Finding The Trigger: On Releasing Anxiety
Anxiety can be thought of as doubly deadly. Sure, it spikes at times, but for many of us, it’s an ever-present undercurrent to life, especially if we work in non-inclusive environments. This makes it even more damaging than Stress— a topic which I discussed in a recent article. The perpetual drip of anxiety used to be a problem for me, which aligns me with Mark Twain, who once proclaimed to “have known a great many troubles”, most of which “never happened”. This is the exhausting aspect of anxiety. We exert tremendous energy towards the worry of anxiety, plaguing the mind and the body. Then, when the event we were anxious about arrives, it’s not the big deal we anticipated.
The low hum of anxiety is also elusive, thriving below your level of consciousness. In order to release workplace anxiety, you actually need to pinpoint what’s triggering this sense of helplessness and fear— an act that, in turn, can cause anxiety! When you courageously pinpoint a trigger, you can change your mindset and embrace the event. Let’s consider this together. But first, take a deep breath and don’t get anxious.
You can’t change an event, but you are fully capable of choosing your mindset about that event. When that choice is the Growth Mindset, you can better manage anxiety. This choice instigates an intentional shift in your neurochemistry. With neurotransmitters linked to hopefulness and connection, you can show up feeling confident and open to influence, further contributing to a positive outcome of the event. Sounds easy, but if it were, wouldn’t everyone be doing it? The tough part is summoning the courage to look within, get granular and decide what spikes your anxiety.
Let me share two techniques that have been beneficial to clients who have identified their triggers and then intentionally released anxiety. It didn’t cure their anxiety, but it put them into a headspace where their thinking was clear and their actions were intentional. They were steering their own journey rather than succumbing to an undercurrent. And importantly, they remained present.
Relational Angst: Carol was working on an engagement, but her colleagues weren’t working “with her”. She shared how she was preparing for a “team” meeting and feeling the dread build. Putting words to her emotions, she recognized that she was tense, impatient, a bit jumpy, defensive, and agitated. Scenarios were playing out in her head every which way, and they weren’t pretty. I challenged Carol to make an intentional choice in thinking about this meeting. She primed herself for the meeting by appreciating her coworkers as well as the opportunity she had.
Appreciating the tough meeting ahead was the easier part. She adopted the mindset of hopeful appreciation for the opportunity to gain clarity, realign actions with their goals, and clear up communications in person (since email and texts go off the rails so easily). She thought about how they could all move forward in solidarity.
Appreciating her coworkers was a bit trickier. She didn’t particularly like them and seemed an outsider in their presence. But you don’t have to like someone to appreciate one of their impressive traits. For example, I dislike Mitch, but I’m in awe of how he can charm people. Once Carol could gain some distance from her anxiety toward others on her team, she could concede (giving them great benefit of the doubt) that they were doing what they thought best, or at the very least doing their best at the time.
The last priming technique Carol used before the meeting was to separate herself from anxious emotions. She wasn’t angry and frustrated; rather, she was feeling anger and frustration. Seemingly subtle shifts in language and how we look at a situation equates to a neurochemical shift in the brain, from judgment to appreciation. This provides relief in anxiety and clarity at “show time”. Carol was able to communicate clearly and the meeting was appreciated on the other side of the event, too!
Managing Overwhelm: To shift from cortisol to oxytocin or from anxiety to excitement, try the R.A.I.N. of Anxiety. Consider a quick exercise to change your neurochemistry. It’s an adaptation of a protocol the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach uses to address stress.
First, look back to a past situation that gave you great anxiety. Then take a couple of minutes to go through these steps. It may be with your eyes closed and just thinking, or it could be a written exercise:
- Recognize the anxiety. Identify it, call it out, name it— “I’m having an anxious thought” or “I’m feeling a sense of worry” or “Yikes, I’m agitated”. Even if this is the only step you take when you find yourself feeling anxious, and process the rest later, you’re doing just fine. Also, recognize that you’re not alone.
- Allow your thoughts and feelings to come to the surface. Ask yourself “what else” is going on. Lean into the discomfort of the situation. You don’t have to like it, but it doesn’t help to suppress these feelings.
- Investigate further, asking yourself, “What am I believing?” “What does it feel like in my body?” “How does anxiety shape my moments?” “Who am I when I’m anxious?”
- Nurture yourself. Consider what will sooth this anxious need. Be self-compassionate and then extend your thought process in the next step.
- After the RAIN: Now that your sympathetic nervous system is settled down, you are literally seeing more clearly. Get curious and ask yourself what one small step you can take right now to address the anxiety. Is there a physical act, a shift in perspective, a resource you can leverage to diminish the anxiety or move your mindset toward “excitement”?
The benefit of this exercise will become apparent as you recognize more quickly when anxiety takes over and you’re able to address it before it runs away with your energy and your thoughts.
My next article will be a hefty resources page to further address and manage stress and anxiety.
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