Today on the podcast, I’m talking with Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever Podcast and author of Hiding in the Bathroom- How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay Home. Maura is also working on an Anxious Achiever book that will be published by the Harvard Business Review in 2022. I’m super excited to get her perspective on how to work with things–like anxiety and being an introvert–that your monkey mind might try to use to convince you to avoid doing hard things.
Listen to the Podcast Here
Morra welcome. First off, tell us how you came to be an expert in achieving while anxious. I love this combination of two things together.
Well, I think it’s a really, really common combination. Ineed, to achieve you need a little bit of anxiety. Otherwise, you would never be motivated to leave your couch. So, you know, anxiety on the face of it is actually a very necessary thing for our human condition. But for me, it was really just decades of living with clinical anxiety that all too often got in my way. Or that to be honest, just was a constant presence in my life. You know, it was a weight around my neck.
I’d get invited to give a speech and my first instinct would be, I’m so excited. I’m so proud. And then the anxiety would come and say no Morra, you’re going to die if you get on a plane to give that speech. Your children will miss you too much, blah, blah, blah. And it would constantly be a battle.
I can totally relate. And I’m just so happy that you are talking about it in such clear terms. Thank you.
So what are some of the thought patterns associated with anxiety or introversion that might derail our desire to do the hard stuff?
Well, so this is what I’ve been learning about. Because I wanted to sort of understand why our monkey minds do this, you know. And the truth is, it’s our brain trying to help us. Our brains love patterns. So if we get worked up about getting on that plane to give that speech, and we feel like we’re going to enter a danger zone, and our heart starts to beat, and all the reactions happen in our body, our brain has to step in and say, uh oh, danger.
I’m going to create all these reactions. And it learns, right? It learns that plane equals danger over time. And it becomes habitual.
Unfortunately, you know, we’ve got pieces of our nervous system that haven’t evolved beyond being chased by mastodons. And so that’s when you sort of have to step outside of your brain and say, “Okay brain, listen, I know you’re trying to protect me here, but I’m going to use the prefrontal cortex [the piece that’s really gotten a bit separate from the fight or flight reaction] and say, ‘No, I’m not going to die when I’m going to get on this plane. I might feel nervous. I might have to take a Xanax. I’m going to have to breathe in a different way. But I’m not going to die and it’s going to be okay.'”
And that also is about pattern, and habit, and teaching yourself. And it all starts with sort of becoming aware, right? Noticing what makes you anxious. I focus on your workday, and your work life, and how do you tend to react? And is that reaction helping you or hurting?
So it sounds like,something I talk about a lot, which is that awareness is always the first step. You can’t change a habit or a pattern, as you say, that you don’t know that you have. So it sounds like you’re saying… do you literally write out what you’re doing in your workday and scan it for the stuff that sets off alarm bells or…?
Not anymore, but I have. Or I’ve done that work at therapy, right? Or, when I read something, or lucky me, I get to, like you, interview really smart people about this stuff. So I have “aha!” moments all the time.
You know, I had a moment where I was interviewing a psychologist, Dr. Alice Boyes, who’s written some great books about anxiety and a healthy mind. So, I was talking to her about the fact that sometimes when I get anxious about money, I make some really bad decisions. And I was reflecting back on my life of when I had either overspent or under-invested. Or, you know, just made silly decisions around my financial life. And I realized it was because money makes me really anxious. And it’s because my parents had a nasty divorce and my father didn’t pay the bills and blah, blah, blah. I can’t even tell you how much that realization has changed my life as a business person, as entrepreneur. It’s been transformative.
I love that. So it’s funny because how we’re being in one part of our life is how we’re being in all parts of our lives. So you might not realize that your anxiety around the work stuff is actually tied to something from childhood.
Well, I’ll give you another example that I think is really, really, important for right now. Which is that as many teams became remote overnight and we were all separated. I think a lot of us rightfully so, we’d never learned how to manage in that way. And it’s harder to manage people when they’re remote.
So if you’re finding that your colleagues and your boss are emailing you more or slacking you more, or even texting you more, it’s probably because they’re anxious. They’re anxious about the world. They’re anxious about the state of the organization. And they’re anxious about, ‘I can’t see these people. I don’t know what they’re doing. How do they feel? Are they committed? Are they burnt out? I’m burnt out. Oh my God, I better email them.’
Micromanaging is really a lot about anxiety.
That’s a really empathetic view to take, I’m glad you shared that.
All right, let’s take a little bit of a bigger picture view. So as a society, we’re becoming much more upfront about our mental health challenges and our neurodiversity–whether that’s being anxious, or an introvert, or intuitive, or ADHD, or any number of other specific brain wirings. What are the opportunities in that? And are there any perils in us knowing more about each other’s mental health?
I don’t think there are perils, except that as long as we stigmatize this stuff, there are perils, right? And that’s the problem. I think it’s ridiculous that these extremely common, normal, and beautifully diverse functions of our brain are stigmatized. I think it’s crazy. I think that a lot of people learn to completely fake what they think is some kind of normative behavior. And that’s why they get anxious. That’s why they get sick. That’s why their stress levels are through the roof. That’s why they get IBS and chronic migraines and all this stuff. It’s because they aren’t able to be honest about how they feel and they put it into their bodies. I think it’s crazy.
But as long as we equate the stuff with weakness or vulnerability or a difference that we don’t embrace, there are perils. And I think that that’s why it’s so important that leaders, that white men step up and say, I have clinical depression. I have ADHD. I was diagnosed with autism, whatever. Cause it’s totally prevalent and it’s totally normal.
Excellent. So what’s something practical that listeners can do the next time they encounter a situation that either triggers their anxiety or makes them want to hide? What do we do?
Breathe, stop hunching. I think that it sounds so trite and I apologize. But it’s very, very true. We are animals, right? Dr. Christine Runyan is my hero. I really recommend you check out her work. I’ve learned so much from her. She makes the point that we are animals. And when our brain is telling us that things are scary, which is what anxiety is, we stop breathing. We hunch, we clench. And that creates pain, and we can’t be our best self.
So it’s really important as a first step to notice. And that could be something as simple as, gosh, my breath feels shallow. My heart’s beating or gosh, I’m really clenching my shoulders. Why? And then for a minute, stand up, stretch, put the breath back in the belly. Exhale longer than you inhale. Give your body a reset. And that will tell your mind, “You know what mind, it’s okay. We’re not going to be anxious right now.”
It’s so powerful to know that we have the tools already inside us. And also always with us, you can’t not be breathing and be a person. So thank you! And for folks who want to connect with you, where can they find you?
Well, I would love if they listened to The Anxious Achiever. They can find it wherever they get their podcasts.
Daily Tiny Assignment
Maura was talking about how awareness is the first step in figuring out how to do hard things despite the anxiety that they may produce. I liked how she suggested doing a kind of an accounting of the things that you have to do regularly that are important to your work, your family, your self care, what have you, that causes anxiety. That make you feel like maybe I don’t really want to do this thing because I’m just nervous thinking about it.
Think about what one or two continue to come up again and again. You don’t really have to make a plan for how you’re going to get around them. Remember, the first step is awareness and sometimes just having awareness can serve to shift the energy around something.
So I’m just curious, what is it?
What is it that really makes you want to go stick your head in the sand when it comes to doing hard thing? Knowing what those are is going to help you be more gentle with yourself when that thing arises. And also is going to, and this is a little bit woo-woo, but it’s going to draw things to you that are going to help you deal with that specific situation.
For example, if you become aware that you get really anxious around looking at your credit card bills, for example. Maura used an example of money, so let’s go with that. Then if you’re aware of that. And you have been honest with yourself about that, then you’re more likely to notice when an article pops up that talks about how to deal with anxiety around looking at your credit card bills .
You’re just going to tune your ear to things that are going to be able to help. Cause if you’re pretending that it’s not a problem and an article like that flies by your feed, you’re not even going to pay attention to it. So, that’s it. I hope that you will come back tomorrow when I am talking about how to initiate a tough conversation.