For many people, anxiety is an unwelcome guest that can sap your energy or even limit your potential. And even worse, most of us don’t feel we can really talk about it.
Moreover, the things that well-meaning friends say about anxiety probably fall flat for an entrepreneur like you. “Take it easier”? You are probably putting in 60-hour weeks.
“Stop and smell the roses”? Not when you’ve got orders to fill and payroll to meet.
“Change your attitude”? Much easier said than done, even when you aren’t running a business.
In my case, as a psychotherapist in private practice, anxiety also *is* my business. And to be honest, I am a pretty happy guy most of the time. Even when insurance claims get denied or clients are in crisis. And the reason is that there are tools and skills most of us can use to manage anxiety, and I practice what I preach. Let me share a few of them with you:
Develop mindful awareness.
We have learned more about the mental game of anxiety in the last decade than ever before, and much of it boils down to this: learning to observe your thoughts and feelings instead of reacting to them.
It is a three-step process. First, sit back and compassionately acknowledge these thoughts, as though they were playing on a movie screen. Second, pull yourself out of your thoughts and into your senses, by becoming aware of your breathing, the sights and smells of where you are, or the life that teems around you. Third, thoughtfully choose your response or reaction.
Say you just receive an unexpected tax bill. Instead of blowing a gasket, acknowledge your thoughts: “I just received a tax bill and I feel frustrated.” Instead of letting your mind race to the worst place, smell the bagel you are toasting and hear the whoosh of the air conditioner – in this moment, you are warm, safe, and dry. Finally, don’t just react – choose a course of action, like calling your accountant. Then carry on.
Challenge your negative thoughts.
This is the core of what we therapists refer to as cognitive-behavioral therapy, a powerful evidence-based approach for managing anxiety. It doesn’t involve positive thinking, motivational slogans, or the dreaded “change your attitude.”
Instead, you write down your thoughts on paper, look for evidence of things like exaggeration, black-and-white thinking, or fortune-telling the future – and then rewrite the script.
Here, “I’m going to go out of business” becomes “I need to analyze my cash flow better.”
“I can’t deal with my employees” becomes “Here is how I will listen to them, negotiate with them, and set appropriate boundaries.”
And “Oh no, we just lost a big client” becomes “Here is my new game plan.”
Think of how Spock in Star Trek might react to your situation, and you are on the right track.
Learn physical relaxation and breathing techniques.
Did you know that panic attacks come from having too much oxygen in your bloodstream, because you are breathing rapidly and hyperventilating? Or that you can help overcome insomnia by learning to relax your forehead, which is the body’s signal to switch off and go to sleep?
Or that learning to progressively tense and release your muscle groups can have the same beneficial effects as a sedative or a stiff drink, without the side effects?
Everyone has unique ways of coping with anxiety that work specifically for them. One person might like to slow down and meditate, while for another it might feel like watching broccoli grow. Others might like to go for a walk, talk to a friend, or binge-watch CSI.
Self-soothing techniques generally fall into four quadrants: peace and quiet, physical activity, engagement with others, or distraction. Learn what works for you, and then put it to work.
Remember that anxiety is a sign of your intelligence. Its roots lie in the fight-or-flight reflex that has kept our species alive for thousands of years.
More importantly, it can be understood and managed with the right tools and skills. Learn to work productively with it, and you will not only feel better – you will sharpen your business edge in the process.