Pathological Anxiety

Anxiety, like an uninvited guest, often overstays its welcome in the minds of leaders. It whispers in our ears everything that could go wrong. Some executives go through years bracing for an incoming storm, even when the skies are clear. When anxiety becomes your default viewpoint, it’s like trying to lead while carrying a weight on your shoulders that’s bogging you down. However, there are steps every leader can take to fight it.

The Anxiety Trap

First, let me say that this is no joking manner, and sometimes anxiety becomes so severe that no online article—even mine—is good enough. I’ve spoken with several entrepreneurs lately who suffered repeated panic attacks. If your anxiety has become debilitating, the only correct course of action is to get the help you need. You owe it to yourself, your family, and your company.

Nevertheless, even though the vast majority suffer “normal” anxiety, it can become a state of constant worry. A client recently asked for my advice regarding something, even when it was all actually going according to the original plan. For example, if you’ve made a conscious choice to change your business model, knowing it will irritate some of your existing clients, why be worried when precisely that happens?

This pathological anxiety isn’t just distressing; it’s also counterproductive. When leaders are gripped by chronic worry, decision-making suffers. Instead of making clear, decisive choices, they procrastinate, fretting over what might go wrong rather than what could go right. The entire team feels the effects as anxiety trickles down and breeds a culture of fear and uncertainty.

Taming the Beast

Let’s be real; our aim shouldn’t be to abolish all anxiety. You don’t want to become numb. Some anxiety is healthy, after all, because it is aimed at helping you avoid issues. As long as we learn to treat it just as such and not let it control us, it is fine.

It starts with setting clear decision timelines. For example, I regularly see clients fretting whether they should pull the trigger on X or not. It’s as if, for weeks, every few minutes, they are reminded of this “open loop,” which exerts a significant toll on their cognitive abilities. Flip the situation around. Set a deadline for making a decision and the right criteria. That provides a concrete endpoint to the anxiety. It also forces a shift from endless worrying to productive thinking – evaluating options, weighing pros and cons, and ultimately, making a decision. So, work backward and assess when is the final time you can make the decision, what conditions would have to be present for the decision to fit your risk profile, and how you’ll execute either way. Now, step back. Whether the thought pops in your head again, tell yourself, “I’ve already decided how to handle this.” (Sounds like meditation? Well, this is all about mindfulness.)

Another part is to learn to reframe worries. The great book Learned Optimism describes researched-back approaches for handling this negative self-talk. A lot of it boils down to taking negative thoughts and working to make them specific and local. For example, if your anxiety whispers, “This is going to fail just like the previous time,” tell yourself that the last time was a very specific case. Now you have learned how to do things differently, and you have a career track record showing you usually succeed. No setback is eternal. No obstacle is the one “to do you in.”

Lastly, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. You can decide to share with your peers in the company or your employees. You might consider joining a community of peers where you can openly discuss these situations with people who have been through the same. Or consider getting some to help you. Many of my clients work with me not because they need someone that “has all the answers” but merely to have a trusted advisor they can confide in. Don’t fall for the anxiety trap.