Getting an A in Anxiety

I offer this blog for people who are feeling a lot of anxiety, particularly students facing final exams. In about one page I’d like to share a story, a cognitive understanding, and a few simple prescriptions. If it helps you, great. If you think it might be of use to someone, particularly a college student, share it.

THE STORY. Just about thirty-nine years ago, I took my first-semester first-year exams at Harvard Law School. Going into the exams, we had no tests, papers, or quizzes to tell us where we stood. So, the pressure had risen, week by week, month by month. Two things were different back then. First, the concept, and even the word anxiety, were hardly available for us to understand ourselves. Worry sufficed as a lightweight descriptor, or neurotic was used, but the latter label applied to those who had mental illness and that was still much stigmatized (you were “pscyho” in the common phraseology of the day). So, though we were being slow-tortured, few could “admit” to themselves that they suffered from “anxiety,” and without awareness, there wasn’t a lot you could do. Strategies did work, more or less, for more or less of us:  Pray, tough it out, get headaches, stomachaches, and mostly study more and more (even if you were concentrating less and less).

The second difference back then naturally flowed from the first: you didn’t openly share emotional fears and worries. Men in that era were hard-wired to act confidently and show no weakness. Women, who made up about forty percent of my class, were expected to “man up.” Deep down, we were ALL a wreck! We wanted to establish our identity: “I belong here!” But we couldn’t talk about our fears.

Over the last forty years, I have increasingly become aware that I am beset by near-constant anxiety. And anxiety, once it’s been freed, is like the genie: too slippery to press back into the bottle.

THE UNDERSTANDING. I have come to a cognitive understanding which helps me deal with anxiety and to support the behavioral strategies below. I understand my anxiety as a factory-installed survival warning system. Animals have such warning systems to protect their physical identities. They are always on alert to environmental changes, especially the arrival of predators that may threaten them. We guard our psychic identities, as if those identities are our very physical being. Anxiety is produced when something in the environment – like pending finals – warns: Your identity is coming under attack!!!

A psychic threat can feel existential, like the lamb sensing the existence of a lion. Thus, nearly every student across the country enters the perilous territory of “finals” – even the word is scary – with their radar up to the potential destruction of their identity as a great student or good student. One who is a “student-athlete” has two foundations of their identity at stake; because if they don’t pass, they also don’t play. That high school 4.0 or legitimate admission to college means we “have to” succeed. And we also claim future identities – law school, med school, a good job to raise a family and support our parents. So, we “have to” succeed.  Two weeks ago, a parent (yes, of a college student) wrote me that their child had to do well in my class, because they had to get into our undergraduate business school. Apparently, that parent “has to” have their kid succeed for their own identity! What do we “have to?” We have to eat, drink, sleep. Nobody “has to” get an “A” or get into b-school.

So it helps to keep remembering: Few things we face are existential! Each of us is so much richer than a single identity, a grade or even a grade point average.

Here are a few strategies that work for me:

  1. Practice gratitude (as I do in starting every meeting every day) to remind myself and remind others how very rich our lives are.
  2. Practice breathing. Under threat, our breath grows shallow, and we deprive ourselves of necessary oxygen, and we begin to tighten up all kinds of parts of our body and brain. When I say practice breathing, yes, I mean meditation or yoga. They are awesome. But I especially mean practice: all the time. Every single time you notice you’re anxious-tight, take the longest, longest, slowest, slowest breath you can, watching it all the way in, until you can’t sip any more and then sip a little more. And then let out the longest, longest, slowest breath, until there is no more air to release, and then, yep, release more. As I elongate the breath, I (love to!) notice that tense muscles in my body are releasing on their own, especially across my neck and shoulders.
  3. Work out. When you move, your mind shifts into a different mode. It’s really hard on a run let alone in a basketball game to be thinking anxious thoughts about work or even relationships. Or, it’s easier to let the thoughts go with the next stride.
  4. Spend quality time with people who help you feel confident, free, silly, good, smart, kind, grateful, etc. You might think right now: Who is such a person for you? Get coffee with them. Walk with them to class. Look for them in the dining hall. Text them (but then talk to them). Rub shoulders, literally. Touch matters.
  5. Talk to your anxiety. Thank it for coming. Let it know you’re doing your best. Then listen to it constructively! Ask if it has specific advice for right now, which you will gladly take under consideration. If it doesn’t have that, let it know, “Hey anxiety, I appreciate your care, but I’m alive, I’m doing my best, I’m pretty good at living, able to roll with the punches, and frankly, I’m pretty busy right now.” So, if anxiety is trying to help – as it helps the prey escape the predator – then in this case it might help the most if you ask it to just step back a little right now.

These things help me, and I hope they might help you to

Live and Lead with your best self!                

  • Good topic. Anxiety can be debilitating for sure, if one lets the message of anxiety lead us to avoid life which threatening anxious thoughts can do. I know from experience. I also came to know that anxiety should be treated for what it is comprised of, thoughts and feelings. As you have accurately portrayed anxiety’s purpose as being protection, it does its job too well. The strategy that has worked for me, is understanding the illusory nature of anxiety. What is it protecting? An illusory identity, a false self construct? Yes!

    The key to effectively dealing with anxiety is to first, understand the purpose of anxiety as self protection in an evolutionary sense; second, treat anxiety for what it is, a feeling accompanied by perilous thoughts; third, thank it for wanting to protect the being you are from extinction, feel the feeling it presents you with, and fourth, let it go!

    Finally, Let go of the illusion. Watch the thoughts break up and disappear. and return to your purpose in life, whatever it is in that moment. Practice makes perfect! Keep treating anxiety what it is: an evolutionary technique hard wired into our bodies to protect us that does its job too well. Thank it for wanting to help. And return to the open space of consciousness to create your life as you wish! I find the mindfulness approach to be most effective as you recommend, Dan. Thanks

  • I remember when I thought I “had to” get into Haas undergrad. Long story short, I didn’t and nonetheless have had a great start to my career in a business field. Reflecting back on all those moments of anxiety at Berkeley I’d gladly trade some (not all – experience is good!) for more fun memories of university.

    • Kenny,
      You have the wise old soul in your young adult self. My blog entry got a little long, so there wasn’t room to write the great addition which you have made: “all – experience is good”… even the wrestling with anxiety. Sometimes we have to lose parts of our identity – the identity that anxiety labors to protect – in order to discover truer, more joyful and richer parts of ourselves. For the first 40 years of my life, I was beholden to an identity that I would (“had to”) become a great political leader. Wow, was it hard to molt that old snakeskin that had somehow wrapped itself so tightly around my mind. Walked around naked for a long time, lol. But glad to be able to hear my true soul get its chance to sing and to join duets and quartets like this!
      Thanks again for staying in touch!

  • This is fantastic advice, Dan. I hadn’t realized that anxiety wasn’t a word back when I was in college and starting my career, except in the world of DSM. Your “talk back to anxiety” script is especially helpful. Thank you for your work!

    • Sally,
      Thanks for the feedback – and the specificity of it. As you know, positive praise helps the heart; specific feedback helps inform the mind. And I am always eager to hear from you. Creating “scripts” has been a great salvation to me. I want to clarify that I am saying “talk back to anxiety,” but the power comes from practicing listening to this and other unwelcome parts of the self.
      Keep up your great work, Sally!

  • Hi, again, Dan.
    These last couple of years have been eye opening.
    In my 70’s, I finally became aware that I have been dealing with general anxiety disorder for decades.
    Your tips are excellent!
    Thank you for your openness & for your encouragement!

    • Eileen, thanks for the encouragement and the openness. Anxiety closes us, right. Tightens us down. Conversations in a a blog like this are a bit of the “quality time” I was discussing. They bring anxiety out of the fist-tightened dark and into the open where we can relate to it in more healthy ways. Isn’t it ironic that it’s called “general anxiety DISORDER,” when the useful purpose of anxiety is to generate ORDER and ease in life. Best to you and Bill.

  • This is excellent advice, and not just for students. Anxiety follows us into our careers, new opportunities, new situations, new relationships, new risks…. The 5 strategies you offered are actionable and effective. I would add to #4 that sometimes the people who make us feel confident, free, smart, kind, or grateful are not in the same geographic location we are in, but we can call them or otherwise use technology to see and talk to them and know that their hugs are waiting to be shared.

  • Thank-you for these words. We do get wiser as we get older! Will share this with my two children; hopefully they can relax a moment and really read it.
    Grateful that I am still here and that you are too.

  • Excellent coping strategies for anxiety. After the pandemic lockdown started and I retired 9 months later, I began to experience anxiety while home alone all day with no one to even Zoom with (as everyone else I knew was working). To cope with the anxiety I developed daily routines to keep busy, such as reading novels and walking our dog. I consciously limit my screen time, otherwise I have trouble sleeping.

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