Self-Awareness Reduces Anxiety During Trying Times

By Sandra M. Martínez, PhD, PCC

I fared rather well through most of the pandemic and then, in April, I started feeling anxious every day. That is unusual for me. I generally manage stress well, even under the most challenging circumstances. Anxiety was beginning to feel like a habit. Interest in self-care and managing tension, even before the pandemic, have been themes that frequently emerged with my coaching clients. I recognized that I needed to adopt some practices that I encourage my clients to consider.

“He who understands other people has knowledge; he who understands himself is seeing clearly.”
Laozi, Daodejing, 6th century, bce.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning behavioral economist, describes two operating systems which we as humans use to processes information and make decisions. System I, which we use most of the time, is our more primal, automatic and intuitive way of functioning. System II is more deliberate and conscious. System I is necessary because we cannot make deliberate decisions about everything we do, however, it is this system that accounts for our cognitive biases, our habitual moves, and sometimes gets us into trouble.

Clearly, I needed to call on System II, my more deliberate and conscious self, to slow myself down and examine the patterns of my thinking and behavior that were driving me into a state of anxiety. I needed to bring to bear System II in order to center myself and find some peace of mind.    

The good news is that we can slow ourselves down and change our patterns of thinking and acting. The neuroplasticity of our brains allows us to reconfigure the pathways of our brain through experience and learning over time.  

Four Proven Approaches

Here are a few practices and reflections that can be helpful if you find yourself habitually experiencing anxiety:  

  • Pay close attention to your reactions to recognize when your body is responding in a “fight or flight” mode so that you can explore why. (This is assuming you are not in an actual dangerous situation when your neurological System I is preparing you for a useful “fight or flight” pattern). What triggers you? Is it a real danger or a memory?
  • Even when you are not in a “fight or flight” mode, pause “in the midst of action” to think consciously, expanding your awareness of your patterns of behavior, so you may identify automatic reactions that you hadn’t recognized before. Some of these responses are habitual and likely subconscious and may not be serving you well. Pausing might allow you to see a see a different possibility for reacting and behaving you had not recognized previously. You could make a different behavioral choice more aligned with your intentions and goals.  
  • Learn a meditative practice. We now know from research that meditative practices enhance our cognitive functioning by helping us to step back from our automatic (System I) mode, and generate more positive emotions, which may offer some peace of mind. 
  • Daily or weekly, schedule a  period for reflection to consider whether you are fully realizing your intentions and goals. In a given situation, what are your patterns of thinking and behavior. Are they moving you in the direction you desire to go? 

Understanding ourselves is an important part of “seeing” ourselves clearly, as Laozi understood so many centuries ago. As a leadership coach, I support my clients in exploring their patterns of thinking and acting, and helping them to adopt reflective practices. These practices help us expand our awareness and enable us to manage stress during times of heightened challenge. In “seeing” ourselves, we grow in our resilience and leadership effectiveness.

To learn more about self-awareness, reducing anxiety, and improving your leadership effectiveness, schedule a consultation with Sandra.