Dealing with Anxiety

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Recently two former CEOs of large multinational companies (one British and one American) were talking about the most serious mental health problems that exist in the large American and British universities they each chair. Surprisingly the challenge on both sides of the Atlantic and echoed at two university chair meetings they had just attended was anxiety. Anxiety in transitioning to college is not surprising, but the data said the anxiety increased, with graduate students being the most anxious. Some schools are significantly increasing their support staffs and paying even more attention to this growing problem. Moreover, media coverage and advice about dealing with anxiety is widespread, social media reports related to anxiety abound, and stories of the challenges young adults who came of age in the financial crisis face are daily fare. Clearly, something is happening here. Let’s step back and reflect. You undoubtedly have and will continue to feel various kinds of anxieties. It is part of life, and being skilled at managing anxieties, including realizing when you need help or must act, is an important part of becoming a fully mature adult in both personal and professional terms.

Let’s start by thinking about what feelings of anxiety usually represent. You know the feelings of dread, worry, uncertainty, fear, confusion, remorse, and even panic anxiety in all its forms can generate. These anxiety feelings are signals of dissonance. They are the means by which your subconscious surfaces unresolved feelings or important uncertainties or insecurities. These feelings of anxiety can range from the mild everyday feelings of social or minor professional jitters to full-blown panic attacks or even depression. The mild anxieties probably are not getting in your way, and the very serious ones require professional help. Let’s focus on the anxieties that really can get in your way, and that you can handle yourself or with the help of a good discussion partner, friend, or advisor.

Personal anxieties are part of the human condition. Am I in general happy with myself as a person? Is my health and fitness level adequate for me to pursue and enjoy life? Are my relationships with family and friends solid, healthy, and rewarding? Do I feel safe and secure in my person and life? Do I enjoy where I live and my personal circumstances? Do the people I care about trust, like, and respect me? Is now the time for children? We could probably also add to the list a possible digital life anxiety profile. The amount of time most people spend on social media cannot be all related to benign sharing and checking in. These personal anxieties ebb and flow but are always there to a greater or lesser degree. The goal is to understand their sources, decide whether you want or should take action to directly deal with them and with what priority, and decide if you need outside help of some kind in the process.

You are probably or will be experts at describing and thinking about all the forms of professional anxiety. You have likely experienced many of them already, and some might be at fever pitch as you are transitioning from HBS to the wider world. Can I do the job, make my boss happy, and receive recognition? Is this the right job? Am I on track in all the ways to measure that? What are my prospects? Do I like the work? Do I know what people really think of me? When will I be promoted? Do I like and can I thrive in this culture? Should I take that next job or opportunity? Is this the right industry or company? How can I achieve the right work life balance? Am I ready for the demands of this meeting, presentation, or project? Can I meet my financial needs and goals soon enough? The list goes on and will likely increase in magnitude and intensity on both the personal and professional fronts through your thirties and forties as life goals get bigger and more complicated and available time seems to shrink in both tactical and strategic dimensions. The prior paragraphs might paint a scary picture with little hope. That is not the case if you take the right approaches.

So, what to do? HBS often uses frameworks to make remembering and putting into practice ideas, so let’s do that. There are three interdependent things you should do to manage and deal with anxieties that might really be getting in your way: (1) inventory and triage; (2) develop an action plan; and (3) share your assessment and plan with a caring, trusted, objective discussion partner or advisor. How do you actually put this process into practice?

The inventory and triage part of the process is where to really bear down. Find a quiet place when you are rested and have time. Write down what concerns you, why, and root causes. Do not rush this, and think deeply. You do not want to be in denial, nor do you want to amplify things that are really not that major. As you do this listen to your inner voice and bring all your hard-earned HBS critical thinking skills to bear. Now the hard part. Are there any things that are so overwhelming, debilitating, or unhealthy that you need professional help? Hopefully not, but do not ignore danger signals of depression, obsessive rumination, or consistent sleeplessness. Next pick at most three of the things you that you can and are truly willing to focus upon. They will inevitably require effort, persistence, and time to affect.

Now the really hard part. Develop an action plan with measurable steps, timeframes, and desired end state. You want big changes? You need to make big changes. Perhaps starting with one is best and save the rest for later. The action plan is not easy or quick to develop. Putting the plan into effect will take even more effort. Change is incredibly hard but the key to growth. Now you are ready for the next step. Find an objective, trusted, caring, wise discussion partner or advisor. Each one of these descriptors is important and none more than “trusted.” You must have trust to really be open. They must be caring to give you the time and attention you seek. Do not look for someone who just affirms your analysis and plan. They need to be constructive but challenging. Diagnosis is much easier than prescription, so a focus on the “now what are you going to do and how will you know it is working?” becomes the key question. Write your advisor a summary note of thanks, synthesis of your discussion, and your conclusions. Schedule a check-in time to review progress in a few weeks. Be at peace that you have thought deeply about the issues, assessed them, and are taking constructive steps endorsed by a trusted advisor. You will make progress and most importantly have named and confronted those demons that we all have in our psychological basements. Anxiety management is akin to continually weeding the garden to be able to enjoy the true beauty of life. 

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s president for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.