Humans are emotional creatures. Every day, we experience an exhaustive—and often, exhausting—range of feelings, from excitement and hope to anxiety and fear. While most of us are emotionally intelligent enough to separate our personal lives from our professional ones, periods of sweeping change or unrest can cause deep-seated feelings to bubble to the surface and impact our work, our teams and our clients.
When a pandemic makes you afraid to leave the house, it’s little wonder that even the coolest of cucumbers among us will be feeling stressed out. But less catastrophic events can set you off, especially when they pile up. Tough client call? Cut off on the way to work? Need to nail that Monday morning presentation? Check, check and check! For me personally, the past few weeks have been a minefield for one emotional behavior in particular: worry.
Worrying in moderation can be a healthy and useful tool. It can propel us to action or keep us safe (or on deadline), but when constant worry becomes a pattern, it can derail your performance and productivity. With years of experience coaching leaders, I’ve studied what drives people’s behaviors, what influences them and how their thoughts shape their reality. What’s more, my experiences as a self-proclaimed worrywart have informed my own stress management strategies, too, allowing me to help myself and others successfully use worry as fuel to overcome hurdles and reach peak performance.
Indulge Your Worst Fears
As counterintuitive as it may sound, allowing yourself to temporarily dwell in negativity—in the “what ifs,” the fears and the worst case scenarios—is the first step toward breaking free. If you’re anything like me, stress unleashes an internal torrent of questions: “Will I be okay? What about my family, my company, my clients? What will I do if X, Y, or Z happens?” As the questions mount, so does the mental and emotional tension.
Rather than expend your energy trying to shut these thoughts out, lean into the negative language and indulge your inner pessimist. Set the clock and give yourself 10-15 minutes to get this thinking out of your system; it can be helpful to call a friend or colleague to talk things out, or write what you’re feeling down on paper. Countless studies show that by temporarily focusing on this internal dialogue, you can begin to identify the specific words, thoughts and cognitive patterns that are impeding your mental state, and by extension, your performance.
Commit to Changing Your Outlook
You may not be able to control what you feel, but you can control what you do. After taking the time to indulge your anxiety a bit, you’ll notice that the sky is not, in fact, falling, and you can get to work identifying the thoughts that cause you pain and commit to changing the mindset that propagates them.
As the wise Corrie Ten Boom once speculated, “Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it empties today of its strengths.” Little by little, and from one thought to the next, you can retrain your brain and the way it reacts to external stressors. Without making the conscious decision to change your approach, you’ll struggle to break the cycle of old behaviors.
Find Your New Frame of Mind
After a little healthy wallowing followed by thoughtful introspection, it’s time to hit the reset button. When negativity or worrisome thoughts enter your mind, practice adjusting your reaction. Negative and positive thoughts can’t coexist in the same space, and it’s your task to focus not on your thoughts but on what you can control: your reaction to them.
It’s also critical to be honest with yourself and others about how outside events are impacting your mental state. For some, especially people charged with leading through a crisis or transformational change, it can be tempting to mask your emotions and “put on a happy face.” But reverting to excessive optimism will appear inauthentic to your peers and colleagues, which can cause them to feel wary, confused, and to an extent, distrustful.
Understanding the difference between productive worry—the kind that pushes you to reach a solution or perform under pressure—and useless negativity is the first step toward making a positive change. Most people have a “sweet spot” when it comes to worry and anxiety, but there’s a fine line between stress that makes you feel alert and stress that paralyzes you.
Productive worry is often a byproduct of apprehension about the future, a sentiment we can all relate to a little too well these days. Maybe you’re concerned about how the fallout from the coronavirus will affect not just you, but your clients and your business. You can’t change the reality of our current predicament, but you can deploy worry as a call to action.
Use the energy you would spend worrying to reach out to your colleagues, clients and leaders to gauge how they’re feeling and dealing with crisis. Simply asking others how you can help them gives you a purpose and a place to channel your energy. Go full Robin Hood on your worrying ways by stealing from your anxious energy reserves to replenish the positive motivation you need to get things done.
Harnessing the power of worry, and putting the time and energy into shifting your mindset, is a skill that will serve you well in business and in life.