Imagine you have a business trip coming up. You know that it’s going to be all the things you hate: flying; being separated from your kids, your partner, or your space; lots of schmoozing. You can feel the anticipatory anxiety building up. Your anxiety is part of you, and it can be a valuable piece. But that doesn’t mean you should let it take over. Ignoring anxiety can hurt you, and succumbing to it can quash your dreams. You need an excellent scaffolding to support your ambition.
1. Structure is an anxious person’s best friend. I make a schedule with all the details of the day. (I will shower. I will call the dentist. I will write six emails. I will jog for 15 minutes.)Even when I’m on top of the world, I keep them up. They help me feel in control, and prevent me from going global.
2. Team. I’ve chosen to give up some income because I know that support is crucial to my functioning. My life changed when I decided to hire someone to handle my schedule and even structure “break time,” which frees me up to focus on work and parenting. But you don’t need to hire help. Colleagues, mentors, email lists and Facebook groups give you a safe space that you can use for advice, opinions, grousing, networking and celebrating. When I feel less alone, I feel less anxious. And when I don’t trust my own opinion, I have friends and colleagues whose opinions I really value and who cover my weaknesses.
3. Environment. If your environment is out of control, you will feel out of control. Left to my own devices, I would putter around all day and clean the house. Since this is not productive—and more than a little obsessive—I allot myself 30 minutes every morning and evening to clean up, usually while I’m on a routine work call. And, if your anxiety makes you leave your house a disaster, try giving a deep clean to one room a week.
4. Self-care. Building in self-care—exercise, massage, alone time—is not selfish. It’s a key part of managing your anxiety. Even a 10-minute walk or a cup of coffee with a friend can calm your nerves. There’s a great quote from activist and attorney April Reign: “Everyone is finite”—meaning you won’t have anything to give if you never take care of yourself. I wish it were tattooed on my hand.
5. Pep talks. You can give these to yourself, or you can reach out to a trusted confidant. The key is to find what motivates you to reach past your anxiety. My husband is my official pep talker. He is really good at it. He knows my most ridiculous and minute fears, and he knows the drill. I blub to him, and he simply listens. He asks me important questions when I’m hiding in a bathroom, waiting to run for the exit and next flight home. He’ll ask me if I have important client work and can’t leave. When I give pep talks to myself, it’s most often when I am sitting on a plane, ready for takeoff. I remind myself that my children need money just as much as they need me around. This is not a choice; it’s not fun. I’m doing what I need to do. Earning a living.
6. Label your anxiety. Sometimes, simply noting what’s making you anxious and acknowledging it can help you calm down. For example, my psychiatrist, Dr. Carol Birnbaum, taught me to observe my anxiety: I’m feeling flooded with anxiety because I’m separated from my kids and I can’t see them. Then I remind myself, “You’re just like all these other mothers in the world. They’re anxious too.”
7. Ask for updates. Worrying takes you out of whatever you’re doing at the time. So, build in reassurances. Away from your kids? Get your babysitter to send you pictures. Meeting going on without you? Ask your colleague to shoot you an email. It’s much harder to obsess about what’s going wrong when you know what’s going on.
8. You’re not alone. Besides us garden-variety anxiety experts, there are a ton of people suffering small- to large-scale anxiety at any given time. People are afraid of bugs, mice, spiders, water, death, sharks, clowns, hospitals, blood, elevators. People in their 20s are panicking because they’re trying to figure it all out. People in their middle age are having midlife crises. People in their 80s are wondering why they wasted so much time worrying. The point is, if you’re panicking on the runway, you’re only human. A bunch of other people on the plane are panicked about something too.