Alongside the pandemic, a subtler yet still malignant epidemic has simmered: anxiety. In the past year alone, 20 per cent of people in the UK have reported a dip in their mental health; and at work, anxiety’s most potent breeding ground, the already-blurred lines dividing our personal and our professional lives became notably fuzzier during lockdown.
It is now the unwelcome bedfellow of our jobs. “That gives me such bad anxiety,” is a phrase I hear countless people say – friends, colleagues, myself – about everything to do with work, from emails to Zoom meetings. A ping on our phones can send us into a tailspin; a request for a meeting can set our guts twisting for hours. But according to Dr Wendy Suzuki, the professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, these feelings do not have to be unhelpful or damaging to our wellbeing. In fact, if we can re-cast them, they could hold the secret to workplace success.
“We think of anxiety as something that is wrong with us, when actually it is part of our evolution. Your stress system has been programmed to respond to anything it perceives as a threat. Instead of thinking of it as something happening to you, view it as an inbuilt strength, something you are doing to protect yourself,” she explains. Hence the title of her latest book, Anxiety is Your Superpower.
“It is a survival mechanism,” agrees the psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber, an expert in workplace anxiety. “But now it’s over-exercised, over-refined. We can sit in our own spiralling nervousness simply waiting for a response from a manager, and most of the time the person we thought we offended hasn’t even noticed, or the project we thought was terrible ends up fine. We are generating this unease ourselves.” It seems we are using this undervalued superpower in the wrong way. Fox Weber tells me we need to “disinvest our anxiety from unhelpful spaces and reinvest it towards more fruitful goals”, using our nervous energy to be more productive. “The fact is, we should be a little anxious at work,” she says. “It is what keeps us motivated and focused. But the key is the dosage. We want to be eager to do well, not actually panicked.”
The self-generated panic Fox Weber describes – the ‘What if?’ questions – can easily be flipped to become what Suzuki calls “good anxiety”, using that questioning nature to be hyper-vigilant about our work. In this way, anxiety can breed enhanced focus. “That buzz in your stomach when you are nervous asking a question in a meeting, or before you give a presentation,” Suzuki explains, “that shows you care, that means you will be more diligent and alert. It’s the primordial instinct kicking in and it sharpens your memory.” I think back to expressions such as “feel the fear, do it anyway”; or the director Phyllida Lloyd’s comment in a recent issue of this magazine that “the only job worth doing is the one that makes your stomach lurch with fear”. That frenetic, sometimes frightening energy can also be a battery pack to productivity, inventiveness and even greater success.
Suzuki’s book lists the various superpowers good anxiety can unlock, from boosted creativity and heightened performance to increased resilience. “Worry could make us procrastinate; or it could help us fine-tune our plans; adjust our expectations of ourselves; become more realistic or goal-directed.” She calls this “leveraging the brain’s plasticity”.
“The brain is one of the most adaptable organs in the body. You can consciously intervene and change the way you respond to stress. You can think: it’s not something I’m drowning in, it is just a challenge. Let’s see how I can step up to it.”
This involves training, or what Suzuki refers to as building “stress tolerance”. Much like inoculation, it seems exposing yourself to a little anxiety, and better understanding it, actually makes us you stronger. One of the first steps is identifying your top three work worries and interrogating why these are particular triggers for you. By asking yourself these questions, you can learn more about what you want and can then judge how justified that anxiety may be, how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is. If ‘good’, you can then lean into it, using your apprehension as fuel rather than a roadblock.
It can eventually become a tool for self-optimisation. Many of the hacks Suzuki recommends for dealing with ‘bad’ anxiety feel wellness-oriented; from exercise and breathing strategies to building personalised moments of joy or calm into your day. This can be meditation, yoga or even recalling a happy memory every time that email notification sets you worrying. These mini moments of resistance – or in her words, a self-administered “antidote” – are meant to remind you that you are still in control. She dubs it “the art of worrying well”.
“The goal is not anxiety elimination,” she declares. “If it was, we would lose this chance to learn, this drive and energy. If you make anxiety part of a learning process, instead of trying to block it out entirely, it could actually make your life less stressful and more joyful. That’s the move that makes this a superpower.”
‘Anxiety is Your Superpower’ by Dr Wendy Suzuki (£14.99, Yellow Kite) is published on 14 October.
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