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Managing Anxiety Through Action

Imagine you already have a full schedule. The secretary tells you that the board chair complained to him about your leadership approach regarding an important project you are facilitating. You know you should call the board chair and address the issue directly, but it’s so much easier to focus on the tasks in front of you, and let the indirect complaints go.

Even people who are very familiar with systems work, and who highly value the principles, don’t always follow through. That’s because using systemic tools to manage organizational anxiety often temporarily raises personal anxiety. Sometimes the short term discomfort doesn’t seem worth the long term gain.

As leaders get better at managing personal anxiety, we also get better at managing systemic anxiety. Personal anxiety can be managed in five realms: physicalcognitive,behavioral, emotional and spiritual.

Today’s article explores how specific actions or behaviors can decrease personal anxiety.

Behaviors matter. We can make changes by doing the “right thing” even when our hearts and brains aren’t fully accepting yet.

If like me, you are action oriented, then having a specific activity or task to pursue provides focus, and an opportunity for an immediate sense of accomplishment.

Here are four action/behavioral tools to manage personal anxiety.

1)    Act Non-Reactively Even When You Continue to Feel Anxious.

Notice when something that someone says or does triggers a reactive feeling in you, then consciously will yourself not to engage in negative responses, even if you still feel agitated.

Moderate your tone of voice, and the words you choose to say. Control your physical gestures. Do the right thing, even if your mind is exploding. To help you accomplish this task, try visualizing someone doing Tai Chi. Imagine the proper response as a well-choreographed martial arts move, then work toward carrying out that vision as though you were engaging in a disciplined martial arts practice session.

Acting the part can lead to decreased inner anxiety. But remember, thinking of this as a practice session is crucial. This means you won’t always respond perfectly. That’s o.k.

As you get more familiar and comfortable acting in the ways you want to act, it will start to feel more natural. Your inner thoughts will start to more closely match your outer actions.

Though none of us will ever be perfect, imagining executing the perfect responses helps to improve skills. Beating yourself up because you haven’t matched the ideal vision is counterproductive.

2)    Stop Action  OR Set a Pastoral Care Appointment with Yourself for Yourself

Ironic, yes, but stopping is a behavior, and it can been seen as an action as well.

Clergy (and many other people in our society) have a hard time stopping, letting things go and taking a break. There is always more to do in ministry than one person can possibly do, even with the assistance of a well-trained, and cooperative staff. Choices have to do made. If we don’t consciously make choices, they will take place by default.


Here are ways to make taking a break into an action:

  • Schedule a couple of hours off during each day, and schedule a day or two off each week by listing it in your calendar of commitments and appointments as an activity.  For example, “Personal Pastoral Care Appointment” 1-2 p.m., translates into going home and walking the dog, listening to music, reading a book for pleasure, writing in a journal, or spending time with a family member or friend.
  •  Include self-care items on your “To Do” list. For myself, once it’s on that list it feels more pressing and important. Plus, I get a sense of accomplishment from checking off “swim laps” or “meditate” on my “To Do” list.

3)    Practice What you Preach to Yourself

In my articles, “Bringing the Brain to the Rescue” and “Daily Life Brainstorming”, I suggested formulating a list of alternative responses when you are facing a stressful situation.

Follow up by experimenting with one or two possible new behaviors.

4)    The Cool Down

Congregational life often involves evening meetings. It can be hard to settle down and fall asleep after an intense meeting, even if there is no conflict.

Intentionally plan activities to engage in when you return home from a meeting that will help you to relax before you go to bed. For example, take a warm bath, read a book, watch a relaxing TV show, or talk to a family member about a non-stressful subject. It helps to create an electronic-communication-free hour before falling asleep, so you stop working and wind down.

This is a part of a five week series on managing personal anxiety in five realms: physicalcognitive, behavioral, emotional and spiritual.

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