The equation for less anxiety

In his new book, Chip Conley invites you to use "emotional equations" when dealing with strong emotions—like anxiety, with its challenging domino effect.

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

When anxiety strikes, create a balance sheet of what you know and what is within your influence. First, unravel the sense of mystery about what you don’t know. Anxiety lurks in the dark, so shine a flashlight on what it is that’s disturbing you. Is this situation as uncertain as you think it is? Are you overestimating the danger associated with this mystery or the importance of the event? Then explore whether you are truly ill equipped to address the experience. If you are, what resources can you tap into to help you feel a little more powerful?

Make a list of your strengths, your coping skills, and the resources available to you. Sometimes the best solution is just to focus on what you can control; that may be as simple as your breathing. Fear is excitement, only deprived of breath. Get in touch with how the anxiety feels in your body. Gain some control over your breathing, then shift to how you can influence your thinking. As you build some momentum in seeing your ability to cope with a widening sphere of influence, you’ll build your sense of confidence so that you can handle what life is throwing at you. I’ve worked with many anxious business leaders to create a balance sheet of uncertainty and powerlessness.

Here’s how: Create four columns on a piece of paper. Label the first column “What I know” and the column next to it “What I don’t know.” Label the third column “What I can influence” and the final one “What I can’t control.” Then fill in the columns. In the process of making these factors explicit, people are often surprised by how much certainty and influence they actually have. (Continued after image.)

Click here for more information about Emotional Equations.

Create a “worry period,” and indulge in worry as much as you want during that time. Anxiety can be free-floating. Like a bird seeking prey, it can swoop down and carry you away in its clutches. Imagine if you opened yourself up to anxiety only during certain periods of the day. Let’s say you give yourself thirty minutes of worry time in the morning and afternoon (à la Holly Hunter’s five minutes of scheduled crying time in the film Broadcast News). During that time, focus all your attention on worrying. Make lists of all the potential things that can go wrong, all the collateral emotions that are stemming from this anxiety, and how your life feels awful as a result. Then, once you’ve finished your worry period, banish those anxiety thoughts from your brain, knowing that you’ll have another space for them in a few hours—or tomorrow. For some of us, that’s how we use therapy. It’s our prescribed time to let all those anxiety vultures gather above us, but under the protective care of a therapist who can help us see that most of the vultures are imaginary.

Think extreme. Anxiety is like a game of dominos. “Catastrophic cascading” is when you take an idea and let it turn into something worse through a domino effect. Let’s say you’re scared that your date on Saturday night will reject you. So take yourself through the dominos. Let’s say the date goes badly. What’s next? Your date tells his friends. You become known as a loser in your community. People make fun of you. No one else asks you out. You spend the rest of your life alone. Once you’ve created that scenario, ask yourself, “Is this the worst-case scenario, and what’s the probability of each domino falling?”

When you become conscious about how extreme anxiety thinking can be, you realize how lacking in logic it is. Similarly, think extreme in the opposite direction. The author Marci Shimoff suggests that we ask ourselves, “If this were happening for a higher purpose, what would it be?” Maybe all this pain and suffering is preparing you for a life you haven’t even imagined. Think big and creatively about what more profound message may be emerging as a result of the anxiety you are feeling. This is how I turned my self-obsessed TED speaking experience into something much bigger than myself.

Use “paradoxical intention” as a means of dissipating your anxiety. Viktor Frankl believed that one means of coping with anxiety is to detach from it. Instead of trying harder, just let it go. For example, if you have insomnia and get anxious about your lack of sleep, “paradoxical intention” would suggest that you get up when you wake up in the middle of the night rather than trying harder to fall back to sleep. If you and your partner are at odds with each other, make a rule that you aren’t going to have sex for the next couple of months and see what happens (usually, just reducing the anxiety associated with the performance pressure opens up new potential for a connection to be made). By restaging the relationship you have with sleep or sex, you short-circuit the habitual anxiety response that typically makes the situation worse.

Even in good times, anxiety can be a habit and can turn anything—even going on an exciting date or winning the lottery—into just another burden. One other element that could be added to this equation would be to put parentheses around “Uncertainty” and “Powerlessness” and multiply the sum by “Severity of Consequences.”

There are some things in life that are worth worrying about, and there are others you just need to let go. My best advice is to focus on what you do know and can influence: your body and your mind.

Reduce your caffeine, sugar, and alcohol intake, and eat foods that provide you with healthy fuel. Physical exercise is one of nature’s remedies for stress, and getting plenty of bed rest allows your body to rejuvenate itself. Kevin Cashman, the CEO of LeaderSource, says that typically, before any great mental breakthrough, there needs to be a “pause-through” when you let your body and subconscious takeover from your conscious mind. When the world is uncertain and overwhelming, breathe, and miraculously, you may find that your mind moves from a war zone to a refuge.


Excerpt from Chip Conley's book, Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness & Success, published by Free Press. To buy the book, click here.

Photo © flickr/hannaneh710