People who suffer from anxiety often become masters at hiding it. Even though anxiety disorders are extremely common, we may be unaware that people in our lives, including family members, friends and coworkers, are living silently with anxiety. We cannot have a healthy body and mind if we do not open up the dialogue about brain health, and because of the veil of secrecy, anxiety is often sitting on our shoulders like an oppressive, silent elephant, inhibiting the lives of those afflicted.

An estimated 4% of the world population is affected by anxiety disorders, which equates to around 275 million people. Many mental conditions are underreported or untreated, so this estimate may actually be low. Measuring the true impact of poor mental health is difficult, but researchers have attempted to estimate where anxiety is most prevalent. 

Data for 2016 shows higher rates for some countries, including1:

  • Australia (6.61%)
  • Argentina (6.37%)
  • Brazil (6.14%)
  • United States (6.08%)
  • Spain (5.6%)
  • United Kingdom (5.01%)

What Is Anxiety?

When you hear the word ‘anxiety’, you might think of a nervous student or child biting their fingernails before a big test. However, anxiety disorders include a wide range of symptoms, and anxiety can also be paired with depression, with some clinical findings showing the two together 75% of the time. 

The most common types of anxiety include:

  • GAD or Generalised Anxiety Disorder: A person who has GAD has spent at least six months worrying or feeling anxious about many different things. Even minor parts of your life (like housekeeping or being late) can cause uncontrollable worries and a fear that something horrible could happen. Symptoms also include feeling tired, having a difficult time concentrating or trouble sleeping.3
  • Social Anxiety: The third largest mental health problem in the world, social anxiety is defined as a fear of social situations where interactions with other people occur. People with social anxiety may be perceived as aloof, unfriendly, shy or withdrawn. In reality, these individuals experience extreme distress in what most of us deem to be normal, everyday social interactions. Unfortunately, while treatable, many people have trouble overcoming social anxiety because of the lack of treatment facilities and options.4
  • Panic Disorder: When a person has a panic attack, they feel intense fear which can trigger physical responses, including feeling like they are having a heart attack or dying. Most panic attacks peak in a few minutes, but the symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath and chest pain, can be overwhelming.5
  • Phobias: Phobias can completely shape a person’s life, as they will take great lengths to avoid the object, creature, or situation which results in extreme and irrational fears. A common phobia is agoraphobia, which is the fear of being somewhere where escape would be challenging (a public bus, a lift or somewhere outside of the home). Agoraphobia is linked with an increased risk of panic attacks and panic disorder. Phobias can trigger many other symptoms, including trembling, fast heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, chest tightness or pain, confusion and dizziness.6

There Is A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

While anxiety can be suffocating, there are treatment options. Psychological treatments, which are also known as talking therapies, give people an opportunity to change their thinking patterns to reduce worrying and keep anxiety at bay. Pharmacological options are available as well, and these medications are much safer than they were even twenty or thirty years ago.

Cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, involves working with a therapist to identify patterns and thought processes which cause you to become anxious and instead focus on problem-solving. Learning relaxation and breathing techniques can help calm the physical effects of tension and anxiety. Therapists can also teach you how to decide if your worries are unproductive and how to let go of them.7

You should never feel like you have to live with anxiety, and talking with a professional can help you learn anxiety management strategies. Technology has given us even more treatment options, including using neurofeedback devices to retrain the brain and how we think about and process things which may trigger anxiety. 

As a leader, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious about work, your performance at work, or during social interactions. However, if you let these anxieties control how you live, your leadership will likely begin to suffer. Creativity, innovation and collaboration are difficult to maintain when concerns and worries crowd the brain. 

Anxiety is a complex emotional response that’s similar to fear. Fear and anxiety differ, however, in that fear is typically associated with a clear, present and identifiable threat, whereas anxiety occurs in the absence of immediate peril.

Catherine M. Pittman8

Strategies your therapist might recommend include:9

  • A healthy lifestyle: A healthy body is required for a healthy brain, and vice versa! Regular exercise, proper sleep and good nutrition can all help improve your overall well-being and reduce anxiety. 
  • Going outside: Green spaces have been shown to promote better brain health. Even a short time period outdoors can help refresh your mind, which can reduce the nagging feelings of worry. 
  • Muscle relaxation: Techniques such as meditation and yoga can help you learn how to relax your muscles, which can relieve the muscle tension often found when we are anxious.
  • Positive self-talk: Instead of automatically thinking of the worst possible scenario, realise that anxiety causes people to overestimate danger in many situations. The ancient limbic brain served us well in humanity’s distant past, but now it causes us to panic when conditions aren’t truly dangerous. Take a moment to reset your thoughts and focus on all the positives. 
  • Be kind: If you have anxiety, you are not weak. You have a brain disorder. We are sympathetic and kind when someone breaks a limb or is diagnosed with cancer, so why do not recognise mental health the same way? Start by being compassionate to yourself and those around you and lead by example.

Leadership And Anxiety Can Be Separated

Anxiety disorders are common, and they can be paired with other conditions such as depression. It’s important as a society to recognise the validity of anxiety disorders--especially for our leaders. The very qualities needed to be an entrepreneur also manifest with anxiety, such as an ability to think broadly across many subjects at once and to hyper-connect information and data.10

It’s important to use our voices to remind political leaders that brain health issues are real and that people’s lives are profoundly affected when treatment options are unavailable or limited. Mental disorders are nothing to be ashamed of, and so many of them, including anxiety, are treatable.

While some people are natural leaders, we can all increase our leadership potential by ensuring we have a healthy brain and body. Embracing the idea of overall health (and making this care available and affordable) is crucial as we develop the leaders of the future. Beginning the sometimes difficult conversation about brain health is the first step to becoming a healthier human being--and leader.

Stay tuned for my next article as we explore the positive benefits of nature on the brain.

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1. Ritchie H & Roser M. Mental Health. Our World in Data. 2018. Available online.

2. Amen Clinics. Anxiety and Depression. Amen Clinics. 2019. Available online.

3. Beyond Blue. GAD. Beyond Blue Ltd. 2019. Available online.

4. Richards TA. Social Anxiety Fact Sheet: What is Social Anxiety Disorder? Symptoms, Treatment, Prevalence, Medications, Insight, Prognosis. The Social Anxiety Association. 2019. Available online.

5. Mayo Clinic. Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). 2019. Available online.

6. Nordqvist C. Everything you need to know about phobias. Healthline Media UK Ltd. 2017. Available online.

7. Beyond Blue. Psychological treatments for anxiety. Beyond Blue Ltd. 2019. Available online.

8. Pittman CM & Karle EM. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry. New Harbinger Publications. 2015.

9. Beyond Blue. Anxiety management strategies. Beyond Blue Ltd. 2019. Available online

10. Buchanan L. All Leaders Have Anxiety. Here’s How the Best Ones Deal With It. Manuseto Ventures. 2018. Available online.

Originally posted on: 28 May 2020
Last updated on: 18 February 2024
Relmi Damiano

Relmi Damiano

Creative Director & Co-Founder
About my Brain Institute

In 2009, Relmi Damiano co-founded the About my Brain Institute alongside scientist and leadership expert Silvia Damiano. Their vision is to democratise leadership & neuroscience by shaking up how we develop the human, the leader and the creative we all carry within.

Relmi is a full-stack designer, brand strategist and entrepreneur. She is interested in the intersection of strategic design, innovation, leadership, coaching and applied neuroscience. Relmi was also the producer for the 8-time international award-winning ‘Make Me A Leader’ Documentary.

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