The Surprising Connection Between Anxiety and Confidence

In today’s modern era, with always-on technology and ever-increasing job demands, many people are fighting a silent battle. The battle of feeling overwhelmed.

Our clients tell us they’re feeling anxious, stuck, and adrift. They struggle to process information and feel paralyzed when faced with important decisions. Once competent and productive, they say they have effectively lost control of their lives.

But they can get them back.

A Breakthrough Idea

In discussions about what we’d observed among our patients and clients, what emerged early on surprised us. People who were confident more of the time—that is, they were feeling more in charge of their lives—reported less anxiety and overwhelm, even when they were placed under highly challenging, pressured situations.

For us, this was a eureka moment. It wasn’t just that less anxious people felt more confident, but that confidence itself fended off anxiety and feelings of overwhelm. There’s a biological parallel to consider here. The sympathetic nervous system (which ignites aggression and fear when the brain perceives a threat) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms the mind and body) work in this same seesaw way.

The breakthrough is this: Instead of trying to lower people’s anxiety and worry, as many practitioners now do with pills and therapies, we should attack it from the other end. Encouraging confidence will help keep stress away. We need to figure out what empowers us, what gives people greater capacity to cope and adapt, and nurture that. The resulting confidence will neutralize—or at least keep at bay—the negative emotions that so often drag people down.

A Proven Approach

We’ve integrated this approach into our work, explaining the concept in simple terms to adults, teens, and even kids as young as seven. Here’s how to apply it in your own life:

Reframe the problem. The first step is to reframe the problem. You don’t necessarily have anxiety because you’re an “anxious person.” It’s not a given that there’s a “disorder” beyond your control that’s boiling up from some mysterious biological place. Instead, frame what you’re feeling as an erosion in your confidence.

Uneasiness isn’t the problem. In fact, angst is a natural response that warns you that something is wrong, so we don’t want to rush to sedate it. The real culprit involves actually being overwhelmed by real things happening in the world around you. A you-can-have-it-all message—though it may sound empowering—sets you up for disappointment because it subconsciously contains another message: you need to be the best at everything at all times.

We often tell our clients that experiencing overwhelm is like seeing a car’s dashboard warning light turn on. Something is happening that you need to pay attention to.

Stop and pause. Most people, when feeling overwhelmed, don’t stop to figure out the problem and mitigate the causes. Instead, they push on. But this isn’t the best approach.

Researchers know that at the cognitive and biological level, intense and chronic emotions such as fear and worry interrupt people’s healthy, normal thinking skills. In these moments, a chemical reaction occurs in the brain that disconnects people from fully employing their critical thinking skills and navigating thoughtfully toward better options and solutions.

We’ve all experienced this. The more upset we are, the less we can stay calm and be reasonable. When being upset, stressed out, and worried becomes chronic, many people become exhausted and just want to give up and stop trying.

Biologists use the term “allostatic overload” to describes this type of problem. In short, exposure to ongoing high angst wears down the body’s healthy, normal ability to adapt and adjust. It can sever the connection to the mental skills people rely upon to regulate their mood and make good decisions. Adrenalin is part of this, chemically speaking, but it’s cortisol—the primary stress hormone left in adrenaline’s wake—that builds up, and we need to keep a closer eye on it. Cortisol causes long-term physical damage to the body. It can also leave us experiencing worry and depression, which only further dismantles effective thinking.

We have to stop motoring on. Instead, we need to stop and pause.

Incorporate daily behaviors. Regaining confidence and control doesn’t happen overnight. But answers can be found in incorporating daily behaviors and ways of thinking that work well for other people facing similar situations. These answers draw from research on confidence, resilience, grit (long-term perseverance and passion), cognitive behavior therapy, intuitiveness, and the benefits of physical movement.

Seek a quiet space when you need to reflect and concentrate. Some people unplug at scheduled times. Others do yoga or meditate. Others focus on a discipline, like long-distance running, knitting, or slow cooking, as a way to bring meditative mindfulness back into their lives.

New habits also help. Ditch multitasking except when it’s absolutely necessary. Limit your time on social media. Get outside and take a walk at least once per day for 20 to 30 minutes in all seasons, preferably in nature and without your phone.

In our experience, everyone has the capacity to develop greater agency. Agency is what humans have always used to feel in command of their lives. With agency, people are able to live in greater accord with their interests, values, and inner motivations.

There’s no black belt for agency. Instead, agency is about starting with who and where you are now and going from there, going at your own pace, and moving forward. Best of all, it’s something you can start working toward now.

ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator. He coauthored “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms” with Paul Napper.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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