The Nature of Anxiety, Stress and Tension

Looking back on my experience working with several thousands of people over the past 20 years, I am struck by how much of human (and therefore leadership) behavior is driven by anxiety.  It is as if anxiety, operating mostly below conscious awareness, hijacks the thinking system in the brain, directing the content and focus of thinking.  The result is that most of one’s intellectual capacity is directed toward the short term effort to reduce anxiety rather than long term strategic goals.  Of course, there are a multitude of tricky ways people convince themselves their actions are rational.  But one usually doesn’t have to dig too deeply to discover just how suspect most rationalizations are.

I have spent much time trying to make a number of clear distinctions in my own thinking, in an ongoing effort to better understand anxiety and its impact on functioning, both individually and in organizations.  Important points that have helped me better observe and regulate my own functioning follow.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an automatic fear response to anything that is perceived as a threat/potential threat.  The threat does not have to be real.  The central and peripheral nervous system does not seem to know the difference between a real and an imagined experience.  The perception that what is happening or might happen could in some way harm me produces an automatic, practically instantaneous (we are talking about milliseconds here) internal response.

Anxiety can be acute or chronic.  Acute anxiety is a short-term response to a current stimulus.  My flight gets cancelled and I have a psychological and physiological reaction to the cancellation.  Chronic anxiety is a prolonged state of fear, which varies in intensity over time and among individuals.  Operating with a non-conscious or semi-conscious sense that at any moment, something harmful might happen produces a chronic state of anxiety.

I have come to make a few distinctions in types of fear responses based on perception of threats.

Existential Threats:  Perceived threat to one’s survival.  This could kill me.

Social Threats: Perceived threat to social stability, acceptance in important relationships or groups, approval and social harmony.  This could result in my being cut-off, rejected, isolated, kicked-out.

Threats to Conceptual Self: Threats to belief structures, values, principles and conceptual extensions of self, such as attachments to outside entities or others that provide a “borrowed” sense of self.  Any threat to something important to me is the same as a threat to me.

At lower levels of maturity, there is a greater tendency to perceive mere challenges as serious threats.  It is as if minor conceptual threats carry the same weight as existential threats.  Insulting someone’s favorite football team gets treated like a threat to one’s survival.

What is the relationship between anxiety and stress?

Anxiety is the fear response that kicks into high gear a set of physiological and psychological processes designed to deal with the “threat.”  There are a host of hormonal and other physiological responses that collectively can be termed “The Stress Response.”  These responses influence practically every aspect of one’s functioning, including energy, ability to think clearly, ability to self-regulate, sexual/reproductive functioning, immune function, digestive functioning, neuro-muscular functioning, etc.  The basic short term function of the stress response is to deliver blood and oxygen to working muscles to deal with a threat.  If you are running for your life, it’s no time to worry about immune function.  That can come later.  The problem we humans have is that most of the things we perceive as threats are experiences like cancelled flights, noisy neighbors, conflict at work, traffic jams and fear of speaking in public, none of which require physically demanding action and all of which are practically continuous experiences.  None of these represent real existential threats to survival, but we are stuck with the build up of energy and shut down of other important functions mentioned above as if it is a survival threat.

What is the long-term result of chronic anxiety and stress?

The result of chronic anxiety and corresponding stress is an accumulation of tension in oneself and in relationships.  This tension can be thought of as a strain on the system.  Individually, it could manifest as chronically tight muscles, a hormonal response in a perpetual state of preparation for fight or flight or a range of other ways tension can manifest.  It’s like driving down the highway in 1st gear, red-lining your engine.  The tension develops within individuals and between individuals as well.  The result of prolonged tension will be some type of symptom development.  Red-line your car engine long enough and it will breakdown.

What does this have to do with leadership?

Organizations operating under chronic anxiety, stress and tension develop symptoms just as individuals will.  Chronic stress results in the “taking off line” of long-term functions.  In organizations that means long-term projects such as values clarification, strategic planning, relationship building, people development, cultural leadership, learning, quality improvement and many other examples fall by the wayside.  Resources are diverted to short-term, “whack-a-mole” problem solving activities.  Also, in an effort to solve the problem de jour, thinking tends to shift to a more linear, cause-effect paradigm, resulting in a wide range of important variables going unnoticed.

What can be done about it?

First, it is important for leaders to learn how to regulate their own level of tension.  Anxiety in life is inevitable and therefore, the stress that goes with it is inevitable as well.  However, with conscious effort, it is possible to downgrade one’s level of tension, or strain on one’s own system.  I believe each person must find the means that work best for self, but for anyone, the effort must begin with  moving toward conscious awareness of tension in oneself.  Key markers may include:

  • Tight muscles
  • Chronic digestive problems
  • Chronic, recurring illnesses (colds, etc.)
  • Polarized functioning (too much or too little sleeping, eating, unintended weight gain/loss, too much/too little libido, etc.)
  • Loss of focus/concentration
  • Hyper-focused on problems
  • Difficulty seeing humor in situations
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • _______________ (add your own self-observations)

Tension results from chronic stress that impedes long-term “projects.”  It then follows that turning one’s focus to long-term projects when under stress offers a viable antidote.  The more I notice markers of tension in myself, the more I turn my attention to activities like reflection, meditation, exercise, nutrition management, sleep hygiene, planning and other forms of clarifying and rejuvenating activity.

In considering what makes for effective leadership, a tense leader cannot lead an organization through and out of a tense state of being.  The leader must first get a handle on his/her own tension.  Once under control for oneself, attention should be turned toward the same long-term organizational functions, paying careful attention to making sure there is time for clarifying and rejuvenating organizational activities.

Simply stated, the more leaders observe tension in their organizations and teams, the more they should be paying attention to all the long-term activities mentioned above.

Try spending the next 30 days getting better at noticing tension in yourself.  When you notice signs of tension, make time for clarifying and rejuvenating activities and then observe what happens within you and in your ability to relate to others.


​Shoshin Leadership, Inc.

​Leading with Calmness, Clarity and Courage

​The Shoshin Leader by Stan Proffitt

Anchoring thoughts for self-reflective leaders

Enso ​by Stan Proffitt