Converting Increased Anxiety

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

In 1999, George Bell, then CEO of Excite, tried to explain his profound sense of weariness to former Internet pioneer and CEO Michael Wolff:  Bell said, “It’s not just the airplanes. It’s not just raising money – endless amounts of money.  It’s not just looking at a vast payroll every other week at a company that is not able to reliably support itself.  It’s not just the uncertainty.  It’s not just the 24/7 business schedule.  It’s the acceleration.  Your job is to transform – and to be transformed.  To be able to withstand some speeded-up evolutionary process.  And, of course, to be one of the evolutionary survivors…I’ve lost the capacity to let my guard down.”

Bell was burned-out.  Burnout is a state of exhaustion, the result of prolonged stress and anxiety. Burnout has become more common over the past decade as the borderless economy led to unrelieved pressure, shorter and shorter time frames, and hugely expanded work days and weeks and months.  Burnout results from a long-term persistent feeling you’ve lost control over what’s happening to you.  Instead of feeling in control, you feel controlled by everyone else’s demands and needs, pushed by events and commitments, without choices, unable to say, “No.” 

When people are feeling very anxious, they desperately want to feel they can trust other people, and that requires that they believe they’re being told the truth. At work that means that management, especially, must walk the talk.  It is crucial that management does what it says it will.  Anxious people require structure and clarity.  Tasks and goals need to be specific, priorities need to be clear, and deadlines for sub-parts of a project as well as the completed task need to be supplied.   Because anxious people need specific goals, priorities, rules and deadlines, when management doesn’t supply those, employees must ask for them.   

The intrinsic unpredictability of the borderless world lends itself to increased anxiety.   Anxiety is a vague feeling of dread or threat. Because anxiety doesn’t have a clear shape, it is very different from fear, which is specific.  Anxiety is a very powerful negative emotion and its cumulative power arises from its vagueness because we can’t put our arms around a shadow or a cloud.

September 11th, got many people scared.  It was appropriate to be afraid of more terrorist attacks, especially if you lived in New York or Washington or anywhere else that included logical symbolic or military targets.  But from a psychological point of view, the power of 9/11 was not that people got fearful.  Rather, the assault on the Trade Towers especially, caused lots of psychologically normal people to become profoundly anxious, preoccupied for a few days or weeks with unanswerable questions: Am I going to die? What is going to happen to me?”

Anxiety is expressed in the cry, “What is going to happen to me?” which is very different from a fear like,  “If I don’t have this operation, I could die!”   In the real world, no one knows and no one can know what is going to happen to them or anyone else.   “What is going to happen to me?,” is a futile question because it has no answer, which is why most people, most of the time, don’t dwell on questions like that.  Because anxiety generates questions without answers, anxiety generates more anxiety, which is very destructive to people’s well-being.

To reduce normal anxiety levels like those generated by terrorist attacks, vague anxiety or dread must be converted into fears or problems. Once a vague sense of foreboding has become a specific fear or problem, people can start to address the issue, create plans and take action.  They can do something.  Just taking action starts to reinstate some sense of personal control. “If I don’t have this operation…” becomes an action plan:  How do I find an outstanding surgeon?  Which hospitals have a great track record for this kind of surgery?  What are my options?

At work, the fear, “If I don’t meet this deadline, I could lose my job”, becomes, “How can I get this finished faster? I could hire a temporary assistant who could do research and type.  The analysis is really slowing things down. . . I could ask around and see if any of the other people in the office have done an analysis similar to this and could give me some help.  Maybe I should explain things to my boss.”

Feeling anxious is the epitome of feeling you have no control over what is happening to you. Anxiety begets more anxiety because we can’t solve problems that are vague and non-specific.  To master anxiety, it’s necessary to convert whatever is threatening and amorphous into something real and specific.  Just transforming vague anxiety into specific issues contributes to regaining a sense of having control.  When anxiety has been transformed into definite fears or issues, there is a real possibility that they can be addressed and solved.   It is then when we have met real challenge, that we develop the skills and the conviction we can deal with anything that life throws our way.


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