I recently met up with someone who’d just left their job because the worry and stress had built up to a point where it just wasn’t worth it anymore. In many ways it was a shame because it had been a fantastic role, the pinnacle of a brilliant career. But what’s the point when the anxiety from being at work overwhelms everything else?
Although there’s much more open discussion currently about the subject of anxiety, the details of the experience are mostly kept very private. But the point to understanding your anxiety is that it’s not a state, something that appears temporarily and then goes away. It’s a more or less constant trait, in many ways the very core of being human. It’s what drags us down and inhibits us yes. But it’s also the agitation and will that makes us go on and achieve, to give a damn and to change things.
The opposite of an anxious perspective is not necessarily one of calm and peace but often one of indifference and apathy. The point it not to eliminate your anxiety but to learn to live with it, since “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.”
I should emphasise here that I’m talking about what is known as existential anxiety. This is the restless force within us that Søren Kierkegaard and many other thinkers have identified as being at the root of why we do much of what we do.
And what is existential anxiety? It’s the gap between how things are and how we’d like them to be.
Think of a time when everything was just as you wanted it to be. You might be sitting in the sunshine, on a chair with your eyes half closed, hearing laughter from children and the clink of ice in glasses. For a while there is no gap between how things are and how you want them to be.
But then a cloud floats over and lo and behold it starts to rain. Not as you’d like things to be anymore, there’s a gap. Now there are two ways to respond to this. Either a) accept the rain and live with it or b) get out of the rain one way or another.
Now the Buddhists would mostly certainly go for option A, stay in the rain, it’s only your attitude and way of looking at things that makes you prefer it otherwise. And this desire to alter how things actually are is actually the source of your pain, your dukkha, that which makes you miserable. Stay in the rain and appreciate it for what it is, abandon preference. “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” as they used to say in Denmark.
And in the case of rain on the beach, there’s much to commend this approach. It’s also how the Buddhists would approach, death, disease, bereavement and loss. Often there isn’t much option on these things, so this approach, also recommended by many other philosophical and religious traditions, makes a lot of sense in these circumstances.
But what about option B? What if we’re in a work context and we see a process that isn’t working? Or if we’re in the office and we see some rubbish on the floor next to the bin? We can accept it and leave it as it is. Or our will for things to be other than they are, our existential anxiety, can grab us by the scruff of the neck and make us do something, make a change.
Our anxiety is a double-edged sword and we often teeter on the brink between it as something that motivates us or brings us down. Think of a roller coaster ride: part of us doesn’t want to drop down the chute and part of us is excited by the prospect. It’s spine-tingling and energising at the same time as being scary. And if it wasn’t scary there wouldn’t be the thrill either.
Back in work, think of public speaking, a common reason to feel anxiety. In fact it can be paralysing. I once interviewed a coach who worked with stand-up comedians working on TV. Despite their on-screen demeanour, the all struggled with stage fright. No matter how witty and confident they seemed in front of the cameras, some of them would be terrified and sick in the moments before. But the thing is this: they all knew that if the stage fright went away, it wouldn’t be better at all. They wouldn’t be able to do their act anymore. It was because it was a white knuckle ride that they could be special.
Ok, so our anxiety won’t disappear and maybe now we don’t want it to. The point is to live with it and as far as possible channel it so that it pushes us forward, to succeed and achieve, rather than hold us back. To navigate that fine line successfully. What advice can a coach give to help with this?
Understand your anxiety in a rational way rather than only knowing it as an emotional experience. Reading this article I hope helps a little towards this. Read about it as a general subject and also delve into the detail of your lived anxious experiences. Analyse and rationalise what has happened and learn from it. If you’ve been very worried about a presentation examine how it felt and try to pick it apart a little. Knowledge conquers fear (a bit).
Writing down your experience is a great way to allow you to analyse, reflect and learn. Some of my clients identify particular things that trigger worry and anxiety, for example being in high-stakes meetings or pitches. By recording what’s happened, and also by looking out for the signs of stress they can go a long way to familiarity breeding control, if not contempt, for their problem.
The Buddhists were really onto something with option A and when you can’t control events you can always be the master of how you see them. Their great gift to the world is the practice of meditation and I now don’t have to feel nervous about recommending it to clients. Candles and sandals are out and Steve Jobs, Google and High Performing Teams are in when we think of mindfulness these days.
And it really works, the NHS are finding it one of the most effective ways of dealing with chronic pain and terminal illnesses. The problem is that it needs to be a regular practice. Think of it like going to the gym – doing it occasionally is only going to bring very limited benefits. My advice is to do it as part of a group, with other people to motivate and keep you on track.
I know a Zen adept who once met a great Theravadin monk. Hoping for some wisdom and help, and with trepidation, he confessed to this elderly monk his shame, that he found keeping to a regular mediative practice very hard to do. The old man, with a lifetime of ascetic practice behind him, smiled and said, “so do I”.
I mentioned at the start that the details of anxiety are often not discussed other than in general terms. Speaking about the actual feelings and sensations can be very helpful. Speaking about them with an existential coach is even better and is an option I thoroughly recommend of course. Coaches provide a particular kind of listening, but of course, many other options are available.