How Recovery From Anorexia Helped Me Become a Successful Leader
I learned to turn anxiety into adrenaline.
I’m 24 years old, founded and run the second largest eating disorder non-profit in the country, and I am on a mission to change the eating disorder identification and treatment landscape. This year has been tremendously successful for Project HEAL — restructuring our board, growing from 1–5 staff members, expanding our mission, and hosting our most successful galas to date. This necessarily means that 2016 has also been a very stressful one.
I’ve thought a lot this past year about how to manage stress while still performing at your peak, and many of the conclusions I’ve drawn are taken from a much earlier experience in my life, my recovery from anorexia nervosa. The skills that I learned in my recovery have undoubtedly helped me to be a successful leader.
Of course, the behavioral component of stress management is crucial. Getting more sleep, finding time to be active, carving out time to unplug, cutting out activities and people that drain rather than invigorate you. These behavioral modifications became pillars of my recovery, and now are pillars of running a successful non-profit.
What I’ve found to be even more important, however, is cognitive restructuring — how we think about our stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy — the cornerstone of most effective psychological treatments for anxiety, depression, and related disorders — teaches us to challenge unproductive and irrational thoughts, to put things in perspective, to stop catastrophizing, and to frame challenging situations in a light that works for us rather than against us.
I used to get knots in my stomach over lots of day-to-day hassles — when we had a management problem with a volunteer, a donor meeting didn’t go as well as I hoped, I awoke to find 50 emails in my inbox (one of the few downsides of living in California….).
Over the past year, though, I’ve learned how to reframe my anxiety as adrenaline. The volunteer issue taught me tremendous management skills, the donor meeting helped me to tighten my pitch (and there are plenty of other donors out there), and the 50 emails at 7am just shows how much traction we’re gaining and how many people are excited to be involved.
I’ve heard almost all of my friends complaining about how busy they are, how stressed they are, how they have absolutely no time. Sometimes it feels like the mantra of my generation — and it’s contagious. But largely, I think we create that pressure for ourselves. And at the end of the day, nothing is all that high stakes (unless you’re conducting open heart surgery). Mistakes teach you to do better, and there is always time tomorrow to get things done (the product will probably be better if you sleep on it anyway). Spending time with friends who aren’t in an anxious tizzy will give you some perspective too.
The reality is, sometimes we can’t just work 40 hour weeks — especially as a millennial in a start up, non-profit, or fast moving business with large ambitions to do something significant. It’s on us to prioritize our own self care, and that will mean different things for different people. But one piece of advice that is universal: work to change how you view our stress — turn your anxiety into adrenaline.
And if you need more convincing, Kelly McGonigal says it better than me.