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Mental wellness @the workplace

Psychological agility in the face of anxiety and overwhelm

Whenever two or more people come together to change a light bulb, there seems to be conflict. Add aggressive timelines, tight budgets, and VUCA conditions (volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous), and people typically experience feelings of anxiety, confusion, diminishing trust and overwhelm - even in the best of corporate cultures and visionary organizations - even with the best talent around and ample budgets and resources.

We often act as if this is normal - as if it's possible for external situations to determine our internal peace of mind. I used to believe this for a very long time. And was always seeking jobs and environments which would be peaceful and inspiring enough so that I would feel more relaxed. I used to think that my mental wellness required the absence of anxiety and overwhelm. So I relentlessly studied techniques to help me reduce my anxiety and overwhelm so that I could have more peace of mind.

VUCA conditions, wherein tried and true best practices become ineffective and unreliable, contribute to this outside-in illusion of mental health. Processes and procedures that worked even a year ago tend to become obsolete in the face of disruptive conditions that seem to have no clear cause and effect pathways. A VUCA world often feels threatening both emotionally and mentally because we can't predict what will happen, and we're increasingly confronted with goals and strategies that are contradictory but simultaneously true.

In the face of these dilemmas and stressors, people typically get defensive and act out, and resort to coping mechanisms like denial, repression, aggression or decision-making paralysis to deal with the emotional discomforts inherent in complex situations. Again, there's a tendency to believe that just because our external conditions are unpredictable and chaotic, then that means something about our internal mental health.

The good new is: This is all a human thing. Experiencing emotional discomfort and resorting to coping mechanisms are typical ways we all deal with complex situations in our lives - no matter what position we hold in an organization.

The suffering comes in, however, when we actually believe that external circumstances have a say on our state of mind and our internal state of mental health. From this perspective, we tend to spend countless hours trying to understand our emotional discomforts and try hard to change our unhealthy coping mechanisms. We try to fix or heal ourselves so that we could be more resilient and overcome any external challenges. But this approach only amplifies the situation, and doesn't really provide a way out of suffering because we are making it all so real.

The truth is, however, we can't heal or fix ourselves, even if we wanted to -- because there's nothing really to fix or heal ! Our natural state is mental wellness and clarity, we just tend to buy into the agitated thoughts about our external circumstances. Our experience of our agitated thoughts is what produces the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.

Psychological agility is the awareness that we are always only experiencing our thoughts in the moment. That is all. The anxious feelings we have about a colleague don't point to a truth about that colleague; they point to the fact that we're in our heads about a situation - that we have lots of agitated thoughts about that person. And these thoughts pass, as do all thoughts, because thoughts are transient in nature. They come and go. The only way they become real, is if we focus on them. Anxious feelings about a colleague are merely a reflection of our anxious thoughts about that person. This reactionary assessment typically only shows a small fraction of the whole story. But we cling to our thoughts about a situation as if they are the whole truth.

The reason most leadership development and skills-based training programs miss the mark is that they don’t see that the greatest threat to business success isn’t necessarily external. The greatest threat is giving so much value and meaning to insecure thinking.

As individuals, we have what it takes to fully face the situations in our lives, whether personal or professional, and to address them with clarity, focus and creativity. We are social creatures. We innately know how to collaborate with others to address our most threatening situations.

But we tend to give priority to our insecure thoughts. We tend to think that if I am feeling anxious about a work project, then that means something about the project. We tend to think that if I am feeling angry at a co-worker, then that is a real thing that I must now address and maybe even communicate with my co-worker. We tend to think that if I am feeling overwhelmed about a work project, then that overwhelm is a real thing and it must mean something about my ability to handle the project.

Being hooked by insecure thoughts and allowing ourselves to be side-tracked by trying to figure them out creates a deadening veil, distorting our ability to be fully present to a situation and to the full array of creative power we innately possess to deal with any situation at hand.

We are naturally resilient and creative creatures. Yet our tendency to believe in the reality of our insecure thoughts and thus be hooked by them, robs us of the ability to be fully present, creative and collaborative.

We have anywhere between 12,000 to 80,000 thoughts each day. Yet our tendency to hold on tight to a few insecure/reactive thoughts is so prevalent and crippling.

Releasing our tight grip on the truth-value of insecure thoughts allows our thoughts to pass and our state of mind to settle.

How often have you had the idea of taking a walk around the block to “clear your thoughts?” Or waiting to share a bad news with someone once they are in a "better mood"?

This is our innate wisdom helping us see the impact of our state of mind on our productivity in the workplace. Mental wellness is not about the absence of anxiety, depression and overwhelm. Mental wellness is about knowing that we are innately well, and that as part of being human, we often times believe in our anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed thoughts about a situation. And thus we feel these thoughts. But the wellness is always there.


When we realize this simple distinction, it reduces our tendency to feel offended or upset at what others do or say. It strengthens our ability to stay present to what is actually being communicated, instead of buying into our reactive thoughts about the situation. The freedom that this psychological agility provides in addressing workplace challenges with creativity and insight is simply profound. I will share more examples of this freedom in future writings.



Dr. Noushin Bayat is a coach and organization development executive with expertise in operations, change management, and leadership development. She supports executives/teams to engage clear thinking, psychological agility and presence to collaborate effectively and deliver emergent innovative solutions within complex agile environments. Dr. Bayat has worked on change initiatives requiring the design of training and leadership development programs, scaling and operationalizing coaching deployment and developing agile solutions within agile product development environments. She has a BS in computer science and communications, masters in public health and spiritual psychology, and doctorate in organizational leadership, with advanced training in coaching, yoga and meditation.