Feeling Anxious? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I need your advice. The coronavirus is really putting everyone in my office on edge. Clients are canceling bookings. Executives are calling emergency meetings to try to figure out a course of action. And mid-level managers like me are being pulled in a dozen different directions with multiple top-priority requests from senior leaders along with direct reports looking for answers. It’s all a little too chaotic.

I’m trying to remain calm and not get pulled into the chaos, but at the same time I know we need to come up with answers and some direction to curb the general anxiety. Any suggestions on how to get through the short term?

Thanks in advance for your help and advice.

Anxious but Optimistic


Dear Anxious but Optimistic,

I know, these are crazy times. We are all feeling skittish and finding it hard to stay calm. And for folks who normally struggle with anxiety, it’s even worse. I was concerned about getting a letter like yours because I can barely keep my own wits about me and feel less than qualified to offer advice to anyone right now. The situation we are dealing with is unprecedented for most of us. The best I can do is share some principles we might all lean on until things become clearer.

First: Calm down. It is important to know that the brain is a prediction machine. When we cannot predict what is going to happen next, the parts of our brains we use to make decisions and regulate our behavior go on tilt. Our systems become flooded with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are helpful if you need to run away from a lion but overkill if you’re sitting at a desk. You probably know this as the fight or flight response. My wonderful colleague Judith Glaser suggests the alternative freeze or appease, which seems to resonate more with our modern lifestyle. It is probably most common to feel frozen as the news of the pandemic escalates.

So job one is to actively choose to calm our sympathetic nervous systems. Anything you normally would do to calm down is your friend right now. If you don’t have any good methods, now is the time to learn some.

Meditation or prayer are soothing for many, as are hobbies that can get you into a peaceful mindset such as cooking, crafts, writing, a hot bubble bath, playing games, or walking in nature. Any kind of physical exercise is a great place to start. I am grateful that I have to walk my dogs, because it would be so easy to default to staying hunched over my computer—as if staying on top of the news feed is going to help anything.

Breathing is a key calming method. If you don’t have a breathing practice, simply try breathing in on a count of 4 and breathing out on the same slow count. Repeat ten times. See? You feel better already. Try doing it with your team. Your people may think you are a loon, but it will absolutely, positively help. It is a leader’s responsibility to set the tone and be a role model, so consider staying calm to be a part of your job.

Now that you are calmer and thinking straight, remember that you have to wait for your leader’s official decisions. Once you have those, you can prioritize your own and your team’s activities and swing into action. Until then, identify what you can and cannot control. Pay attention to only what you can control and focus on that. I am sure you have regular deadlines and commitments. Just work on those. You know what you’re doing, and it will make you feel grounded and competent.

Finally, stop the incoming noise. Put down the phone. Turn off the news. Check in at pre-designated intervals to make sure you don’t miss anything critical. The media lives for this kind of crisis and their job is to ratchet up the fear so you stay glued to the screen. Don’t let someone else’s goals control your behavior—remember, you have choices.

If you get stuck at home, use the time to get to your endless to-do list of secondary chores. Change the light bulbs, clean out your closet, make the photo album from the last family trip. Do all those little things you never seem to get to. If your college-aged kids are getting boomeranged back home early (God bless you—you will require even more calming practices), plan all the stuff you never get to do as a family anymore because everyone is too busy. Play board games. Learn backgammon. Join Ancestry.com and create a family tree. Facetime with Grampy who can’t have visitors.

Wash your hands, clean your phone, and breathe.

So will I.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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