“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.” –Frank Herbert
I titled my last column, “Could You Be a Horrible Boss?” A few days later, a reader asked, “Don’t horrible bosses act that way because they’re afraid?”
That’s true—mostly. Bullying, a trait most people associate with horrible bosses, is often rooted in inner terror. Deep inside, most bullies feel weak, and being weak terrifies them. So they push other people around in misguided, desperate attempts to feel strong.
But fear affects all of us, not just bullies. It’s part of the human condition. It has helped us survive as a species. It has almost certainly helped you stay alive so far. Have you ever avoided a car crash by slamming on brakes? Fear can be a good friend.
Fear doesn’t always come from an immediate, identifiable threat—or spur a lightning-fast, live-saving reaction. The type of fear most of us deal with in the workplace (and often elsewhere in life) is anxiety.
Anxiety, defined by Merriam-Webster as “fear or worry about what might happen” (italics mine), is pervasive in modern life. Like the fear that spurs brake-slamming, anxiety can also be helpful. It’s why many of us fasten our seatbelts, lock our doors and pay our bills.
But for some people, anxiety becomes excessive. It consumes their thinking, disrupts their sleep, steals satisfaction and exiles joy. Some of these people react by withdrawing. Some self-medicate. Some become depressed or bitter. And some become horrible bosses.
Ironically, these people may recognize that anxiety is their problem, but still have trouble controlling it—which breeds more anxiety.
The anatomy of anxiety. Although people report their greatest anxieties in dealing with death, divorce, major illness, moving and job loss, it can be equally challenging to speak to a group, have a performance review, negotiate or just socialize.
Unfortunately, our systems haven’t yet evolved to differentiate between these anxious events and the dangers our ancestors faced, like meeting saber-tooth tigers. Our systems still respond as if we’re about to be eaten.
Our eyes dilate (to improve our vision), our heart rates increase (to speed blood to our muscles), and our muscles tense (to get ready to fight or flee). Our breathing speeds up and deepens (to oxygenate the blood), causing our lungs to exhale more carbon dioxide than normal. This can create dizziness, heart palpitations, sweating, tingling, and chest pain. Ongoing anxiety can damage the body severely.
What to do, what to do? So how can you manage anxiety? It’s so relentless, finding calm may sound impossible. But you can do it, and it’s really not that hard.
We all have the innate ability to calm our minds and bodies, no matter how overwhelmed we feel. Modern science—and some good old, traditional wisdom—show us how.
You don’t need special equipment and you don’t need to go to a special place to start. You can start right now, with the practice outlined below.
(If possible, it’s best to start this practice when you feel calm. Practice sessions of only 10 minutes twice daily have proven to reduce anxiety after just a few sessions. Ongoing practice can actually change response patterns in the brain.)
- Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Gaze around and notice your environment, especially things that bring you pleasure.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand just below the rib cage.
- Inhale slowly through your nose for a count to 5.
- Exhale slowly through your nose for a count of 7.
- Repeat this breathing pattern for 5 cycles.
- Starting at your feet, systematically relax your muscles. First, curl your toes tightly for a count of five, release and relax. Pause between each muscle group and notice any differences, no matter how small.
- Continue up your body, isolating each muscle group (calves, thighs, buttocks, stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, fingers, hands, and arms) all the way up to your face.
- Inhale and exhale slowly as you imagine yourself standing under a waterfall or in the shower, with the water relaxing you from head to toe.
Other Practices. Anxiety can bring fatigue, but often movement is part of the cure. Choose an activity that you enjoy. Start with simple things, like:
- Walking. Simple, easy, rhythmic movement calms the body, especially if it includes fresh air, sunshine, and natural settings.
- Stretching. Many yoga stretches are easy, such as reaching one arm overhead and then the other, or raising one knee to the body and then the other. Go as far as you can without forcing it. These simple stretches encourage deeper breathing and lengthen and relax the muscles.
- Exercising your face. Soften and relax the muscles around your eyes, and see if your vision widens to see more (but don’t try to force it). Breathe in and out slowly through your nose. Let your jaw and tongue relax and drop. This practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm your body.
As difficult and upsetting as facing your fear can seem, doing so in a firm and compassionate way paves the way for newfound wisdom and freedom.
A popular George Addair quote (often attributed to Jack Canfield) goes, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
It’s not as hard as you might fear to get there.
As always, I’d like to hear how it goes.