I’m not an expert on anxiety, nor do I claim to be. But I do have some nuggets of insight to share. What I do know is that feeling anxiety is part of our neurological wiring; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Then there’s the anxiety present in situations that can preoccupy you and keep you from functioning to your best abilities. And then there’s debilitating anxiety – the kind that some may treat with prescription drugs. My experience and sharing is geared more towards the first two kinds of anxiety. Specifically, I want to share what I’ve discovered in study and in coaching leaders that have grappled with anxiety. I’ll share one example.
I once coached a senior leader who struggled with anxiety on a daily basis. It was present to the point that she would avoid confrontation due to discomfort and anxious feelings. Somewhere in the middle of our 6-month engagement, she confided that she had tried therapy, somatic bodywork and even working with horses as ways to help her manage the anxiety she felt. However, she felt our coaching process was the thing that really worked for her. So, what exactly did we do that was effective for her?
First, let’s start with a little context. Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author of How Emotions are Made, has done some groundbreaking thinking and research in the realm of emotions. In her book, she asks us to consider a new way of thinking about emotions, which I’ll apply here to help us think about anxiety. Based on her research and findings, emotions are predictions we make as we go through life. In other words, we predict how we are going to feel versus simply reacting to the outside world. Our predictions are based on prior learned concepts for feelings, our biology, and our experiences. We make the prediction of what is going to happen, and signal our body systems to allocate the appropriate energy and resources in that moment. This then translates into a concept or name of an emotion based on our past experience and how our culture and society helped us define this sensation. Our brain then engages in correcting for the prediction, based on what actually happens. This all happens very quickly. And hopefully, we then begin to predict more accurately based on past experience.
However, according to Feldman Barrett, “Anxiety sufferers, for whatever reasons, have weakened connections between several key hubs in the interoceptive network, including the amygdala….These weakened connections likely translate into an anxious brain that is clumsy at crafting predictions to match the immediate circumstances, and that fails to learn effectively from experience. You might predict threats needlessly, or create uncertainty by predicting imprecisely or not at all.”
So, if we view anxiety as an issue of prediction, we may understand our natural regulation system to be out of balance. From a coaching standpoint, the process then is about equipping the leader with sufficient tools to predict more accurately, lessening the gap between prediction and prediction error.
In the case of my client, we first started out by helping her define a different way of being. We helped her define a powerful, internal, confident voice. We even gave it a name and a personality. In other words, I asked her, “What would your XYZ powerful voice say in such a situation?” so she knew how to call on that voice when she needed it. In coaching, it’s really important to separate out the many different voices and narratives that run through our minds, and to develop or strengthen the voices that serve us the most. Because, as you guessed it, different ways of being take in and process the world differently and predict different things! Then, we identified the thread of the negative, critical voice that aligned with memories of some of her anxious predictions. She recently shared with me in helping to edit this piece of writing that she felt her anxiety was not the result of any one relationship or given thing, but rather, a result of the complex combination of circumstances and environment in which she grew up.
In one session, we practiced asserting herself more so she could effectively lead her team. I pretended to take the role of someone in her life she had felt anxious about with respect to meeting his or her expectations. I wanted her to confront me, to speak directly to me as if I were that person. So I asked her to step into her more powerful voice, to really feel it first. I stood in front of her. As she spoke to me, I pushed back with words that this person might have said to her. I asked her how she was feeling in her body. As she checked in with her feelings, we noticed her tendency was to want to physically move away from the interaction. With her permission, I asked her to step closer in front of me, and to pay attention to what was happening to her body. Then, I asked her to speak from her empowered voice to me. With awareness of her body, the more forceful, confident voice emerged. She stepped into her new, powerful way of being, moving towards me with courage vs. anxiety.
In a session following, we practiced what she would say to a real person - one of the team members she needed to confront. In her logical, matter of fact way, she took a stab. I could feel the hesitation and fear in her voice and body. She was back to predicting self-doubt, anxiety and fear. We practiced some more, in her more powerful voice and went through various “what ifs.” What if he gets angry? What if he reacts this way? What if he says this? By going through various scenarios of what ifs, and checking in with her body, we worked on getting her comfortable with and expanding the possibilities for what she might predict from such an interaction.
Before, she was stuck in an emotional prediction cycle around confrontation, based on her past experiences and who she was being at the time of those experiences. By stepping into a different way of being, as well as simulating scenarios for different possible outcomes, she started to alter the prediction her mind was so used to making around confrontation.
It’s not that we got rid of her anxiety, but we gave her the tools to interrupt the prediction cycle she was so used to being in with respect to confrontation. So the next time she had to confront someone, she could do so predicting a different outcome.
Our emotions are wired to concepts we are taught from the time we are infants, to old beliefs and to stories about our self-worth and ourselves. By exploring what we are predicting and paying attention to where emotions are felt in our body, we can start to empower ourselves to shift our feelings. Add to that a few coaching tools and simulation to help clients see other outcomes are possible, it’s possible to empower leaders out of their anxiety prediction loop. It does not happen overnight, and also takes great trust and safety within the relationship, but it is possible to start to change the way we predict, and in doing so, change our predictions around experiences that would have caused us anxiety in the past.