Dealing with anxiety as a CEO is a challenge on its own, and current circumstances have certainly exacerbated the issue. We’re facing unprecedented times, watching businesses close until further notice and experiencing the first global health crisis of most of our lives.
With the world shifting before our eyes, impacting the health of the globe, economic growth and job security along the way, how do we stay calm as founders, CEOs and human beings? How do we remain rational, grounded and prevent our fear from taking control?
When life circumstances tell you there’s something worth obsessing over, it’s hard to ignore. As a CEO diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, I’m extremely familiar with this concept. If you’re anything like me, chances are your anxiety is two-sided: Although at times it feels like a weakness and a major distraction, it also drives you to focus and succeed.
Doubt, analysis paralysis and incessant questioning are exhausting, and every one of us is getting a taste of it right now: Wash your hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” stock up on toilet paper, plan your meals for the next few months, carry hand sanitizer wherever you go and whatever you do, don’t touch your face.
We’re all carrying more fear than normal right now, but you owe it to your clients, your team and your audiences to show up as a leader during this challenging time, regardless of how much stress is on your plate. Here are some techniques on how to do just that.
Be transparent with your team
As entrepreneurs, our minds work nonstop thinking of new ideas that will support the growth of our businesses, clients and team members. If you’re not transparent with your team about how your brain works (and how it’s on high speed right now), there’s going to be unnecessary friction and stress as they work to keep up. Because of my OCD, a small detail can seem like a huge barrier in the moment. There are times when it slows me down — the tweaking, the checking, the overanalyzing, the striving for perfection (while simultaneously knowing perfection doesn’t exist).
It’s easy to come off as hypercritical when you are stressed, but being a leader means knowing who you are and how your brain works. My advice is to communicate your feedback with kindness, patience and understanding. Although your brain might work a certain way, your team members might not understand the weight you carry on your shoulders. Create an open, transparent dialogue with your team. Strategize together about the best way to move forward with the problem or task at hand. Just make sure to do it with compassion for yourself and for your team members.
Slow down a little
Sometimes we fall into the trap of sending off that email, slack message or text whenever the thought comes to mind — fearful that if we don’t get it down and document it in some form it will disappear forever. We’re all guilty of the late-night or early-morning email frenzy. But it’s important to take a step back and realize who’s on the receiving end of these messages.
When I get the urge to fire off emails, I try to distance myself from the issue for a bit. Since my brain can err on the side of catastrophizing, if a situation is impacting me, I take time to let it be. The same goes for an email. If the email contains sensitive information or feedback, I sit on it for a few hours before hitting “send.” Sometimes I even use the 24-hour rule: I write up what I have to say and save it in my drafts folder to review after I’ve had time and space away from the situation. The phrase “Sleep on it” was created for a reason!
Let the little things go, and focus on the bigger picture
When big things are happening, our brains tend to fixate on the little things. Subconsciously, we want to regain some feeling of control. This is when it’s most important to remind yourself of your overall vision. What are you really committed to? What are your larger priorities as a brand and company?
As a leader, people — especially your employees — are watching you right now. They are looking to you for guidance, peace of mind and the next step. Are you panicking or pivoting? Are you ignoring or investing? Are you hiding or helping?
In times of challenge, there need to be people who, amidst the chaos and fear, consider the larger possibilities. Many great ideas were born from challenging circumstances. Famously, Charles Darrow created the Monopoly game during the Great Depression. Like many, Darrow lost his job and recognized the need for board games during a time when many could not spend their money on entertainment. My company came about during a personally challenging time. I needed a supportive community that held me accountable to my dreams, ideas and goals when I was going through Lyme disease treatment and grieving the loss of my brother. I spoke to hundreds of women who needed that same type of support, and that was what sparked my business idea.
Lean on your team’s strengths
My OCD makes me a shark at work, but if I’m not hyper aware, it can also slow me down. Every now and then, I will feel my brain hanging onto something that feels out of alignment, out of place or just “off” for me. If I can’t spot what it is, I’ll go to my business partner or another team member. I surround myself with people who are calm and stoic. Having that grounded perspective is a key ingredient to making our business run efficiently and successfully. Every CEO needs to know their strengths and weaknesses. I know my job is to hire people who are better than me in their specific zone of genius. That’s your job, too.
Be aware of your triggers and what you need to decompress
My stress and anxiety always ramp up when the pressure is high, and I know many others are also experiencing that right now. Anytime my company is launching a new program or going through a rebrand, I know to expect an increase in obsessive thinking. Knowing this, I make sure to balance out work time with “unplugged” to focus on myself and get some rest. I know when to pause and get a second opinion. If it takes you longer to do your work because you’re obsessing over an intrusive thought like your business ending or getting sick, take a step back and breathe. Call a team member, colleague, coach or mentor whom you can rely on for advice.
Self-care is a requirement in order to do good work. To me, that means self-care is also a requirement for my team members. To be able to take care of our business, we have to take care of ourselves first — particularly during a time like now, when circumstances are out of our control and schedules and routines are up in the air.
Most importantly, don’t feel bad about the way your brain works, now or ever. Remember, the value of knowing yourself is so important for your business and company culture. Using the techniques I’ve described in this article doesn’t make you weak or lacking. It makes you a strong leader who’s smart, savvy and knows their way around challenging times.