Frances Gleeson talks to Stewart Geddes about his new book, The Professional Worrier, and finds out how to manage anxiety at home and at workThe word ‘anxious’ alone is enough to make me feel it. We all experience anxiety. For some of us, it is triggered by stressful circumstances. For more of us, it is part of how our personalities developed from childhood, a combination of nurture and nature. For others, it goes beyond that into the realm of a medical condition. Stewart Geddes’ book, The Professional Worrier, is about managing his own anxiety and counselling others to do the same with theirs.
While there is a strong focus on work-related stress, the book offers an in-depth understanding of how anxiety works and tools that can be applied regardless of the particular triggers.
While, Geddes says, most often there are many variants at play for anxiety, sometimes it can be triggered or exacerbated by particularly stressful situations. In such situations, engaging with people who appreciate the gravity is very, very helpful, whether it is a relative, friend, or a professional.
Psychotherapist and author Megan Devine puts it well: “It may seem counterintuitive, but the way to truly be helpful to someone in pain is to let them share the reality of how much this hurts, and how hard this is, without jumping in to clean it up, make it smaller, or make it go away. Allowing someone the truth of their own experience is a deep act of love — and respect.”
With such connection, the work we ultimately have to do ourselves is made easier. Geddes’ book offers practical ways we can work on ourselves and manage our anxiety.
While the book doesn’t look into the archaeology of anxiety and why it manifests in us as it does, Geddes says that for people he works with over a longer period of time, the past will always eventually emerge. In his section on people-pleasers, for example, he says: “Perhaps we grew up in an environment where those around us, on whom we depended for our survival, were overly sensitive and easily hurt or angered, and so we learned to feel responsible for the emotions of others.”
In the work environment, Geddes says, this can manifest in trying to keep managers and team members happy, not giving honest opinions, taking on too much, and not going forward for promotion.
The purpose of an understanding of the influence of the past is to contextualise our experience in the present and also help in fostering compassion for ourselves, as we try to manage anxiety and our relationship with it.
It is about understanding our maladaptive coping mechanisms and learning to change them.
This is a key part of Geddes’ work:
“Figuring out what your maladaptive coping mechanisms are, that made sense as a child that don’t in your current world, you can let go of some of the rules you have or the beliefs you have.”
This relates to Geddes’ concept of safety behaviours, particularly relevant for people who suffer from social anxiety. Examples of those behaviours might be sitting near the door at a social gathering to make a quick getaway, rehearsing topics of conversation before an event, or always having someone with us, so that we don’t have to enter a situation on our own. Geddes says: “While safety behaviours might bring the illusion of safety, in reality, they simply help to maintain the fear.” He says such strategies reinforce in our bodies and minds that such situations are threatening and the key to undoing this is to experience more of what we have a tendency to avoid.
From his own experience and those of his clients, Geddes says that dealing with our anxiety is about managing and not overcoming, that it takes time, commitment, and setbacks. First and foremost, he recommends finding out what is motivating us to want to manage our stress and anxiety better:
“It’s often good when looking at anxiety, and tackling it, to figure out your ‘why?’ first. Why do I want to tackle this?”
He posits a number of questions to help us establish that for ourselves: “How is anxiety affecting my life? How is it affecting those around me? How is it affecting my ability to concentrate? Is it worse than it was before? If it goes the way it’s going, is it going to be worse in another few years? What is anxiety taking from my life?”
Developing this concept of awareness of how anxiety impacts us, Geddes explores the physical manifestations of anxiety and recommends becoming aware of such symptoms (heart rate, breathing, perspiration, nausea, shaking, sleeplessness, disorientation) at as early a point as possible, before the feelings of anxiousness become overwhelming. While watching and listening to physical cues, we are also encouraged to “pin down our thoughts and emotions with as much clarity as possible”.
A daily check-in is one of the recommended ways of helping us do that, by reflecting on how we are and how our day is, and, in doing so, helping to determine which strategies we find helpful in managing anxiety and which ones we do not. Writing to think is another.
“You can do a good bit of work with what are you dealing with now and that is where CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] can come in, the interplay between your thoughts and your body.”
Geddes posits a helpful analogy between the mind and the internet. Like the fake news that bombards us online, so much of the noise in our minds is not based on reality and he suggests diverting or diffusing our attention from thoughts that perpetuate worry, stress, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.
Like trolls online who seek to undermine their subjects, he calls on us to stop feeding our inner trolls. “In some ways, our minds are like the internet. There is so much good stuff available online, so much valuable information, knowledge and potential for learning, but our attention is constantly being distracted and pulled away by nonsense,” Geddes says.
But he says it is not the content of our thoughts that is important: “The problem is not knowing what is going to happen and not being able to tolerate that uncertainty.” He suggests labelling the thoughts behind our particular worries: for example, relationship thoughts, financial thoughts, work thoughts. Thought record is a CBT tool that focuses on our thoughts, emotions, evidence for our thoughts, re-evaluating our thoughts, and reassessing our emotions.
He cautions that it’s not about positive thinking or looking on the bright side, but grounding our thoughts in a balanced assessment of reality. He also advises that whatever adversity we’ve faced in that past, we have always coped, and to try to hold onto that knowledge, as we try to dial down thoughts of worst-case scenarios.
While what we are crying out for may be an off-button to those thoughts, Geddes says that to successfully manage anxiety, we must accept this will involve ‘time, setbacks and commitment’.
While diversion and diffusion can be helpful when our thoughts are overly intrusive or where there is real-life evidence fuelling our anxiety, the other side of that coin is avoidance, which can lead to procrastination and greater anxiety. In the work environment, this can manifest as bouncing from one task to another, fearful of not completing them, but ultimately fulfilling that prophecy.
He suggests trying to complete one task at a time, and not taking on any more work than is reasonable. With the growth in absenteeism as a result of work-related stress, employee wellness is a growing concern for employers.
Having many years in the corporate sphere himself, Geddes says: “Mental health, whatever way a company looks at it, whether it’s concern for their client or concern for their bottom line, it’s probably a big deal for them now, with sick days and the cost of them and how they can best help their employees avoid burnout and stress.”
In the early pages of The Professional Worrier, I read: “To struggle with worry is to feel anxious pretty much all the time, with all the physical symptoms that go with it.” I could feel my chest tighten.
Not the most comfortable of night reads for a stressed-out, avoidant person with trouble sleeping. Repeatedly, Geddes talks about moving out of our comfort zones and I certainly feel rewarded on this occasion.
The book, The Professional Worrier: Become the Boss of Your Anxiety, is published by Hachette Books Ireland and retails at around €12.74.
Stewart Geddes also has a website, www.themoodlab.ie, with articles and blogs on related topics.