Burnout to Leadership

Ep#4: How anxiety gets out of control and what you can do about it

October 15, 2021 Dex Randall Season 1 Episode 4
Burnout to Leadership
Ep#4: How anxiety gets out of control and what you can do about it
Show Notes Transcript

What you will learn:

  • How chronic anxiety develops at work.
  • How anxiety feeds in to burnout.
  • The effects of chronic anxiety.
  • How to manage anxiety.

Hi everyone, my name's Dex Randall, and this is the Burnout to leadership podcast, where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work. Hello, my friends, Dex here. And today I want to start talking about symptoms of burner and let's begin with anxiety, because if you're in burn out, your likely experiencing chronic anxiety, and today I'm gonna be talking directly to those of you who are in burnout and have chronic anxiety. I'm going to describe some of the features that you may recognize in your own experience. So chronic anxiety at work commonly develops in one of two ways. The first one is from a specific issue or event. When a normally competent person is a major roadbump and doubts their ability to overcome it. It could be a project went off track, or got canned; it could be being blamed for some business failure; or a shift in work role or management team; getting laid off or passed over; or getting a new boss maybe that you don't get on with.

Amongst many, many possibilities. It could even be an event outside of work:

Major illness, accident, divorce or financial loss. Or the other way is from ongoing feelings of overwork, exhaustion and depletion, but only for those people who see themselves as unequal to meeting the daily challenges of that and this is kind of like a death by a thousand cuts, and if you can relate, I probably don't need to tell you that, huh? So, either way, if you're in chronic anxiety right now, whatever started it, if you weren't able to fix it, if it was big enough, you probably experienced a loss of invincibility. Your go to guy self image might have shattered and that results in an internal reputational damage. In other words, you fell out of favor a bit with yourself. You've probably started to question your own ability; became anxious; started seeing cracks appearing everywhere in your work; began to see tasks as problems not challenges; noticed where you were slipping, where success was elusive; and you would have felt harassed, overwhelmed and sinking against this sudden tide of unfixable problems that you're now aware of, you're now seeing. When you tell yourself you're not winning, you get a bit mean with yourself about it, you lose motivation and energy, finally becoming bitter, weary and despairing. This is kind of the slide downhill, and I look at it this way, the success strategies you always used to create career success, are now topping out, they're starting to work against you, you. You've gone over the top of the curve, and now success looks to you like it's trending downwards. Scary, huh? At minimum, under chronic anxiety, the success you do enjoy is probably costing you too much in wear and tear, draining your energy and motivation. It's a bit like the machine you were is broken, and that can be quite perplexing because I'm gonna bet that winning used to be very easy for you, and you're almost certainly, if you're here, a very smart person, skilled, passionate, efficient, terrific problem solver, creative, ambitious, attentive. And you really want to succeed. But again, if this is your experience, now it's all gonna be going wrong, you're not winning, you tired and grumpy all the time, irritated with yourself and others, a little bit of ashamed of yourself. You're withdrawing from people, hiding away a bit. Driving yourself crazy wondering how to get back on top before anyone else notices. And when this anxiety feeds into burnout, it feels like a slo mo train wreck, or at least it did for me. It's kind of a nightmare you can't wake up from. And your private suffering will become intense, but you can't talk to anyone about it because you're too embarrassed probably. Could play out like this. Every time somebody asks your question, you're probably cringing or snapping at them, every time a teammate doesn't come through on something, you're breathing fire down their neck, but you're not delivering on your own tasks, that's often the uncomfortable truth of things. Your inbox is kind of full and yet you're still trying to take on others unsolved problems in addition to your own. Worse, I dare say it's reflected in your family and home relationships. You probably don't enjoy being around people like you used to. Once you get off work, you want to be alone for a while because you're over the whole work thing, you need to just switch off and relax for a bit. And you might eat or drink something to zone out, but it really doesn't help much eh? You can't switch off, you're still checking messages around the clock, thinking about work, waking in the night thinking about work, and this is how anxiety that may have started off being about one thing becomes generalized and chronic. It kind of becomes a closed loop. And let's talk a bit about the effects now. Chronic anxiety hurts us in a bunch of really unfortunate ways. Clearly mood, cognitive function, social connection, relationships, enjoyment and performance are all impaired. But don't forget how chronic anxiety affects physical health. Firstly, it hits the adrenals, which shuts down rest and repair functions in the body. Digestion, sleep, growth, muscle repair, immune system. And also sex, by the way. It also increases systemic inflammation, so over time we might develop chronic illness, pain, metabolic disease, obesity, Alzheimer's. And our fight or flight system is designed for emergency use, not to be left on for long periods. Of course, I'm not medically trained. What do I know? But I do read a lot, I read a lot of research, and I also suffered a lot of this myself in burnout. So, secondly, our health is affected because emotions are the triggers for epigenetic activation, in other words, emotions can control gene expression. Only 1.5% of human DNA is active at any one time. The rest of it is waiting about as potential for health or illness. And when we have a pattern of negative emotions such as anxiety or stress, then our genes are expressing based on that, and we can activate diseases that have been lurking around quietly as potential. Thirdly, our health can be affected by the compound effects in the mind and body, so one under performing body system affects the next. For example, if we rarely get enough sleep or good quality sleep, our heart becomes particularly susceptible, or when our digestive functions are not on top form, we become starved of nutrients, that other organs glands and systems rely on to function. We basically start firing on two cylinders, sometimes if that. No wonder we feel lousy, and research tells us that most heart disease and heart attacks are caused by stress in fact. As I found out. I had a heart attack at age 55, right after my burnout peaked, and I was a fit, clean living, sporty, all that person. And I'm not wishing that on any of you to be honest, I'm not. So, the fourth health effect, chronic stress often leads to addictive coping mechanisms drinking, smoking, overeating and so on, that contribute further to physical, mental and emotional decline. So don't muck about if this scenario sounds at all like your experience, I do suggest that you do something about it. Alright then, so what to do with all this unwanted anxiety? Well, anxiety is a human emotion, to get the bad news over with first, we can't eliminate any human emotion. We're human, we get the complete set, it's a feature, but we do try a bunch of strategies to get rid of anxiety or any other emotion we don't like, and we do that mainly by addictive processes. We eat or drink, or sex or social media or whatever, our way out of emotional discomfort, we try to change state, or we shut ourselves down, withdrawing from the world, and even withdrawing from our own senses. We dissociate from the pain of the emotion. So, all of those are kind of successful short term strategies aren't they? But long term, they're pretty soul destroying, and they do contribute to burn out and as you know well enough, addictive processes and activities only blunt or distract us from a painful emotion for a little while, and then the emotion comes back stronger, we pursue our addictions harder and more often we up the dose, and this again, dims the pain for a little while, a shorter time than last time, and then the feeling bounces back again. As animals,

our primal brain is wired to do three things:

Seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy, and these form our motivational triad, and you can see how "seek pleasure, avoid pain" fits into our addictive processes. In evolutionary terms, it makes perfect sense for us to seek pleasure warmth, food, sex, shelter, community and to avoid pain danger, illness, accident, rejection, aggression and to conserve energy sleeping and burning less calories. And by the way, did you know that the brain uses about 20% of our body's energy? I'd ask you to think about that, but that would burn a bit more! So our addictions are takin "seeking pleasure and avoiding pain" to extremes, and mostly our addictive behaviors don't have the genuine protective qualities that they promise. At best, they defer pain or shut us down entirely, and then when we bottle up our emotions like this, they grow stronger and more insistent. So okay, that's our go to strategy when we're anxious, and again, there, that's why it doesn't work for us. And by the way, we can also be addicted to stress and anxiety themselves, because stress releases a flood of stress hormones and energy as sugar into the body, which boosts us up for a minute. It also tunes out analytical thinking in favor of survival thinking. So this is another reason stress and anxiety become chronic. Our stress hormones are only designed for emergency use, not as a daily picked me up, so we do need to teach ourselves a better, more sustainable way. So... Okay, then what does work? Of course, we've heard so much about things like yoga, meditation, talking therapy, walking in nature, exercise, spending time with family, pets, sleep, finding a hobby, taking time off work, changing jobs, etcetera. All of which can be helpful, but they're a bit of a Band Aid against burnout, in my opinion. And I think you need to do something more fundamental about the anxiety and other symptoms of burnout to make sure that you can come through it and banish it forever. So there are two mindset techniques I teach for dealing with anxiety, and the first one is feeling the anxiety without escape. Anxiety is just an emotion. So we can work directly with it. Although you might have an urge to escape it when it comes up, you don't have to act on the urge. Any emotion is just sensation in the body, it's just a vibration. It actually can't harm you. So to work directly with anxiety, sit yourself down somewhere quiet and pay attention, gentle attention to how anxiety shows up in your mind and body. Just be the observer for a couple of minutes. Be in awareness. And don't worry, sometimes our mind tells us that if we let anxiety in, it will never go away, will be consumed by it paralyzed but actually neurologists tell us that an unresisted emotion is going to pass through us in about 90 seconds, a lot quicker than if we try and resist it or distract from it. So become aware, simply ask yourself, What am I thinking that makes me anxious, and then try to accept that thought without judgment or resistance. You can say to yourself "I'm having a thought that generates anxiety, and that's okay". Then scan your body for the sensations that come with anxiety. Where is it in the body? What does it feel like? How long does it last? And when you track that down, whatever you feel that represents anxiety for you, it'll probably keep showing up in the same way. Just sit with it, quietly observe it without moving. Sense the heat, the shape, the temperature and the vibration of the sensation that's inside you. And be aware also of the desire to run away from the feeling. All of that is still just sensation, let it be. Give you your gentle attention, breathe into it without trying to change anything. Within a minute or two, it might begin to move and disperse anyway. Your amygdala has done its job, it's Warned you about the anxiety provoking situation, and you have listened. That's going to be enough. So that's one technique for dealing with anxiety. Simply observe the emotion passing harmlessly through your body as energy. The second technique is to look more closely at the thoughts that give rise to anxiety for you. In my case, it might be "I don't know how to do that". This is very painful thought for me. I like being able to do things! So when this thought comes up, I'm tempted to resist it, but unfortunately resistance brings fight to the anxiety and it fights back... It intensifies the feeling. So if I can look at the thought "I don't know how to do that", I can ask myself if it's true. Probably not, but that is no where near as relevant is the question "Is it serving me to think that", because the answer to that is invariably "No", being distracted off a task by anxiety does not help me get the task done. So, I could just choose a new thought that does serve me. I could choose to think "I'm gonna be brilliant at this soon", which is also to be honest, usually true. Why not? At least as true as "I can't do it", but with the added bonus of generating no anxiety so I can stay on task and get it done. "I'm going to be brilliant at this soon" for me is kind of believable and it restores a sense of confidence and helps me get going again. So to review that, if you notice you're feeling anxious, first backtrack and find what you were doing, but more importantly, what negative thought you were thinking when the anxiety came up. Once you have that you can decide if it it's a useful thought or not. If it's not useful, you can choose to think a new thought on purpose, that will inspire confidence. Just make one up and see if you feel less anxious when you're thinking it, see if you can find a way to believe the new thought generate a bit of belief in it on purpose. So, they are a couple of techniques I teach and practice with my clients in burnout, and you can try them any time you're anxious and see how you go. They're just skills that you can build over time by constant practice. That's it for today. Next episode, we're gonna talk about the joys of overwork and some tips to help with it. Thank you for listening today. Really appreciate you being here. You can visit my website at dexrandall.com for the show notes, and please subscribe and rate this podcast. If you're in burnout and ready to recover, come and join my Burnout to Leadership program. You can book in to talk with me at burnout.dexrandall.com. Just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fix it.