If you’re leading a team of four or more, chances are, at least one of your colleagues is coping with anxiety. Or maybe, that person is you. High-achieving individuals are particularly prone to anxiety, which also is twice as common among women as it is among men. Anxiety has long been a taboo topic in the workplace, especially in leadership circles. In a conversation with Chief Members, author and entrepreneur Morra Aarons-Mele makes the case that the stigma must end — now.

“Everything leadership gurus say about bringing your whole self to work or leading with authenticity is a lie if we don’t factor in how anxiety is showing up for us, for our teams, and for everyone in the office,” says the author of The Anxious Achiever. “We don’t talk about anxiety because we conflate it with weakness. If we don’t start talking about it — and not from a position of weakness, but from a position of humanity and strength — things won’t change.”

The patterns and behaviors that stem from anxiety are often damaging, but as Aarons-Mele explains, anxiety itself is “good data.” It tells us when to check in with ourselves and others, and when it’s time to make a change. It can even drive us to higher levels of performance and emotional intelligence. The challenge is to learn how to manage it. “And when we do, we become better leaders,” says Aarons-Mele.

The first step in learning to manage your anxiety is to understand that it is a normal human response, designed to keep us safe from danger. The anxiety we feel is not just in our heads, especially when it comes to those of us who are not white men. When women and people of color work in racist, patriarchal, and otherwise toxic systems, they face real risks — and this drives anxiety.

While we cannot control the external factors that make us anxious, we can control how we respond. Aarons-Mele recommends three mindset shifts to regulate your response.

Ask Yourself, “What Is My Anxiety Trying to Tell Me?”

Anxiety delivers data. It might be telling you, “I’m upset,” whether that’s due to a rude comment or an after-hours email. Or the anxiety you feel may be an indicator that you truly care about something, like an upcoming interview or presentation. Identify the trigger and the why behind it, then pause to consider your response.

It’s really about understanding what is setting you off and how you’re reacting. That is the most powerful way to start understanding your leadership anxiety and how it shows up for you.
Morra Aarons-Mele, author of "The Anxious Achiever"

Practice Giving Up Control

Control feels good, especially when we’re anxious. This urge to control can easily escalate into micromanagement and perfectionism. These behaviors don’t just harm our relationships and mental health, they also damage our leadership capability. People want leaders to lead, not pester them with endless check-ins or do all the work on their own.

Aarons-Mele acknowledges that giving up control is not easy, so she recommends starting with experiments. The next time you feel the urge to be a perfectionist or to micromanage, just let go. Most often, someone will step up to the plate — and you might be surprised by just how well they perform.

When you can step back and say, ‘Maybe I don’t have to be perfect, so other people can be great,’ you’re able to be more empathetic. And, you’re able to be a better manager and leader.
Morra Aarons-Mele, author of "The Anxious Achiever"

Break the Habit of Thinking Traps

Automatic mental responses, or thought traps, are extremely common responses to anxiety. One that many of us have experienced is catastrophizing. If we get one negative comment in a performance review or one line item in the budget gets nixed, we think, “It’s all over.” These thought traps are sticky not just because they’re unconscious, but also because we start to see them as helpful motivators. High achievers often view their worry and overwork as a driver of their success. But what it really drives is burnout.

Breaking out of thought traps is a skill that requires a lot of practice, but there’s an easy way to get started. The next time you experience one, pause and ask yourself, “Where’s the evidence?” Does that one negative comment on your performance review provide sufficient evidence that you’re bad at your job? Does one nixed line item mean the entire project is in peril? When you stop to examine the evidence, you can pull yourself out and move forward with a smarter, more nuanced understanding of the situation.

The key is interrupting the automatic thought trap and gathering evidence to create a more nuanced, balanced thought.
Morra Aarons-Mele, author of "The Anxious Achiever"

Aarons-Mele acknowledges that learning to live with anxiety is a journey. She has tried numerous medications and therapeutic modalities to manage her own bipolar diagnosis, and still isn’t “cured.” And for her, that’s okay. “I’ve come to see my anxiety as a true key ingredient in who I am,” she says, “And my biggest a-ha (after interviewing hundreds of leaders) is that we all learn to love our anxious selves.”