Today’s guest is Morra Aarons-Mele, host of the Anxious Achiever podcast and author of “The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Leadership Superpower.” Morra is a renowned expert on the topic of living well in spite of anxiety.

In this episode, she discusses the spectrum of anxiety, its role in achievement, and strategies for people to manage anxiety in their personal lives and the workplace. Morra emphasizes the importance of understanding and identifying anxiety, self-advocating in treatment, and shifting workplace cultures to better support those with anxiety.

We create workplaces that are designed to use anxiety as a tool to drive performance. By constant surveillance, by not having enough time, by being on Zoom all day, by delivering packages all day without the ability to take a bio break or a lunch break, and by having constant leaderboards that show your progress against others. And then we wonder why people are burnt out and anxious.” ~Morra Aarons-Mele

Morra Aarons-Mele

Morra Aarons-Mele is the host of The Anxious Achiever, a top-10 management podcast that helps people rethink the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. Morra founded Women Online and The Mission List, an award-winning digital consulting firm and influencer marketing company dedicated to social change, in 2010 and sold her businesses in 2021. She helped Hillary Clinton log on for her first internet chat and has launched digital campaigns for President Obama, Malala Yousafzai, the United Nations, the CDC, and many other leading figures and organizations. She lives outside Boston with her family and menagerie.

For more details, visit

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Welcome to the podcast, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Morra Aarons-Mele. Morra is the host of the Anxious Achiever podcast and her latest book, “The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Leadership Superpower” is out now. Morra, welcome to the podcast.

Morra Aarons-Mele: Hi, Gabe.

Gabe Howard: I am super excited that you’re here. As one anxiety sufferer to another, I love your message. But but here’s the thing, anxiety is a giant nuisance and it can be crippling. And and I kind of don’t think that’s really a controversial statement. But what is hotly debated, what is controversial, is whether or not someone with a lot of anxiety can be a good leader and a high achiever. Now your position, and just so the audience knows, my position is that yes, those with a high anxiety can and do accomplish great things. But many people see anxiety as a bad thing and you don’t. Why not?

Morra Aarons-Mele: I don’t see anxiety as good or bad. Anxiety is. It’s a natural part of the human experience. In fact, anxiety has probably kept our species alive through the millennia, right? Um, I think it’s important to define terms. So there’s the anxiety that I have and that maybe you have, which is a clinically diagnosed disorder. Right? Technically, a mental illness in which our anxiety is probably chronic at times probably prevents us or seriously gets in the way of us doing things that we want to do that we need to do. Right. And it’s something that needs to be treated. It’s something that we need to sort of actively manage in our life. For me, with medication, with therapy, with meditation, exercise, a ton of things that’s affecting, you know, up to a third of people throughout their lifetime are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and most of us will have a time in our life when anxiety really gets the best of us. And in some ways, it’s kind of the human condition to feel anxious of our big brains we are anticipating, right? We are designed to sniff out potential threats, and that’s what anxiety is. And so anxiety exists in a lot of different forms, and it’s neither good nor bad. It’s an emotion that is. And we need to learn to listen to it and to manage it.

Gabe Howard: It really seems like in America, when it comes to mental health, we’re just not good at accepting mental health in any way. Right. Grief is bad. We need to get over it. Crying is bad. We need to buck up. Depression is bad. We need to be stronger. Anxiety is bad. We need to be strong and brave. The messages that are coming to the general American public is you need to be stoic and strong 100% of the time, and any deviation from that makes you unfit. How can people manage against that? Because, as you pointed out, we’re just humans and we’re just having emotions and it’s not good or bad. It’s just part of the human experience. But people are using these things against us in the workplace.

Morra Aarons-Mele: Our brain doesn’t like us to feel uncomfortable. Right. And so what you’re talking about, you know, when you’re feeling grief, when you’re feeling anger, when you’re feeling sadness, when you’re feeling anxiety, that’s uncomfortable. Nobody is going to raise their hand and be like, yes, I want to feel this way. Our brains, buffeted by society, teach us shortcuts to not feel this way, right? For a lot of us, like we eat our feelings, we drink our feelings. We yell our feelings, we kick the dog. We send a million emails. And so in our culture, it’s become, in a way, a lot easier to just sort of act out the feelings or stuff them down than to actually do the really hard work of sitting there and feeling them. And I don’t blame us because it sucks to sit and feel your feelings sometimes, but we have to. And as leaders, we must learn to be able to identify our feelings and emotions, to be able to acknowledge them and to be able to look at them and say, what’s happening here? What are you trying to tell me? And that’s really hard. But it’s to me, truly the only way forward because they got to go somewhere.

Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about that business leader who has that anxiety. What advice would you give someone who feels deeply anxious at work?

Morra Aarons-Mele: I’ve never met a business leader who hasn’t felt anxiety. And if they don’t, I worry about them because the heart of leadership is pushing you into the unknown. It’s asking you to anticipate. It’s asking you to plan for hard things. It’s asking you to show up in a crisis and be flexible. It’s asking you to be responsible for things, and to really push yourself and all those things again in our human condition, create anxiety because they make us worry. They make us feel feelings that may go back to our childhood. Like, remember when I walked into the lunchroom and nobody wanted to sit with me? Am I likable? Am I smart, right? Am I good enough? Do I belong here? I don’t look like other people, so maybe I don’t belong here, right? All of these very natural, anxious thoughts that we have. And so for leaders, like anxiety comes with the job. I’m not saying that an anxiety disorder comes with the job, but anxious feelings come with the job. I t’s really important to be able to understand that this is going to happen and to have a really a path to manage through them, but also to not beat yourself up when you feel them right. And to to understand that almost anxiety is, is part of growing and really part of pushing yourself and also part of doing things like showing up day after day during a pandemic and trying to figure things out when nobody knows what the heck is going on.

Gabe Howard: I could not agree with you more. I am very worried about people who say that they have no anxiety. For example, I work as a public speaker and when I’m in the green room, I always have those butterflies. I’m always a little nervous, a little

Morra Aarons-Mele: Mhm.

Gabe Howard: Anxious, a little tuned up for lack of a better word. And

Morra Aarons-Mele: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: There’s always somebody in that room that’s like, nah, this is boring. I have zero anxiety, and the first thing that pops into my head more is you’re not taking this very seriously. Why

Morra Aarons-Mele: [Laughter]

Gabe Howard: Would you not have anxiety? You’ve never been in this building. You could trip on the way to the stage. What if your microphone doesn’t work? What if the lighting is off? There’s there’s many things to be quote unquote anxious about. But my thought is, you know, that that’s sort of normal, right? To, to be worried about things we can’t control, to be worried about the outcome to, to to have butterflies, as it were. I think the average listener to this podcast, it’s crippled them in some way. They’re unable to go to work. They’re unable to perform at their highest levels. They’re unable to get on that stage at all. I don’t know that I would I want to classify that as an anxiety disorder, but I’d say that the average person seeking help for anxiety, they’ve been minimized by anxiety in some way. What

Morra Aarons-Mele: Yep.

Gabe Howard: Thoughts or advice do you have for those folks?

Morra Aarons-Mele: First of all, I am one of you. Um. I could tell you endless stories about times where I have really messed up at work because of my anxiety, where I’ve lost thousands of dollars because of my anxiety, where I’ve made bad decisions because of my anxiety. I am one of you, and I have had the privilege and the fortune to learn through all my treatment, a way to live my life and try to build in infrastructure and skills, frankly, that help me manage through. Now, sometimes I can’t manage through, sometimes I’m in bed, sometimes I literally, if I think five minutes ahead into the future, I have a panic attack. But. I have a really wonderful life. When I give talks, I show a slide sometimes of two pictures of me. There’s one picture of me in a clinic getting TMS transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is, I don’t know if you’ve ever had it or if any of your listeners have ever had it. It is used, it’s sort of a cutting edge thing used for medication resistant depression, and it’s really painful and it’s really terrible, and it’s really expensive. It’s horrible, but it’s used for treatment resistant, medication resistant depression. So I have a photo of me in the chair with the electrodes on my head, and then I have a photo of me being nominated as one of the world’s top leadership thinkers by thinkers 50.

Morra Aarons-Mele: And both of those people are me. And one of the things that you said when you were on my podcast, Gabe, which I’ll never forget, is you said, you know, we always hear about the people with bipolar, right, who are dangerous, who are unhoused, who are left behind by society. We don’t hear about the people who are just showing up to work, doing a good job parenting their kids. And I think that that’s really important. We can be both things, and it doesn’t mean we’re going to be amazing all the time. Life is hard, but we can be both things. I am the person who has had panic attacks and had to run off stage to my great humiliation, and I’m the person who can stand in front of 3000 people and kill it. I’m both people. I’ve had the great privilege and good fortune of having access to amazing psychiatry, amazing therapy. I take three medications and I manage my mental health every single day, and sometimes it gets the best of me and a lot of times it doesn’t. M ental illness can be disabling and my anxiety has disabled me at many times. And yet I have still also, thanks to my anxiety, managed to live a really big career. And I think that that’s something that I want people to hear if that’s what they want.

Gabe Howard: You’ve made a career making anxiety your ally, and I love that. But for our listeners, what are the first steps in making anxiety your ally and using anxiety truly to your advantage?

Morra Aarons-Mele: The first step. And if you’ve been in therapy, you’ve heard this before. Is labeling your anxiety, learning to understand it is anxiety. What does that mean? What does it feel like in my body? Right? What maybe triggered it. You know, what is this anxious state that I’m in? How am I feeling? Do I have any clues about why I’m anxious right now? And sometimes. Sometimes we’re anxious and we can’t point to a trigger. Right? It’s sometimes it just shows up on a perfectly beautiful day and we don’t know why. Right. So it’s it’s sometimes not that easy, but at least when we have the ability to be like, I’m so anxious right now, my breath is really tight, my body is jumpy, I feel tingly. We begin to identify the anxiety and the key. The thing that really changed my life was learning that I can’t control my anxiety. I can’t seem to cure it. And I also can’t control what’s going to trigger me. But what I have a lot of agency over is how I respond. And if I can try to be mindful around my response to anxiety. That’s the key. And that’s how I make it. My ally is that now I’m actually so skilled at identifying my anxiety, sort of interrogating it, having a conversation with it, I can actually put it to use. I can say, you know what, anxiety? Fine. You want to be here? Great. You want me not to sleep tonight? Great. Let’s do some work. Right. Let’s let’s go. Um, and this is true of a lot of anxious achievers. Like, we actually become very, very skillful at using our anxiety to push us forward and motivate us. But we also have to learn to modulate it so it doesn’t get the better of us all the time.

Gabe Howard: It really sounds like step one is identifying your anxiety triggers, which is one of those things that sounds super easy but.

Morra Aarons-Mele: No, no. Step. Step one isn’t isn’t identifying your triggers. It’s identifying your anxiety.

Gabe Howard: Oh okay. What’s the what’s the difference there? Because in my mind, the the trigger is what brings on the anxiety. So that seems like the step one. But I’m, I’m open to learning.

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of “The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Greatest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower,” Morra Aarons-Mele.

Morra Aarons-Mele: I’m not a doctor, but for me, that’s step two. Because, here’s the thing. And and you know, I’ve, like you have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people. I’m always. I’m always kind of amazed by the people who are like, I was 30 years old before I understood what the word anxiety meant and how it might show up. Understanding what is anxiety and being tuned in. To what it feels like. You know, when we get really good at tuning in, we have a we’re like the National Weather Service, right? We can sense when the winds are changing because anxiety is really about our nervous system. Right. And so a lot of people tell me that they’ll start to feel a tingle in their arm, or they’ll notice that their sleep patterns are off. Right? They have these sort of tells. That is the first step. What does anxiety feel like when it’s happening?

Gabe Howard: So okay that that makes I, I get it. So how do you know when anxiety is rearing its ugly head?

Morra Aarons-Mele: Yeah. Rght. And then right. And then sometimes saying like, okay, fine, I get it. But great. I have a big presentation today. I’m anxious. Okay. Makes sense. And then sort of checking in after the presentation, do I feel less anxious now. Do I not feel less anxious. Oh wow. I feel more anxious. That’s interesting. Why do I feel more anxious. Right. Really sort of being able to tune in to your anxiety. The second step, and this I really do feel is best done with a therapist is. What’s making me anxious? Why do I have that sales meeting with Bob and I have panic attacks before it. It’s just a sales meeting. What’s so interesting is when I talk to people in organizations who tell me that there is a person at their work who triggers them, and they they don’t even know why all the time. It takes like a lot of digging, but that person has such a powerful effect that even their name in an email inbox can bring on anxiety. Why, right?

Gabe Howard: And that’s that identifying the trigger portion of this.

Morra Aarons-Mele: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Gabe Howard: But then once you’ve identified the trigger, what’s the next step?

Morra Aarons-Mele: The next step is learning to sit with it. And really understanding what are my go to responses when I’m anxious? We all have our greatest hits for me. I like to drink. I’m just going to be totally honest when I am feeling tremendous anxiety and my anxiety usually shows up in two ways. It’s about money, and it’s about fear of loss of the people I love. Those are my big triggers. I, when I ran a small business for years, you know, it was really hard for me because we might lose a client and I would I would catastrophize right. We would lose a client, and I would look at our financials and in my mind, instantly I was out on the street. The business was failing. We were going to close. I was going to lose my house. My kids weren’t going to be able to eat. That was how anxiety showed up for me, and that was how I reacted with this incredible catastrophizing. And then I would drink because I didn’t want to feel that way. So I had behaviors and I had what I call thought traps or cognitive distortions. And once I understood that. Then I could learn skills to try to have a more healthy response than drinking or getting to a state in my head where I was out on the street.

Gabe Howard: You mentioned thought traps. Now, I understand that there are some common thought traps for anxious achievers. Can you share some of those with our listeners?

Morra Aarons-Mele: Yeah. Um, I think the idea of thought traps for me was life changing, and it’s a, it’s a very well tested and old, frankly, um, series of concepts from original cognitive behavioral therapy, um, thought traps or cognitive distortions or automatic negative thoughts, are places our brain goes almost by habit when we’re anxious. And so a really common one is impostor feelings, right? Imposter syndrome. When we’re anxious, we might walk into a room and we may think, I don’t belong here. I’m. I’m dumb. I’m not good enough to be here. That’s a thought trap. It’s just your brain thinking something that is driven by anxiety that probably is not rooted in reality. Catastrophizing. That’s my that is my go to thought trap. That is sort of going from 0 to 60 in terms of bad news and spinning out a future story for yourself. That is really scary when you’re triggered by something that that that makes you anxious. So for me, money is a huge trigger. Fear of scarcity, fear of losing it, fear of all that stuff. And so when I get anxious around money, I catastrophize I get stuck in that thought trap. Nothing has actually changed, but my brain tells me that’s it. And we can break those habits. We can learn how to have balanced thoughts. We can learn how to tell our brain, you know what? You have no evidence this is true. Let’s look at some numbers. It’s not true. Um, and these are all skills that that I’ve learned and that, you know, again, because anxiety is so common, millions and millions of people have learned.

Gabe Howard: I love that you keep saying millions and millions of people have learned, because every time you say it, I feel I feel powerful, like I feel energized because anxiety tells me that I’m the only one. I’m the only one. Everybody else is great. This is only happening to me. And if I don’t figure out how to deal with it all by myself without mentioning it to anybody, I’m never going to get better. And in fact, I’m never going to get better anyways because I suck. But when you talk, you’re like millions and millions of people. A lot of people fall into this. This is actually quite common. Anxiety can be used for power. These are all very I frankly the only word I have are uplifting statements to me. But I still get back to. But anxiety kind of stinks. Now, I know you’ve described anxiety as a double edged sword before. Are these some of the concepts that you’re driving at with that double edged sword analogy?

Morra Aarons-Mele: Yeah. Look, anxiety stinks, but gw uess what? You might be anxious. And so rather than trying to eradicate something that might just be a piece of your chemistry, use it, right? I mean, anxious achievers are extraordinary. They wake up and they might be a little bit more amped up than the rest of us. We might be a little more overthinkers. We might ruminate more. We take things really seriously. We might take things personally. We put a tremendous amount of emotion and investment in what we do, but we get a lot done right. And so that can be amazing. You know, I know, I know that you’re very familiar with the whole neurodiversity movement. And I think that that’s a big piece of it as well. And that’s something that scientists are beginning to actually prove that we have developed these tricky brains for a reason. Now they’re challenging, they’re not typical, and society’s not made for them, but they have a purpose. I live with someone who has autism and his challenges are real, but his superpowers are unbelievable. That brain exists for a reason. My point of view is, if you are chronically anxious like I am, I’ve been anxious since I was three years old. I’ve paid lots of money to try to cure it. It’s still there. I might as well learn to manage it and live with it and get the best out of it. While not sugarcoating the fact that yes, sometimes it really sucks. And I’m lucky I have a lot of privilege, I live in Boston, Massachusetts, like the medical Mecca of the world, so I have a lot of access to to keep me healthy. And that’s a real problem in this country is access. But, what I don’t want people to do is feel like their brain is a life sentence. And I know sometimes it can feel that way. I have been at times where I have said to my husband, I hate my brain, I want a new brain.

Gabe Howard: When you hate your brain and you want a new brain, that’s not actually what we want, though, right? What we want is the anxiety to be more controllable

Morra Aarons-Mele: We just want to feel better.

Gabe Howard: Yeah. And of course this takes time, right? The bad habit is not going to go away instantly. You’ve got to try to, you know, first it was reaching for the chocolate bar and then, you know, maybe it’s reaching for a smaller chocolate bar and then replacing the chocolate bar with pretzels and then replacing the pretzels with carrots. I, I don’t know why I got I apparently I’m hungry. It’s almost lunchtime, but I just, I, I guess the message that I’m trying to capitalize on is that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Right? You don’t

Morra Aarons-Mele: Oh my God, no.

Gabe Howard: Have to go from I had anxiety, a maladaptive coping skill, and now I’m perfect all on Wednesday. This can take weeks, months, or even years.

Morra Aarons-Mele: It takes years and you’re never going to be perfect. I mean, I think that’s part of it too, is that sometimes our anxiety tells us, right? It’s that all or nothing thinking. It’s that black and white thinking. It’s perfectionism. And if I can’t be perfect, why bother? So I’m not even going to bother. And that’s really seductive. And so part of it is having the compassion in yourself to mess up and to understand that it’s a process, you know, and and again, that’s not as satisfying as like, I’ll just take a pill and everything will be fine. But it really is a process. I mean, I listen, I’m 25 years into this stuff and I still catch myself several times a week really doing maladaptive things, you know? And the good news is I can see it now.

Gabe Howard: Morra, you are speaking my language and I’m a huge fan of the work you do personally. As somebody that also lives with bipolar disorder and anxiety, I love any positive conversation surrounding these illnesses because so often it’s just, well, you’re a sufferer. Your life is going to suck. You’re never going to get better. Everything is crappy. Okay, well good luck. Uh, so I, I do appreciate your realist spin, your your honesty spin and the fact that it’s not good or bad. It just is. And that there’s a huge tribe out there of people just like us who experience anxiety and go on and achieve and do great things. It’s my favorite, favorite part of your message.

Morra Aarons-Mele: Thank you.

Gabe Howard: Where can folks find you online?

Morra Aarons-Mele: Um, well, they can find me on my website, which is M O R R A A M dot com. Or come find me on LinkedIn. I’m really active on LinkedIn and I would love to write you back if you message me. And please listen to my podcast, The Anxious Achiever.

Gabe Howard: Yeah, it’s a great podcast and I am a little biased, but I think my episode is the absolute

Morra Aarons-Mele: [Laughter]

Gabe Howard: Best one ever. But but sincerely it is a great, great podcast. My episode is out there, but I do recommend

Morra Aarons-Mele: It’s a good one.

Gabe Howard: All of them. It’s a great, a great, great show. But your book, “The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower” is available now, and I assume it’s available on your website and of course, wherever books are sold.

Morra Aarons-Mele: It is. It’s published by Harvard Business Review. It is wherever you want to get your books. And yes, it is a really helpful book, but ultimately a positive book.

Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Morra, and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard. I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag or learn more about me over at Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow, subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show, share it on social media, send somebody an email, mention it in a support group because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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