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Building tolerance for anxiety: two stories of experimenting with letting go

At times of unprecedented complexity, pressure and ambiguity, it is a natural response to put up psychological defences. In his latest blog, Mayvin Director Martin Saville invites us all to practise building tolerance for anxiety instead of trying to avoid it. Back in December I shared three leadership principles for uncertain times, based on our work with […]
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At times of unprecedented complexity, pressure and ambiguity, it is a natural response to put up psychological defences. In his latest blog, Mayvin Director Martin Saville invites us all to practise building tolerance for anxiety instead of trying to avoid it.

Back in December I shared three leadership principles for uncertain times, based on our work with the Civil Service. I wrote about the need for a ‘chaos and complexity mindset’ with a focus on spotting emerging patterns and holding our plans a bit more lightly, while continuing to think rigorously. I also noted that this is challenging psychologically. It means not knowing what is going to happen or how we can influence this, while also feeling responsible for and deeply committed to things turning out well. That's a tough place to be. It is anxiety-making, and as humans we are wired to avoid feeling anxious.

This leaves us with two basic responses:

We can create psychological defences

For example by pushing our anxiety out of our conscious mind. The payoff is that we don’t have to experience the discomfort directly, but this can come at a price, either for ourselves or for those around us. Unexpressed emotions leak. They may show up in unhelpful habits around eating, work or shopping, or in problems with our health. We can project difficult emotions onto those around us: we don’t have to deal with them but our colleagues or loved ones do. When our disowned emotions pool with everyone else’s we start seeing group phenomena such as people holding entrenched positions, scapegoating others or coming up with overly simplistic solutions to complex and intractable problems. Any of this sound familiar?

We can lean into our anxiety

Alternatively, we can develop our capacity to tolerate anxiety and maybe even reprocess it into something more productive. This second response, I venture to suggest, is a better answer. But it is also one of those things that is simple but not easy. It is true that sometimes simply becoming aware of what we have been pushing away can be enough to allow us to do business with it. However, often awareness is just the start. Having become aware, we can still be overwhelmed by what we are feeling and so begins the work of strengthening our capacity to deal with our disowned emotions.

We're always practising

I have found the notion of practices to be helpful here. The key idea is that as we go through life, we’re always practising something. For example, I am currently doing my best to keep my weekends work-free. As I reflect on this, I realise that for the last x years (more than I care to own), I have been practising working on weekends and have become very good at it! So now I am practising something different. It doesn’t always work out as I would want, but it is a practice I have taken on and one that I am committed to.

With this in mind, we might ask ourselves what are our practices for building our tolerance for anxiety? I don’t have a perfect answer but there are many good ideas to be discovered if you care to look. I have found it is a case of experimenting in order to work out what suits me - and this can change over time. One thing I’ve learned is that this work doesn’t have to be done directly: we show up as we are no matter what activity we are pursuing; so our practices can be attached to things we enjoy. Here are a pair of stories to illustrate the point.

Becoming resourceful, creative and productive

A year ago, I took up running, partly to get healthier and lose some weight, and partly in response to a gentle challenge from my younger brother, who runs ultra-marathons: (‘I bet you could at least manage a half-marathon Mart!’) To my surprise I have found I enjoy it; and I definitely 'show up' in my running. My relationship with goals and failure is a good example of this. I have noticed that if I set myself a challenging time-goal and orientate to it as something to strive for, I will push myself harder and I stop enjoying the run. It becomes something to achieve and deliver, and stops being something to enjoy for its own sake. Conversely, if I hold the goal in mind initially but then allow myself to forget about it, deliberately taking the pressure off myself, something happens whereby I am able to find the right pace. Not only do I keep the enjoyment, but I tend to run faster than I do when I am striving.

This has taught me a lot about letting go, easing off and allowing what I want to come to me rather than always going after it. I notice it is helping me professionally as I support clients dealing with situations of unprecedented complexity, pressure and ambiguity. If I can take the pressure off myself to deliver a result for them, I become an invitation to them to do likewise, and we both become more resourceful, creative and productive. Paradoxical, I know, but for me, true.

Giving yourself time and space

Here’s another story. I have held a pilot’s licence for around 12 years and nothing makes me happier than flying a few thousand feet above the south coast of England on a lovely day at the controls of a small aeroplane, marvelling at the different shades of blue and green in the fields, the sea and the sky. This year, the addition of a night rating to my licence has opened up new adventures – even the most everyday towns lit up at night look extraordinary from the air.

One of the things I’ve noticed about flying is that it offers a lens through which to see myself under pressure. While there are amazing moments when all I need to do is look out at the sky (watching for other aircraft), a lot of the time the workload can be quite high: flying and managing the aeroplane, navigation, talking to air traffic control. All  of these can place a big demand on a pilot’s mental capacity and that is before anything unexpected happens.

When I am getting overloaded in the air, I can lose sight of the bigger picture. I might, for example, get fixated on completing a series of checks and forget to keep flying the correct heading. In our training we are taught to prioritise our workload when we get busy, but somehow that isn’t always so easy in the moment. Stress makes us stupid, as the saying goes. When I can catch myself overloaded, the way out usually involves breathing easier, gripping the control column a little less hard, slowing myself down to give myself more time and space. These are lessons that apply well beyond aviation. The trick, of course, is knowing when I am overloaded, and flying has been great for that.

Practices to support you

In essence, my invitation is to practise leaning into your anxiety rather than avoiding it. Try holding things more lightly. I don’t mean this glibly – learning to do this, in the presence of unrelenting incoming stressors, is a life’s work. But it's worth making a start, especially if along the way you can find some practices to support you that involve doing things you love.

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