Anxiety, Adrenaline, and Hurry

How They Get in the Way of Leading People Somewhere Worth Going

Jon Berbaum

President

April 1st, 2020

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

This is the second article in an impromptu series where I’ve started reflecting on people-first leadership in light of the crisis caused by coronavirus pandemic, instead of my normal topics around digital products, innovation, and human-centered design. You can find the first article here: How to be People First in a Pandemic.

It may seem out of character for me to be talking about people-first leadership. I’ve written extensively about design thinking, product strategy, and digital innovation. My company, Highland, specializes in digital product strategy and custom software development. We’re not leadership coaches. But our mission is to build digital experiences that make peoples’ lives meaningfully better. Part of making peoples’ lives meaningfully better right now means helping our team and our broader community manage the anxiety and uncertainty that is impacting all of us.

I recorded a video message sharing my thoughts below. If you'd prefer to watch instead of read, please do.


So I want to talk about anxiety, adrenaline, and hurry. How they’re connected. How they get in the way of leading people somewhere worth going. And how to unwind the anxious state we often find ourselves in.

I find leaders and organizations operate in a state of anxiety even in relatively unanxious times. And in challenging, uncertain times, look out.

I think anxiety is ever-present in our culture for two reasons.

First, we often have no idea how anxious we are, because anxiety is a normal state of being. Anxiety is emotional background noise, and our brain filters it out, just like the hum of a fan in the background or the feel of the chair against your back. Of course, anxiety usually shows up not just as an emotional state but also as a feeling in our gut, and as tension in our shoulders. But for many of us, our brain just filters that out too.

Second, even if we are aware that we’re anxious, we get addicted to the state of heightened adrenaline that’s created by our anxiety. We see how being anxious drives us, and how being driven makes us successful and—we think—safer and more in control. So it makes sense we decide we need our anxiety to operate. 

I failed at my first career. At 28 I was unemployed, nearly unemployable, and—I kid you not—living in the basement of my friend’s townhouse while my wife was working two jobs and pregnant with our first child. Once I started a new career in digital product and innovation, I was not going to fail again. I operated on low-grade anxiety-fueled adrenaline for a decade before I realized the anxiety and self-protection sitting under my driven-ness and adrenaline wasn’t good for me or the people I was leading.

So I became aware of how anxious I was, and decided I didn’t want to be anxious. And then I hit a wall. Because lots of people tell you not to be anxious. But no one tells you how to not be anxious.

I’ve found two simple practices to be key to unwinding anxiety.

First, when I feel the sensations that tell me I’m afraid, I’ve learned to stop and be present to myself, especially my fear. 

People hate feeling fear. We often misinterpret it as anger, because anger is easier to feel than fear. Or we shove it down and away. But counter-intuitively, the way to not operate out of anxiety is to focus on your anxiety when you feel it. It’s emotional aikido.

What happens if you stop for 30 seconds right now and focus your attention on your anxiety? You might feel pretty uncomfortable once you stop filtering it out and focus on it. But instead of forcing it away, welcome it. Admit that you’re feeling really anxious. Admit that it makes sense that you’re anxious. Give yourself permission to feel afraid. I’ve found if I spend about 2 minutes allowing myself to feel anxious, the anxiety releases—like a muscle cramp relaxing—and I can move forward.

Second, I’ve learned to unhook the adrenaline and hurry loop.

There’s a story told by John O’Donohue in his book Anam Cara. In the story, an English explorer travels to Africa during the height of colonialism, where he hires local guides and porters for an expedition. They travel far the first day. On the second day, the Englishman cannot get his hired crew to resume the journey. When he demands to know why, they respond, “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we need to wait to give our souls a chance to catch up to our bodies”.

Anxiety, hurry, and adrenaline all operate in this self-reinforcing cycle. We usually massively overfill our schedules and ride waves of adrenaline from one task to another. This is held up as not only necessary but even good. This ignores how anxiety is often the fuel for our hurry and adrenaline. I have found for myself that the best way to be non-anxious is to be unhurried; slowing down my body is the most direct way to calm down my soul. 

And that’s what we ultimately want for ourselves, I think, and the kind of person people want to follow. May each of us lead this week out of what we want for ourselves, our organizations, and the world, and not out of anxiety and fear.

What else? How are you leaning in to being people first in this moment? I'd love to hear what others are doing during these challenging and uncertain times. Send me an email or shoot me a message on LinkedIn and let me know how you're approaching things.