S1:E20 – The Upside of Anxiety


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the benefits of anxiety and discuss how to make this powerful physiological state work for us rather than against us.  



Don’t forget to check out Irvine’s You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Bridgette: Hello, everybody. My name is Bridgette Theurer, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. And I’m delighted, as always, to be joined by my colleague and co-host, Irvine Nugent. Irvine, it’s wonderful to see you and be with you, how the heck are you?

Irvine: I’m doing great, Bridgette, thank you for asking. Yeah, I love the fall and I’m anticipating some changes of leaves, which it’s my favorite time to go out for some walk, and there’s a little nip in the air, so I’m loving it; it’s, really, wonderful.

Bridgette: Yeah, that nip in the air, which has just arrived, right? Especially the early mornings, and then the evenings, it signals a change. It’s just, really, cool. Yeah.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: So, we have a very interesting topic for today, I think. We’re calling this episode the Upside of Anxiety.

Irvine: Love it.

Bridgette: And to our listeners, who have been following along, they may be what? Because we have talked a lot, in fact, even in the last episode we reminded our listeners that anxiety, while it keeps us safe and ensures survival, it can have some pretty significant consequences, right? For our lives and for our workplaces.

Irvine: Yep.

Bridgette: And yet, in this episode, we’re going to, kind of, look at it from a different point of view. There are some, incredibly, powerful benefits, obviously, because anxiety has hung around all these many years. And so, what can we learn about how it benefits us, and what might this provide for us, in terms of how we better leverage this powerful, powerful instinct in our lives. Okay. So, Irvine, I am wanting to ask you right away, can you think of a time when you were, pretty, anxious and it turned out to be something that was, really, helpful; the anxiety, maybe, it wasn’t, particularly, pleasant, but it ended up helping you in some way.

Irvine: The one that, really, I can focus on, is my response and, specifically, my business response to Covid. So, when Covid came, of course, massive anxiety and on many different levels but, certainly, I’m in the profession of speaking and training and they tend to be all live events. So, all of a sudden before my very eyes, my business was wiped out and wiped out for, at least, six months in advance. And, of course, that was, incredibly, full of anxiety. What’s next? What do I do? But what was interesting about that time as well, is that I think the anxiety helped me to focus; it helped me to, really, discern what’s important now in this moment, what do I need to do to keep my business afloat?

And I made a couple of decisions. One decision was I want to write a book. And I’ve never found time for that. And the second thing is, I’m going to turn two or three of my most popular trainings and get them up running virtually as soon as I, possibly, can. And let me tell you, I worked with a focus that was second to none, because, boy, I can get distracted and I would [Inaudible – 3:38] little rabbit-holes, et cetera. But I got up every morning at five o’clock, I wrote for three or four hours for the book, and then, in the afternoon, I did a little more work around getting the virtual up.

So, that, for me, was, it was not a great, business-wise, I was full of anxiety, I was uncomfortable, but, boy, did it help me focus. And, really, I came out of it with a new book and with some trainings that were all virtual.

Bridgette: Oh, I love that. And I can relate to that, because I remember when the pandemic first, sort of, broke in March of 2020. One of the commitments I made to myself was to use the time to be creative. So, I, really, resonate with that. Yeah, that’s lovely. Yeah.

Irvine: How about you, Bridgette? Can you think of a time when you were, really, really, anxious, but that anxiety helped you to avert a threat and to create something different?

Bridgette: Well, yes. And I could give a similar example to the one you just shared, but I’m going to go back, way, way back to when I had a newborn daughter. She was my second. We brought her home from the hospital. She was a couple of days old. And newborns are very sleepy. Sometimes you have to jog them and try to wake them up to eat, because they’re just, really, tired in those early days. So, that was normal and to be expected. And she was very sleepy, but I started to get anxious because I looked at her and I thought, she’s listless. There’s something here that isn’t right. And I can feel the chills in my body right now, reliving the anxiety.

And I said to my husband, I don’t know, I don’t think she’s well. And he goes, she’s fine, she’s eating. The hospital said she’d be, really, sleepy, she’s just sleepy, she’s going to be fine. But you know what, the anxiety was like this ringing alarm bell that would not shut up. And I had to listen to it. And finally, I picked up the phone and called my pediatrician and I thought, I bet he’s going to say the same thing my husband said, which is, she’s fine. You know what he said? Get her to the hospital immediately.

Irvine: Wow. Oh.

Bridgette: He said get her to children’s hospital downtown. I said, oh my gosh. And sure enough, and we did, obviously. And she had a very serious infection.

Irvine: Wow.

Bridgette: And a high fever and she was in the hospital for five days.

Irvine: Whoa.

Bridgette: Had I not listened to that instinct of deep and relentless anxiety, it could have been, really, disastrous, and I’m so grateful for that. Yeah. So, it’s interesting because both of us spoke about the unpleasant nature of the anxiety itself.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: But the result was great and, I think anxiety can feel, well, it does. It feels so unpleasant that often we want to just get rid of it. The last thing we want to do is walk around feeling, incredibly, anxious. And so, we try everything we can to, I think get rid of it.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And I’m just wondering, does that ring a bell for you too? And have you ever coached somebody, or, maybe, just in your own experience, where somebody was feeling so anxious and either they wanted to get rid of it, but they couldn’t, and it just kept persisting and lingering and so forth. I don’t know, what comes to mind?

Irvine: It’s interesting. So, I think there is, actually, a conversation, I had; a coaching conversation I had last week, and it was with a client whose colleague is in a position where they have to assign different tasks that need to be done. And what was interesting about the conversation was that this person who’s assigning the task is a, deeply, deeply, anxious person that’s anxious about the whole process and full of self-doubt. Are they getting it right? And what will happen if the task isn’t done?

And, really, I’m living through their anxiety and she said, they went for coffee the other day and the person was just talking about, Oh, I hate it, I hate this anxiety I feel, and I go into work and all of a sudden, I open these emails and there are four more things to be done, and I assign them and I worry and fret about them all day. Are they going to get done? Are they not? And she said, I know it’s not my responsibility, but I can’t help it. And so, it’s this constant state of unease and this desire just to offload it, to get rid of it. It, really, is persistent within them.

Bridgette: Yeah. And isn’t it interesting that it’s such an uncomfortable state that our resistance to feeling uncomfortable becomes part of the problem, right?

Irvine: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Bridgette: It complicates it, it snowballs.

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: It’s like, Oh my God, I’m anxious. I don’t want to feel anxious, that makes me feel more anxious. And it makes it harder to think our way through the issues, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, this is interesting, because what if the very unpleasant nature of anxiety is part of its magic, that because we so, one, feel uncomfortable and, two, can’t, easily, rid ourselves of it, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Maybe that’s part of its magic. All right. So, I think what we have to do is we have to get right into the benefits of anxiety and the neuroscience. Because, Irvine, I know, especially, you love to share with our listeners the neuroscience behind this. So, there are some interesting connections between brain chemistry and anxiety and the benefits of anxiety, so I’d love to hear about one of those.

Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s interesting, we’ve already said that anxiety has some benefits, and one of the things, it helps us avoid danger. We’re here today because of anxiety, blessed anxiety, it has helped us survive. And one of the ways, and it’s so, beautifully, exemplified in your story of your child, is that it propels us to action. That anxiety you felt, even though, you were hearing different voices around you, it propelled you to act and, thankfully, that action had, thankfully, turned out well for your child, and that’s so important, this incessant uncomfortableness moves us.

And so, it’s interesting, I think both of us were talking about a book that we had read, which is called, Future Tense, by a great author, Tracy Dennis-Tiwari. And in that book, I think she does a great job of helping us understand that anxiety is not just about avoiding threats, but it’s also about reward. And so, what we know is that anxiety releases dopamine in the brain and we’ve talked about dopamine, which is this feel good hormone. And how does that happen? Well, this anxiety motivates us, as we’ve already said, we want to avoid these bad outcomes, and so, therefore, we’re motivated to do well, to have rewarding. Your motivation was to call the doctor and say, Hey, I think something’s up here.

So, it propels us into a good action, and when that dopamine is released, this desirable outcome is achieved, we feel relief and all of a sudden the anxiety lessens. And so, that release of dopamine, it contains both of these pleasures. So, we have the rewarding outcome, but then also the relief that goes with doing that, and so, therefore, what’s being taught within us is that doing something good with our anxious feelings is good. We need to pay attention to them because there may be a message in here, and, therefore, it’s motivating to take effective action.

Bridgette: That is, really, interesting.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: Because nobody would assume that anxiety is somehow linked to the triggering of dopamine, which is a feel good hormone. And yet, it is linked to that because it motivates us to achieve desirable outcomes, and when that outcome is achieved, we feel great and we feel relief.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: That’s reminding me of an experience I had not that long ago, where I was giving a keynote for, I don’t know, maybe, I think there were going to be 220 people there. And, of course, I get a little anxious, a little nervous, because if I didn’t, that would be weird. But I’ve given a lot of these, so I wasn’t, particularly, anxious until, kind of, the day before, or two days before, I started feeling anxious, unusually anxious. And I thought, well, this is weird. I’ve given so many of these, I, sort of, wanted to just get rid of it, just don’t pay attention to it. It wouldn’t let go of me. And so, finally, I just said, Okay, I have to get back into this.

So, when I went to prepare for it, you know what I found? I found that I had inserted, I knew this, I’d inserted some new information that I was going to teach and share that I’d never done before. And I didn’t have examples, I was not prepared for that little segment, and that was what I was anxious about. So, I spent some more time figuring out, how am I going to say this? What examples am I going to share? And I go and give the presentation and lo and behold, I nailed it. But if I had not felt uncomfortable enough to look and see what was not yet ready for prime time, I might not have hit a home run. And when I hit that home run, I have to tell you, the rest of the day and into the next day; I thought I was on drugs. I was; I was on dopamine.

Irvine: I love it. I love it.

Bridgette: I felt so fantastic. And so, I, totally, get this connection with the dopamine and the achievement of an outcome and the relief. Ah, fabulous, Irvine.

Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.

Bridgette: Okay. So, that’s fascinating. So, anything else that you want to share neuroscience-wise?

Irvine: Yeah, it’s interesting as well. So, along with the dopamine, also anxiety stimulates the release of oxytocin, which we have mentioned before. Oxytocin is, popularly, called the cuddle hormone, the love hormone, the bonding hormone. And oxytocin is this neurotransmitter that makes us yearn for others, that makes us yearn for company; and think how beautiful that is. So, we are triggered in anxiety, and then part of the reaction to that is, can I draw close to others? Can I connect with others? And I started giving you the example of the pandemic, and we had so many beautiful examples in pandemic.

Here, we had this existential threat. And one of the reactions, even in our inability to be, physically, close with each other, to create avenues, be it in Zoom, be it in phone calls, be it on balconies we saw of people singing with each other for connection. I have a very dear friend and they had a rather strained relationship with one of their parents. And yet what was so beautiful about this, when Covid happened all of that went out the window and there was anxiety about their parent, who’s rather advanced in age, and they lived out of state.

So, they couldn’t, really, connect with them. And so, there’s this overall concern about how were they coping, they started to initiate phone calls, which, really, had been few and far between. And she said to me, I came out of Covid with a much stronger relationship with my parent, thankfully. And that was still beautiful. Yeah, of how. So, that’s important and even if it’s superficial, the research shows that connection can relieve anxiety. And, especially, when we’re going through tough times, the presence of loved ones, the presence of connection helps our nervous system to regulate and to feel the threats we face.

I often think of another situation that; some of my earlier work in the US, I worked with some people fleeing the Civil War. And I was an immigrant myself from Ireland. And I know that one of the places I used to like to go was an Irish pub.

Bridgette: Ah.

Irvine: Because it was familiar and I had a connection. So, moving to a new country is, incredibly, stressful.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: And yet, where do we go? We tend to flock around connections, our own community, people from our country of origin; it helps us to derive comfort, et cetera. And so, that’s so common, you see that in immigrant communities and, really, that’s what it’s about, it’s about supporting one another and relieving some of that intense anxiety they feel by reconnecting with others from their homeland and others who share similar cultures. And you see that a lot.

So, here, you have this anxiety which both drives us to action. It’s unpleasant. It propels us to that action. And then, one of the ways that happens is by creating connection for loved ones. And I mentioned the author of Future Tense, and she, really, says it, beautifully, by saying it contains this beautiful fractural symmetry. I love that.

Bridgette: Yes. Yes. It’s amazing. So, anxiety stimulates the release of oxytocin, which is the hormone that makes us yearn for connection. And that connection relieves the anxiety some, but also helps us face into danger more bravely.

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely.

Bridgette: Wow, it’s fascinating. Yeah.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Wow. And I love the idea of you wanting to hang out at the pubs. Hey, I totally get it. It’s just interesting.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah.

Irvine: So, Bridgette, now given these powerful benefits, so it’s, kind of, like looking at anxiety, maybe, in a different way. Talk to us a little bit about how can we leverage that? How can we experience it more as a benefit rather than as a burden?

Bridgette: Yeah. Well, I think you just said something that, to me, is a clue to the very first way to leverage this powerful instinct as a benefit, which is to shift our perspective on it. Anxiety has a bad rap.

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And, yes, it has some downsides and it does need to be managed. And yet, if we just also, it’s not a ‘but,’ it’s not ‘either-or,’ it’s an ‘and.’ And it serves us so, very, very, well. And just that shift in perspective can help us leverage it. In fact, I found this, really, interesting. So, there’s this test called the T S S T, the Trier Social Stress Test. It sounds like a God-awful test. And it was given to people who were socially anxious to see how they would become more anxious, and you had to perform complicated math problems.

Irvine: Oh my God.

Bridgette: In front of a panel of people who tell you you’re going too slow and speed it up. It’s like counting backwards by 13 from 2000. Just listening to it made me anxious.

Irvine: Yes, likewise.

Bridgette: So, Harvard researchers, and, I think it was 2013, had this idea like, well, what if we could perform that TSST test to socially anxious folks, a group of socially anxious folks, but tell them ahead about the benefits of anxiety; that it’s there to help them focus, as you said in the beginning. It focuses our attention. It floods our body with oxygen and blood so that we can perform at a higher level. It galvanizes us to take action and it’s there, actually, to make us more effective. And guess what? When they shared those benefits with people before the stress test, they had more confidence, they had less anxiety, and their bodily functions were at a much healthier level, in terms of heart rate, blood pressure, and so forth.

So, see, just realizing that the anxiety is not the giant foe that we fear, but embracing it as a, necessary, part of life and as an ally, can go a long way toward leveraging this benefit, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, I thought that was, really, cool. I don’t know, what about you? What do you think is another important way to do that?

Irvine: Yeah, I think it’s, kind of, riffing off that, I think as well, another way is to perhaps distinguish between helpful and unhelpful anxiety. We’ve already introduced this, helpful, but unhelpful, how many times do we wake up at night sometimes and we’re feeling anxious and we’re racking our brains, what am anxious about? I don’t know. It’s, kind of, floating there; it doesn’t make any sense to us. There’s no real threat or challenge, and, therefore, because of that, we don’t know what we can do to get rid of it, and that’s just, really, unhelpful. Or sometimes what’s unhelpful, as well, is when we have a false alarm, we’re highly attuned to things that are going on around us, and sometimes our alarm system isn’t the best.

And sometimes it goes off when, really, there isn’t a fire and there is no fire, literally, or metaphorically going on in our lives, we just have to realize that this is just unhelpful. And then the other thing is then, perhaps, to realize when anxiety is helpful. That when anxiety is pushing us this uncomfortableness we feel, pushes us toward taking specific action to a challenge, what can I do? What action can I take? What might this be encouraging me to do? So, instead of saying, ugh, I feel this nasty anxiety is like, Oh, that’s interesting. Well, what can I do? What’s the next step? Where do I need to focus my energy? Where do I need to focus my attention? What’s the message in this?

Maybe there’s a gap between where I’m at and where I need to be. And, maybe, this is a challenge, a propulsion to move myself into that. And I think that can be, really, helpful distinguishing both of those, and then, really, taking action when it’s helpful anxiety.

Bridgette: That’s great because we do know that sometimes the anxiety that we’re feeling is off. It’s like a faulty alarm system, right?

Irvine: Yeah.

Bridgette: And yet, at the beginning of this episode, you and I shared examples where the anxiety that we felt was insistent and specific and urging us to take action. And we did. And so, I just find that distinction between helpful and unhelpful anxiety, really, important. Yeah, thank you for sharing that.

Irvine: So, Bridgette, we always try and end our episode with something concrete, a practice that people can take with them. So, any ideas about a practice for helping us, really, see the upside of anxiety?

Bridgette: Yeah. So, I’m going to call this practice dissolve and deploy. Now, in a previous episode, we talked about the four Ds of anxiety. I think it was distract, displace, dissolve, and deploy. I’m just focusing on two of those, dissolve and deploy. And I’m going to build off of what you just said, because the first step of the practice when we’re feeling anxious is to take a breath or two and discern whether the anxiety is the helpful kind or the unhelpful kind, right? If it’s the unhelpful kind, that means it’s vague, it’s generalized, it’s not giving us clues as to what it’s about or how to take action. Or it might be that there’s nothing we can do at that moment, right?

Maybe we know what we’re anxious about, but there’s nothing to be done about it right then, or perhaps it is the helpful kind, as you just said. So, after you know which is which; if you discern that, you know what, this is not helpful right now. Then you dissolve it. What does that mean? You let it go, you take a break from it, you put it in a little box for safekeeping. And we know how to do that. The best way to dissolve unhelpful anxiety, the best way to let it go is to do the things that calm our nervous system, and that bring us into the present moment, in touch with our sensations, in touch with our physical surroundings.

Whether that’s taking a walk, whether that’s doing breath work, whether that is listening to music; we know what those things are that bring us fully into the present moment, that’s the best way to dissolve anxiety that’s not helpful. Now, of course, if it’s the helpful kind, we want to deploy it, we want to put it to good use, we want to be purposeful with it, as you were in the pandemic; you took that giant mass of anxiety and you were purposeful with it, in terms of creating training courses, right? In terms of writing a book. That’s fantastic, that is what anxiety is, really, there for; it’s meant to be used in a, purposeful, way to create a new and better future for ourselves and for our loved ones, right?

So, that’s the practice; dissolve and-or deploy. And, by the way, you might do a little of both, you might dissolve some anxiety that, maybe, you’re going to revisit, but in the moment there’s nothing you can do about it so you let it go. And then, you come back to it when it’s message rears back up again and you’re in a place where you can listen to it.

Irvine: Wow, I love that. Dissolve and deploy. I need to learn more of that, and that’s a practice I think I want to embrace in my life. So.

Bridgette: Amen.

Irvine: Yeah. Well, hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this episode and, hopefully, we’ve, kind of, given you some way of, perhaps, looking on this word of anxiety a little bit differently, because so often anxiety does get a bad rap. However, anxiety also has some wonderful purposes, and, hopefully, you’ve begun to see that, of how it can help us propel ourselves to take action, which, ultimately, can lead to the release of some wonderful reward dopamine. It can propel us to create community in which we find safety, which in turn can help us then further take action.

And I love the whole practice of dissolve and deploy and, perhaps, instead of seeing good old anxiety as the enemy; actually, it’s a friend. Befriend it because it can help us move into new action and can, truly, help us create some new decisions and solve problems in our lives. So, thank you, Bridgette. For our listeners, please subscribe to the podcast. If you think that this will be useful for some person in your life, feel free to share it. We love to know what you’re thinking, if you have any suggestions for future episodes please email us at resilientleadershippodcastgmail.com.

Next episode, we are going to look at a discussion around creating rewarding workplaces, so I look forward to that as well. Bridgette, thank you so much, thank you for, really, helping us shed a new light on anxiety and thinking about it in a different way.

Bridgette: Irvine, thank you for this conversation. I feel like I learned so much and, as you said, I’m going to put the dissolve and deploy practice into practice in my own life. So, thank you listeners for being with us, as always.

Irvine: Goodbye, have a great week ahead and we’ll see you in the next episode.

Bridgette: Take care.

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