America is famously the most anxious nation in the world, with 31 percent of the country dealing with symptoms of anxiety, according to the World Health Organization.
While there are a host of factors that contribute to anxiety, our work culture plays a big role. It’s where people spend most of their waking hours; and how we process our work lives has a dramatic affect on our well being.
“Surveys show that stress levels [in the US] have progressively increased over the past four decades,” Paul J. Rosch, MD, Chairman of the Board of The American Institute of Stress, told the Atlantic’s Maura Kelly.
Technology is a huge part of this trend, as it’s completely transformed how we live and work. We’re now connected 24/7, and the rapid pace of innovation means that almost any industry is constantly on the verge of being disrupted.
In a demanding world that’s increasingly complex, “it’s almost logical that people would respond with anxiety,” Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, tells Business Insider. “People respond with fear, and fear is anxiety.”
While healthy levels of stress are good and can be motivating; unhealthy levels lead to decreased productivity. That’s why companies like Google and Zappos invest so much into creating a strong company culture. Google is a classic “Stage 5” company, according to the “Tribal Leadership” management philosophy; whereas many companies are stuck in “Stage 3,” which is a fear-based culture focused on individualism vs. a higher purpose.
Schwartz’s Energy Project works with individuals and companies to create a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. “Often anxiety is free-floating,” he says. “Many people don’t know why they’re feeling it.”
Americans are in constant “fight or flight” mode
Instead of simply living in that space, Schwartz says, people should recognize that “something’s not right,” and allow it to serve as a wake-up call: “If you can’t build a sense of safety and security, it will compromise every aspect of your life, including work.”
The physiology of anxiety and fear is they trigger a “fight or flight” mode in the brain. “If you perceive a threat, the body will move into fight or flight, what’s called sympathetic arousal,” Schwartz explains. “It’ll mobilize you to act very quickly – if there’s a lion coming at you. The body makes no distinction between between a lion and other factors that make you feel threatened.”
The most common form of anxiety* is when people feel their sense of value is threatened. “Almost any time you move into a negative emotional state, you can trace it back to an experience where you perceive your value has come under some type of threat,” Schwartz explains. “That awareness is power. I have the capacity to decide, is this a real threat? Almost always, it isn’t. It’s much less of a threat to your body than you think.”
There are physical symptoms of stress including muscle tension and sleep disruption, along with emotional responses like restlessness and a lack of focus, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How to respond to stress triggers
Schwartz works with people to get them into what he calls “the performance zone,” where people are performing at optimal levels. Because ultimately, how you feel is the biggest predictor of performance. “How much you sleep, what you eat, the number of emotional triggers that appear in front of you over the course of a day,” he says, all affect performance.
So beyond making these lifestyle changes, how can you best respond to perceived threats?
“Quiet the physiology first. As long as your body is aroused, you’re stuck,” says Schwartz. “You won’t be able to respond well. What’s the best way to quiet the body? What can we do that’s simple and effective? Breathe deeply.” The second most obvious way to do it is raise your heart rate through physical activity.
Environmental factors are sometimes difficult to change; and the best way to respond is to take control of what you can change — and that’s how you think.
*Schwartz emphasized that he’s not necessarily referring to clinical anxiety; but rather, the stress that “you could empirically observe” among American workers.