Do you have just enough anxiety?

Do you have just enough anxiety?

Anxiety can be a major source of energy in our lives and our organizations.


My mind raced as the ambulance sped through traffic. Lying on the gurney and listening to the siren, my heart pounded and my anxiety skyrocketed. I was a healthy 45-year-old. I was the CEO of a successful company. I worked out. This wasn’t supposed to happen. But there I was, headed for the hospital and a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation.

In the years since, I have undergone other hospitalizations and surgeries. With each health crisis, I found myself face-to-face with the uncertainty of life and my fears of illness and death. Each time I had to make a choice: Was I going to let my emotions shut me down or could I find a way to understand and manage them? I decided to embrace my anxiety.

Anxiety is a fact of life. How you use it makes all the difference. In my five decades of life and my thirty-year career as a psychologist, entrepreneur, and CEO advisor, I have spent a considerable amount of time looking at how we process anxiety.

We associate anxiety with fear, stress, and instability. We are afraid we can’t understand or manage our anxiety, so we avoid, deny, or medicate it. And we refuse to see our anxiety as a major source of energy in our lives and our organizations.

I believe the problem lies with our faulty thinking. Change and uncertainty make us anxious. We see anxiety as negative, as a sign of weakness, so we do whatever we can to avoid it. Therefore, we have to avoid change and uncertainty.

This thinking comes from centuries of viewing change as dangerous. It comes from medical models that frame anxiety as a mental health problem. And it comes from years of outmoded thinking that ignores the human side of business and life.

My work has led me to three insights about anxiety’s place in leadership and life:

1. It’s time to embrace change and uncertainty as facts of life. We need to let go of our desire for stability, take an honest look at what we can and can’t control, and accept what we discover.

2. We can use our healthy anxiety as a positive force for growth. Our anxiety is exactly what we need to deal with the ups and downs of life. It can prompt us to make healthy changes in our lives, take advantage of unforeseen opportunities, or confront difficult issues. We just need the right amount of it.

3. Just enough anxiety is the key to living and leading in our complex world. Just enough anxiety is the level of anxiety that drives us forward without causing us to resist, give up, or try to control what happens. It unleashes our productive energy and makes us want to do better. Just enough anxiety produces the optimal state of arousal that enables us to become the people we truly are and want to be.

It’s time to rethink our understanding of change and uncertainty and our ability to manage it in our lives. It’s time to reframe our perspective on anxiety.

Scholars of the Kabbalah assert that anxiety is “a requirement for learning and understanding the inner dimension of the Torah,” the central and most important document of Judaism. It prompts us to seek answers to life’s perplexing questions, such as, “Why me?” and “What does this mean?” and “What is my purpose?” With­out a desire to resolve the incongruities of life, we would never develop, individually or spiritually. Our anxiety reflects our sensitivity. As Unitarian Univer­salists, it challenges us to live our Seven Prin­ciples. It shows that we care, that we’re engaged in life.

A healthy level of anxiety—just enough anxiety—is the exact amount you need to respond to danger, tackle a tough problem, or take a leap of faith. It boosts your confidence and ability to concentrate, enhances your ability to learn, strengthens your commitment, and increases your energy. It enables you to perform at your best.

But not all anxiety is healthy. Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it interferes with normal functioning or good judgment. Instead of spurring you on to action, it shuts you down or sends you off frantically in all directions. Left unattended, unhealthy anxiety can lead to serious physical or psychological illnesses.

Too much anxiety comes from negative thinking and emotions, such as fear of inadequacy, failure, insignificance, or being taken advantage of. It causes us to control or attack uncertainty and to ease the pain we feel. Too much anxiety creates discomfort, tension, and frustration, and creates chaotic energy.

Too little anxiety, on the other hand, is the face of complacency. It comes from the belief that all is well, and an unfounded expectation that good times will continue unabated, with no need for change or improvement. Too little anxiety leads to passivity, boredom, and stagnation.

Just enough anxiety is the middle way. Like a champion skater, you can round any corner with the right mix of speed and balance and turn your anxiety into productive energy. Most of us move back and forth between too little, too much, and just enough throughout our lives. But those who live for long periods of time in too little or too much anxiety are in danger of losing the ability to live a full and fulfilling life.

How do you find the right balance? It starts with an open mind. Without it, we remain slaves to the past. To keep our minds open, we must deepen our self-awareness, make learning a lifelong priority, and practice non-attachment, the art of letting go of preconceived notions we have about who we are.

Telling the truth about ourselves begins by telling the truth to ourselves. We need to admit our mistakes, ask difficult questions of ourselves, have the courage to change patterns that don’t work, and avoid rehashing the past or rehearsing the future.

When we become attached to the ways things are, we sabotage our efforts to live with uncertainty. Our attachment to stability causes us to magnify or suppress our anxiety when circumstances start to change, as they always will. Only when we allow ourselves to feel our insecurity, discomfort, confusion, and pain can we moderate our level of anxiety. And only then can we make the most of change.

I turned 50 atop a mountain in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Embraced by the natural beauty of the rain forests and awed by the man-made beauty of the Hindu and Buddhist temples, I sat reading Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun who lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her words spoke to me in the silence. Instead of trying to “control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe,” I should “learn how to relax in the midst of chaos.”

Chödrön’s words had a profound effect on me. Whether it was because of the location or the timing—or both—I took to heart the importance of learning to see uncertainty and change as part of life, while believing in my ability to manage it. Sometimes timing is perfect. We’re ready to truly see what shows up in our lives. At other times we’re simply too busy or too blind to take in what the world is offering. But when we’re open to these special moments of discovery, like I was in Angkor Wat, we can learn some of life’s most enduring lessons. When our mental defenses are down and our hearts are receptive, we can see things differently.

Every morning, before I start my day, I take time to meditate, to travel inside myself. It’s my special time alone in my open mind and open heart. Some days my mind is active and anxious; other days it is quiet and serene. Sometimes I review what happened yesterday. Other times I prepare for the new day. Often I simply stay quiet and do nothing, or I use the time to remind myself what’s important in my life.

Just enough anxiety can be a powerful force in your life. To tap its full potential you must make a commitment to yourself: to know yourself, to be yourself, to challenge yourself, and to love yourself. Each of us must make our own decisions. Let us be guided by our UU principles, and our open minds and hearts as we lean into the winds of uncertainty and change.

Adapted with permission from a sermon preached by Robert Rosen at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, on February 24, 2008, which was based on his new book Just Enough Anxiety (Portfolio, 2008).

Related Resources