In working with leaders, the topics of anxiety and stress, and how to manage them at home and in the workplace, often comes up. When anxiety sets in, it’s all too common to think you have to bottle it up inside, to wear a mask of confidence without honoring your true feelings. But this doesn’t help you, your family or your organization.
If you find anxiety and stress are ruling your life, you can shift your experience and jumpstart your joy by practicing these three simple but powerful steps:
1. Notice your negative thoughts and beliefs
Negative thoughts are a habit that can cause anxiety and unhappiness. Negative thinking can even harm your health. Like any bad habit, negative thinking can be unlearned. Noticing how often you tell yourself something negative can have a significant impact.
Spend a few days observing yourself. Every time you think, feel or say something negative, write it down or make a tick mark on a sheet of paper. Include negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself, other people or your situation.
2. Observe the facts
Once you’ve become aware of your negative thoughts, take a pause and make a factual observation. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic. Your first reaction might be, “What a jerk!” Now pause and observe the facts. You might think, “That person pulled in front of me, and I wasn’t expecting it. That made me nervous because I felt afraid for my safety.”
Sometimes this is referred to as “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” the mental activity of stepping back from the action and gaining higher perspective by asking yourself what’s really going on. To be more objective, it can help to think of yourself as a scientist collecting data.
Observing the facts calms us down and helps us be mindful. Mindfulness has many benefits: It reduces stress, improves concentration and strengthens our immune system. Mindfulness can even lengthen our lives.
3. Tell yourself something empathetic or positive
You’ve mastered the art of noticing negative thoughts and objectively observing your reactions. Now it’s time to reframe to empathetic or positive thoughts. In the traffic example, you might say, “Last week, I accidentally cut someone off when I rushed to pick up Charlie. I hope that person makes it safely to wherever they’re going.”
Positive thinking has many health and well-being benefits. Science also says empathy lowers stress, strengthens our relationships, reduces pain and makes us better leaders. It can bring connection and happiness to other people’s lives. It has even greater benefits for your own.
The three steps in action
You’re looking for a new job. After what you thought was a great interview, you found out you weren’t selected for the position.
1. Notice your negative thoughts: “What did I do wrong? I’m never going to find another job.”
2. Observe the facts: “I didn’t get the job. I’m disappointed because I thought the interview went well.”
3. Reframe to something empathetic or positive: “I feel great about my interview. There must be a good reason why I didn’t get this job. I’m excited to be one step closer to the job that’s right for me.”
Practice daily for a lifetime of joy
While this is a straightforward process, it can be tough to do at first. Start with low-risk situations like waiting in line. Progress to more intense situations such as high-stakes meetings.
Keep practicing. Over time, the three steps will become a habit – a great habit that will serve you well and bring more joy to your life.