Are you anxious? Maybe not at this moment, but sometimes? Certainly. Everyone with a working brain has anxiety. The only question is what we do to manage it when it comes to call. Anxiety is uncomfortable, so we usually prefer not to experience it. But our automatic (unconscious) brain doesn’t just prefer not to experience anxiety – it downright hates anxiety. Left to its own devices, it tries to eliminate anxiety every chance it gets.
But that can create problems, because anxiety is actually often quite useful. (Yes, really!) That means that we have to learn how to recognize anxiety so that we can then determine whether it is best to tolerate and use it, lower it, or get rid of it.
Why does the automatic brain hate anxiety? Well, the brain has a lot to do. It isn’t just sitting up there in our heads thinking about this and that. It is also managing assumptions – that is, thoughts not in our immediate awareness that silently guide many of our routine behaviors (“It costs plenty, so it should be good!” “I deserve a hot meal!” “He hasn’t answered my email, so I guess he’s not interested.”). The automatic brain also manages our emotional reactions to events – do they make us happy, sad, frustrated, or what? Finally, it manages our biological functioning. If our brains weren’t monitoring and giving orders, our hearts would just sit there – not ideal. Beating is better. Without direction from our brains, our digestive systems would pretty much just laugh at us.
In sum, our brains are managing a million things all the time. They are very, very busy!
OK, but why should that mean that our brains hate anxiety, you ask? Well, like our cars, our brains need fuel to operate. The brain’s fuel of choice is glucose. Anxiety is a fuel hog. It uses up glucose faster than other brain activities. So the automatic brain’s impulse, in order to conserve fuel, is to reduce anxiety. It is so serious about reducing anxiety that, unfortunately, it often encourages us to engage in destructive behaviors in order to do so – behaviors such as ignoring or rationalizing problems, drinking too much alcohol, engaging in unwise drug behavior, having indiscriminate sex, becoming workaholics, playing solitaire instead of writing that difficult report, etc.
All of these behaviors are either distractions or inherently soothing. They quell our anxiety for the moment, but at what cost? And beyond the destructive behaviors, what if the anxiety is trying to tell us something important? We have effectively told it to shut up and go away.
Anxiety is an emotion. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the intelligent use of emotions. The thoughtful (EQ) brain (as opposed to the automatic or unconscious brain) recognizes that there are times when anxiety is a problem, but it also recognizes that there are times when anxiety is useful. For example, anxiety can warn us about dangerous situations, or help us perform difficult tasks. In fact, when we have to bring our A game, moderate anxiety is actually essential. It eggs us on to do our utmost. The discomfort we feel when we experience anxiety in these situations must be tolerated. Therefore, one key task for us as executive coaches is to help clients who have high demands to develop tolerance for anxiety when it is needed. Doing so helps them reach inside for their very best.
On the other hand, when we’re on vacation, worrying about the office is counterproductive. Anxiety reduction is wise. We should have some fun! Walk on the beach! Watch a movie! We can’t let anxiety eat us alive for no reason. It is bad for our health!
Three EQ skills are critical to anxiety management: 1) Emotional Self Awareness, 2) Stress Tolerance, and 3) Impulse Control.
1) Emotional Self Awareness (ESA): Well-developed ESA helps people recognize when they are anxious. Without such conscious awareness, they are much more vulnerable to the default responses of the automatic brain to anxiety, i.e., “stuff it!” or worse. With awareness, people can tap into the skills of Stress Tolerance and Impulse Control in order to manage the anxiety they feel. Hopefully they have those skills, but if not, Emotional Self Awareness, Stress Tolerance, and Impulse Control, like all EQ skills, can be learned.
2) Stress Tolerance: Stress Tolerance has to do with how much anxiety people can stand before it begins to impact the clarity of their thinking. (To illustrate, imagine trying to solve algebra problems while being chased by a bear!) Those with robust Stress Tolerance skills can operate at high efficiency even under the most difficult situations, which is the normal world for most senior leaders, and frankly, for a lot of other people. Think young mothers, surgeons, trial lawyers, air traffic controllers. . .
People who are highly vulnerable to anxiety have limited Stress Tolerance. In other words, even a relatively small amount of anxiety can hinder clear thought. Unmanaged anxiety has kept many talented people from becoming all that they could be. As they build Stress Tolerance, they have greater access to their natural talents.
3) Impulse Control: Whereas Stress Tolerance has to do with thinking clearly, Impulse Control has to do with behavior. At a certain point, all of us have our limits (the proverbial “last straw”), beyond which we are vulnerable to doing or saying something truly stupid, if not destructive. To recognize this experience, just recall one of
your own cringe-worthy moments. Even very smart people can find themselves in the grips of stupidity, which means we have exceeded our Impulse Control skills.
Fortunately, there are many methods that we as coaches can use to help clients build these anxiety management skills. For example, The EQ Leader Program has thirteen different exercises people can use to build Impulse Control. To illustrate, one exercise is a process whereby a client can learn not to interrupt when someone else is speaking. People are often tempted to interrupt when they think they have a better idea, believing that the speaker’s ideas are likely to lead to a wrong outcome. (“I had to stop him! He was going down the wrong road!”) Anticipating wrong outcomes creates anxiety. When such anxiety exceeds our Impulse Control skills, we may interrupt, be seen as rude, and have our opinions dismissed. Thoughtfully waiting our turn to speak builds Impulse Control muscles.
Likewise, Stress Tolerance skills can be improved through exercises which can be practiced in a client’s real, pressure filled, daily work. The EQ Leader Program offers nine such exercises. One exercise involves teaching clients generalized anxiety management skills, such as meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, even self-hypnosis. Learning these skills allows clients to then manage anxiety when the pressure is on. At those moments, the goal is not to eliminate anxiety, but rather to bring it down to an optimal level.
Another effective tool for growing Stress Tolerance skills is reframing the situation, which involves identifying ways a client may be thinking about the situation that elevate anxiety unnecessarily. Coaches can help clients learn how to identify and use more realistic ways of thinking. (Things are rarely as bad as they seem in the high-pressure moment.) This process results in lowered stress and higher functioning.
The EQ Leader Program has field-tested exercises not just for Stress Tolerance, Impulse Control, and Emotional Self Awareness, but for all of the sixteen EQ skills.