the consequences of making a deal with my anxiety: insomnia, panic attacks, overeating, and a crushing sense of never doing enough or being enough. I’d walk into what I called my “Awards Closet,” which was filled with medals and framed certificates, and experience heart palpitations. My anxiety told me that if I didn’t keep pushing, everyone would finally understand I didn’t deserve my awards or anything else.

After I graduated, I took my anxiety with me, but I started wondering if the trade I made was worth it. I became interested in being able to achieve just as much without all the negative psychological, emotional, and physical side effects.

I developed sleep hygiene rituals, invested in nutrition and exercise, took up non-competitive creative hobbies, and experimented with meditation. I strove to eradicate my anxiety by becoming a top performer without it.These choices didn’t just come out of a desire to be more well-adjusted, though.

They were born from anxiety about being anxious.

I learned very quickly that anxiety at work had very different effects than it did in school. It betrayed a lack of self-confidence, affected the energy of a team, and seemed to signal to others that I didn’t have the talent or skills necessary to succeed.

I wanted to succeed. More than that, I wanted people to trust me, rely on me, need me; how could I fulfill my deep-seated desire to be helpful if others didn’t believe I could reign myself in enough to help them?

I went from being a self-described person with “no chill,” to regularly being called relaxed, calm under pressure, easy to work with, and highly adaptable. Ask Alida to get something done two hours before it launches, and she’ll get it done without ever breaking a sweat. She’ll probably find time to read a whole book while she’s at it… until she randomly flips out in a team meeting six months later because too much has happened over too long and the compounding effect has taken a toll.

There was only so long I could hold in my very big feelings, after all.

In Emotional Agility, the author Susan David draws parallels between emotional distress and the fictional monster and antagonist in the post-feminist horror film The Babadook. Spoiler alert: the mother battling a monster terrorizing her and her young son doesn’t kill him, but ends up keeping him in the basement, caring for him and feeding him.

In her analogy, David emphasizes the key to emotional balance is to take the same approach. Instead of repressing or eliminating our emotions, we must confront them, cope with them, and ultimately, live with them.

During this period of obsession with performance and stress management, I was also engaging in an ongoing effort to murder my anxiety monster. But we were locked in a stalemate that didn’t serve either of us.

The reality is that while anxiety isn’t a superpower, it’s not a monster either. Anxiety is just the body’s response to stress, and there is such a thing as good stress.

Good stress triggers what Daniel Coyle refers to as ignition or the “better get busy” impulse. In his study of top performers in The Talent Code, he identifies ignition as the essential first step in the process of cultivating mastery, which involves feeling a big enough spark to engage in deep practice.

Good stress feels like an adrenaline rush, a jolt of energy that moves us forward towards progress. It’s often mixed in with excitement, camaraderie, and problem-solving. We bond with others over it, make important changes because of it, and unlock new potential in serve of it.

At the same time I decided to evolve my relationship with anxiety in order to appreciate good stress for what it was and cope with bad stress when it came, I also founded my own company, Ethos.

My job became to foster organizational health and develop sustainable cultures in startups, which thrive on good stress and implode under bad stress. This work has allowed me to get above my experiences strategically and abstractly enough to gain perspective I didn’t have before.

Many of my days are spent in meetings with dozens and dozens of very anxious people who want me to tell them the secret to making their stress go away.

And I talk to them about mindfulness, priming rituals, reframing and fear-setting exercises, and all manner of other stress management techniques that I genuinely believe in and use.

But I also do three other things, the ones that I think are most important.

1. I encourage them to tune into themselves and note how stress and anxiety feel in their bodies. Through self-awareness, especially on a physical level, they can start connecting to these emotions in a different, more reflective way.

2. I ask them to name their feelings. Only by acknowledging bad feelings will good feelings return. Until they face the stress and anxiety without resistance and focus on understanding them, neither will lift.

3. I remind them that self-compassion matters. Sometimes, if you don’t feel sorry for yourself, no one else will. It is often the most important step in letting go of the attachment to the bad feeling, anyway.

To be clear, I struggle with all three steps, especially the third. I am still mastering these practices myself. Seriously, I wrote this after mildly freaking out in a guitar lesson where my anxiety took over me completely and led to frustration and disillusionment. This after weeks without incident!

All I can say is this: I’m getting better. Even when I take a step back, I can look back and see that I am miles ahead of where I started. If you’re dealing with anxiety, know that the same is possible for you, too.