A lot of us are feeling anxious right now. When the pandemic started, anxiety came from not knowing what to expect. Now as workplaces make plans for employees to return, uncertainty is at the forefront again.
While coronavirus-fueled anxiety can have negative effects, it can also enhance your leadership skills, says Morra Aarons-Mele, author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast, a show about mental health in the workplace.
“Anxiety is a natural human emotion, especially now,” she says. “The fear and vulnerability we experience are normal. The key is understanding what sets you off and how you react. The process of managing your anxiety can make you stronger and more empathetic.”
Mindfulness can make you a more focused and effective leader. It can help you manage your anxiety, too, if you’re willing to be mindful in your anxious moments, says Aarons-Mele. “Self-inquiry is powerful, but when we ignore the parts that feel scary or dark, like a tendency to be anxious, it can make us act out in all kinds of ways,” she says. “For leaders, ignoring the causes of our anxiety can hurt their teams.”
Left unexamined, people may manage anxiety by resorting to unhealthy actions. For example, they may yell at a coworker, overwork, drink, or run six miles even though their knee is throbbing. “These reactions without awareness can be toxic,” says Aarons-Mele.
When you’re feeling anxious, play detective and tune into your surroundings or situations. Several aspects of leadership can be triggers, and to manage it, you need to work backwards to determine what triggers you and why.
“It could be about health or money,” says Aarons-Mele. “Maybe a leader is responsible for a company’s finances and has to communicate reports to others. The balance sheet may bring them back to a time and place where they felt out of control and distressed. Instead of going down a spiral of anxiety, breathe and recognize that money makes you anxious and it can start negative thoughts.”
You can’t control your anxiety, but you can manage it the way you manage any other aspect of yourself. Build an infrastructure that supports you, and focus on the type of communication that works for you, says Aarons-Mele, who suggests telling others that you feel anxious.
“In success culture, we think that anything that has to do with mental health is a weakness and we don’t want to let it show,” she says. “Admitting you are anxious is akin to saying, ‘I’m not in control,’ and that’s dangerous, so people shy away from it.”
But anxiety is a natural human reaction, Aarons-Mele continues. “If we understand, talk about, and manage it, there’s nothing bad about it,” she says. “It’s when we aren’t in touch that we are acting out of control.”
Other ways to cope in the moment include taking a walk, doing breathing exercises, or telling the anxiety you have to deal with it later. People who understand what motivates and triggers them can be more effective leaders.
“If you can understand your own self efficacy around being anxious, you are more able to take a step back and observe the reactions,” she says. “You can be a powerful communicator when you tune into signals and dynamics in room. You listen more, and that’s a great leadership skill.
“Anxiety is part of life and certainly part of a high achiever’s life. To achieve, you need to take risks, push yourself, and drive toward a goal, and anxiety is inherent to this process. It’s really about your reactions.”