Anyone (not) Feeling Stressed? Overwhelmed? Anxious?

The Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting changes in our lives are stressing most of us. Whether you call it overwhelm, stress, nervousness, tension or any other such term doesn’t matter. It is a manifestation of some level of anxiety. 

Here are quotes from coaching calls with real clients from just the last couple days:

“I DON’T LIKE THE PERSON I’M BEING! One of my trusted co-workers told me that no one wants to talk to me because I snap at everyone….and I didn’t have a clue I was doing that!!” 

“I’m not cut out to be a stay at home Mom, and work full time, and I don’t know how to reinvent the way we deliver services all at the same time. I feel like I’m failing on all fronts.”

“Everyone is coming to me with requests…demands and everything needs to be done RIGHT NOW! Then when I do what they ask, they get mad at me because there are unanticipated consequences…I feel like I can’t do anything right!”

“I feel so isolated, disconnected from my team. Like I don’t have control over any aspect of my life right now.”

“I don’t know how to help my people deal with outside voices that are hateful, negative, and only looking for what is wrong…”

I have a lot of experience with anxiety. Although I was not aware of it early in my life, it was nonetheless ever present. It is something I have been consciously learning to manage for about 30 years now. Over those years, I have read an untold number of books, attended numerous workshops, employed 6 psychologists, one psychiatrist, and 4 professional coaches. That has informed my coaching practice with real world experience which I share with clients regularly. 

One of the first things I learned is that if we are to deal effectively with anxiety, first we must understand it. One of my psychologists told me that “anxiety is a generalized fear.” It’s like our brain fills up with fear, and like water in a bucket, it gets so full that it overflows. Different people react to the overflow in different ways, none of which are fun for them or for those they live and work with: Some get impatient, angry and irritable; some withdraw and become passive or passively aggressive; some talk non-stop, others isolate themselves; and yet others become hyperactively energetic and try to fix everything on all fronts at once (don’t get in my way when I get like that!). 

Here are five broad strategies and methods I have found useful:

  1. Accept anxiety as a necessary ally.

  2. Identify the fear.

  3. Dissipate the fear.

  4. Manage your reactions.

  5. Change the root cause.

Let’s examine each strategy and some of the tactics or methods to execute on each.

Accept anxiety as a necessary ally

My friend Bob Flewelling says, “Anxiety is your friend.” It is the mechanism that helps us muster courage and a plan of attack for any big challenge. Even after 28 years of doing this, I get anxious before every workshop I lead. That anxiety leads me to think through all the scenarios that might unfold and develop a plan to respond… by the time the workshop begins, I have thought through my approach and am fully prepared. In fact, one time recently I didn’t get anxious and walked into the workshop unprepared and flatfooted. As soon as I realized it, anxiety kicked in, and I stared planning and pulled it from the jaws of failure. In our culture, we see anxiety as a bad thing. So, we end up getting anxious about being anxious and it spirals out of control. If we can just accept that we are anxious, embrace it and look for the lessons that derive from it, we can keep it from overflowing our bucket. As Melissa Gilbert says in her book “Big Magic” invite your friend anxiety along in your car ride, just put the anxiety in the back seat and don’t let him drive!

There are no quick fixes so be sure to extend a lot of grace to yourself during these challenging times.

“Have patience with all things, but first of all, with yourself.” ~ St. Francis de Sales

Identify the fear

When my bucket is overflowing, it is really useful to put my conscious brain to work to answer the question “Just what am I afraid of?” That is usually more easily done by talking it out with my wife or someone else I trust. Like right now (during the corona virus pandemic), I am afraid that we will not get any new clients for the next year because no one will meet in person. The real fear that underlies that is that I won’t be able to make a living, and neither will my business partner Tom; then he will quit, and I will never make a living again… as soon as I get that out in the light of day, I realize that it is a silly premise. We are already using video conferencing in place of face to face meetings and have several prospective clients coming to us to help them through this crisis. Just identifying the fear allows me to dismiss it as irrational and unfounded. And most of the fears we deal with are exactly that… irrational and unfounded.

Dissipate the fear

Fear produces chemical and hormonal reactions in us and therefore has a physical aspect to it. If we can dissipate or neutralize those physical reactions, our emotional state changes. We feel better. Here are some of the methods I have found useful:

  • Breathe. When we get anxious, we frequently stop breathing. This robs our brain of the ability to cleanse itself, and of the oxygen it needs to fuel conscious thought. So, our unconscious emotions become even more dominant. Conscious deep breathing is extremely effective. Try it now. Breathe in as deeply as you can for a count of 4. Then breathe out to the count of 8, emptying your lungs as completely as possible. Then breathe in again. Repeat these 5 or 6 times and pay attention to how you feel. This is a simple and very effective practice that can be done at home, at work, before or during a meeting… anytime you are feeling anxious.

  • Aerobic exercise. When I get stressed, I get on my bicycle and ride for a minimum of an hour as fast as I can. Some people run, some walk. Do whatever your physical fitness level will allow. Aerobic exercise is a wonderful forced breathing protocol and it releases emotion cleansing hormones that leave you with a feeling of well-being, even euphoria. And it allows your unconscious mind to go to work on whatever problem is stressing you. Many times, I return from a ride with an idea that directly addresses whatever problem I am wrestling with.