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Dr. Feelgood, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Anxiety

This kind of scenario used to put me around the bend: I walk into a conference room where three or four corporate honchos are waiting with their deadpan faces and legal pads and personal bottles of Evian. I'm here to pitch my consulting expertise, to show why snapping up my stellar independent services would be smarter/better/more cost-effective than renting hotshots from Andersen Consulting or the fabled McKinsey & Co. But even before I start, I'm flooded with dread. Every alarm bell in my body is yowling. My heart's hammering, and my mind's about to go blank. And the whole time, those big shots sit there like poached eggs on toast, while I sweat it out, in extremis, worrying about what they'll think of me and whether I'll meet their expectations. When it's finally over and I'm sprung, I'm practically singing with relief -- until it hits me that I'll be in professional limbo for another week or two, when my would-be client gets around to letting me know if I've got the gig. My palms turn clammy all over again.

In credentialed psychological circles, they'd take one look at how I awfulized that situation and diagnose garden-variety anxiety. "Anxiety," writes Dr. Frederic Flach in The Secret Strength of Depression, "is essentially a state of apprehension, nervousness, mild fear, and uneasiness." So far, this catches me perfectly, and -- no surprise here -- I'm not the only one. That general description fits upwards of 19 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the federal agency that conducts and supports research related to mental disorders and mental health. Anxiety's the scourge of modern life, so it figures that quite a few of us have more than a passing acquaintance with its uncomfortable and unwelcome effects. Anybody who's ever had to set foot into uncertain and dangerous terrain -- like, say, a viper pit or a prospect's office -- has been hit with the jitters, and sometimes worse: twitching, headaches, nausea, irritability, and a huge inventory of other symptoms through which anxiety can reveal itself.

There are theories out the wazoo about anxiety: what it is, why it plagues us, and how we might be able to get the upper hand (therapy and medication). Most IPs just want to get rid of the jitters before their next big presentation or networking shindig (and who can blame them?). But experts also say that a certain amount of anxiety can actually be good for you. As NIMH's own Web site puts it, "Anxiety rouses you to action. It gears you up to face a threatening situation. It makes you study harder for that exam, and keeps you on your toes when you're making a speech. In general, it helps you cope." Sign me up!

Before I get into explaining how you can make anxiety your friend, let me mention one important exception to this whole thesis. There's such a thing as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition marked by chronic, extreme worry and tension when there's no apparent reason for it. "It's a $500 response to a $50 situation," says Seattle-based consulting psychologist and management educator Barbara Mackoff. "A clinical diagnosis of anxiety refers to an ongoing, habitual mode of thinking" that can torment sufferers with terrifying panic attacks, compulsive behaviors, phobias, flashbacks, or nightmares, and at the very least, make getting through the day a crushing task. It transmutes a normally helpful emotion into its dysfunctional evil twin.

For most of us, though, anxiety isn't so much a deeply rooted psychological problem requiring medication as it is a predictable human response to specific situations. Say you're reviewing your cold-call list or prepping for an upcoming seminar. Your heart gallops, you get a little sweaty, your mouth goes dry, your neck cramps. No, you're not cracking up. "Those are sensations of typical anxiety," Dr. Mackoff points out. "Most people experience them from time to time. What's really important isn't that you feel these things, it's how you label them," which brings us to the first of a handful of good ways you can put this contemporary affliction to work for you.

The way you interpret those physical warning signs is crucial. Before you gulp down a little something to calm your ragged nerves, realize that this a powerful chance to whittle your worries down to size. "The opportunity lies right here," Mackoff says, "when you first read the sensation. You could say to yourself, 'Oh, look how nervous I am,' and spin out catastrophics that keep you up all night." Or you can seize this moment for self-appraisal. "Anxiety gets your attention; it raises a question," Mackoff points out. "It tells you, here's something that matters to you. Now you can ask, 'Why am I so anxious about this?' If you don't let the horse out of the barn, anxiety invites exploration and lets you do some realistic thinking. It hands you a task, which makes it more manageable."

Mackoff urges IPs to develop the skill of spotting the signs and sensations of anxiety until it becomes what she calls a "habit of mind." That's a valuable inner psychic routine for anybody, but especially IPs, Mackoff says, since "they work on their own and often have too much time to think about what worries them." Once you recognize what's gaining on you, you can supply an "optimistic narrative," which is simply a positive explanation for what's bugging you. In other words, you change the meaning of an event. If I'd done that with my client audition, I'd have coached myself to think along these lines: Man, I sure am nervous about this meeting. I'm going to take my nervous energy and turn it around. This does not throw me, I'm just excited. Of course I'm a little jumpy -- I'm alive. I'll be animated and turned on, and I'll show them what I can do. This takes practice, practice, practice, but as all performers and professional speakers know, moderate antsyness looks like energy to an audience -- a point worth remembering next time you're on the hot seat.

Okay, but what about those times when you just can't come up with a good-news story? Find another way to short-circuit the anxiety cycle, Mackoff advises. "Get up and do something -- swim, run, walk -- anything to blow off those physical sensations of anxiety and find and label the cause." If cold-calls make you go haywire, Mackoff suggests tackling them after a workout at the gym. The physiological reason is that exercise helps metabolize all that excess adrenaline you've been pumping while you fret. Better to get up and get moving than simply try to ignore the telltale sweaty palms and wobbly knees.

But can denial ever be a good strategy? "Well, as a temporary measure, you can declare a moratorium on worrying," Mackoff says. "It's not a vacation from paying your bills or your vendors, but you can decide not to think about your new financing strategy until August, or delay printing a big new brochure for 60 days."

What about some of those ultra-successful businesspeople you know who act like they're going to lose every last client by tomorrow morning? That attitude seems to function as a talisman against bad karma. It must work for them. "Well, it could work for some personalities," Mackoff concedes. "But as a general approach, no. Whatever strategy you pick, you should be able to do it for a prosperous long time."

Turning anxiety into your ally is really an act of discipline, a "habit of mind" that you can't fake but you can encourage.

Turning anxiety into your ally is really an act of discipline, a "habit of mind" that you can't fake but you can encourage, given time and attention. Now we know there's no magic, but there are these five basic steps involved: recognizing triggers (who or what tears up your nerves); spotting the physical sensations (sweating, cramping, blanking out); understanding the way your own history affects how you're responding now (one lousy speech might be looming too large in your addled brain, making you swear off speaking ever again); reframing what you think and believe about the event (from "I'm about to pass out" to "Of course I'm nervous, anybody would be"); and finally, reframing your purpose, which shifts the focus from catastrophes you're trying to avoid to the goals you're trying to reach.

The difference is more than semantic. Accomplishing this demands that you invest something of yourself -- not merely sit by quietly, swallow a pill, and bliss out. But the psychological benefits of getting in the game are incalculable: resiliency and self-respect, character and toughness. To assign a pitch meeting or PowerPoint presentation its proper weight, to unshackle yourself from the devastating expectations of other people -- now there's something you can be proud of.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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