Until the  pandemic hit last year, candid talk about  anxiety was marginal. We all knew that anxiety was common, so why talk about it? The subtext was simply: "Manage. Cope. Figure it out."

Obviously, that was not enough. We turned frequently to Google for diagnosis and treatment, but with websites of questionable authority dotting the internet, it was hard to know whom to trust. We tried breathing exercises. CBT.  Yoga. I can't speak for you, but I saw only nominal improvements. 

Then, we collectively endured a once-in-a-lifetime isolation. The distractions afforded by our busy lives--the work, the social engagements, the familial obligations--either shifted dramatically or disappeared. We were left with our own thoughts. 

In this echo chamber, more and more people acknowledged the weight of anxiety. Words of kindness and support were sent into the social media ether. "Be gentle with yourself. You're doing alright today." We heard it everywhere.

For the most part, however, these messages came largely from our peers. Some came from faceless organizations, eager to acknowledge the timely mental health crisis we were all facing. But from what I could tell, very few came from business leaders. 

As we now plod through our second year in COVID-19 strangeness, it's worth reflecting on what we could have done better to support ourselves and one another. More specifically, how could business leaders and authority figures have supported us more effectively in a time of intense anxiety?

  1. Give anxiety a name and a face. 

When left formless and without context, discussion about anxiety is clinical. Few of us can relate to it. When we actualize it, however, and give it real-life color, we begin to relate to it. A corporate press release noting that "anxiety is affecting all of us" is meaningless. A CEO writing a bylined op-ed in a major newspaper explaining his or her struggle with daily anxiety is relatable. Pair this with actionable guidance and words of community support and we begin to see a path forward.

  1. Acknowledge that anxiety is not stress--and offer perspective. 

We lump anxiety and stress together all the time, but there are important differences between them. Stress is the result of an external trigger or force. If a deadline is approaching and we're behind on work, we feel stress. Anxiety, while sometimes fueled by external events, is rooted in internal dialogue and assumptions about ourselves and how we relate to the outside world. Self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear of failure--all of these can come out of an overactive, anxious mind. 

In a time of sudden upheaval like the pandemic, leaders can openly acknowledge changes that exacerbate our individual anxiety. In isolation, our interaction with others waned. Without that external, level-setting perspective, we were left to spin out with anxious thoughts. If authority figures had more readily acknowledged this and encouraged us to connect--even offering forums to do so--our struggles with anxiety may not have been so painful.

  1. Remind us that change is constant, and we will adapt (and thrive) in a new normal.

This is the equivalent of parents telling their nightmare-spooked child that "everything will be alright." Part of our anxiety during early pandemic lockdowns was linked to uncertainty. Nobody knew how things would unfold, how long it would take for us to return to normal, if our loved ones would suffer. Nobody could give us absolute answers, but a reminder that our collective resilience has been the key to our survival--and growth--for centuries would have been an effective salve. 

In short, when anxiety hits, show us how we've made it through hard times before. Remind us of the bigger picture (and our ability to survive, adapt, and thrive) and the edge of our anxiety will be softened.

  1. Remember that anxiety is a constant.

Crisis averted? It's not exactly back to a happy-go-lucky status quo. Anxiety is, and will remain, constant for almost all of us. Keep the conversations going. Continue to acknowledge your own struggles with anxiety. Make resources available to employees when they need it. And, when appropriate, encourage them to seek professional help and support--especially if anxiety begins affecting their work. 

Put simply: Support, don't stigmatize. 

The pandemic presented unique challenges for all of us, and while the sheer impact of the virus on society will (hopefully) not be felt again for generations, the lessons above can be used in other circumstances. In any place where there is a cohesive, interdependent group of people suffering from radical change or threat--a business, for example--the above methods can ease the pangs of anxiety. 

A final note: For those who did step up and acknowledge the weight of anxiety during the pandemic, I applaud you. Keep doing what you do. Remind us that leadership is about more than dollars and egos. It's about being plainly, unapologetically human.