What 'The Sopranos' Taught Me About Managing Stress, Anxiety and Panic Attacks
How to recharge and keep your sanity when you're in charge.
I accepted anxiety as a basic fact of life in my early twenties when I founded my first business. I was in charge, the buck stopped with me — stress was just part of the job.
As a CEO in my early forties, I experienced something I should have seen coming but that caught me by surprise: the consequences of two decades of pushing my mind to the limit.
I didn’t even realize what was happening until I binge-watched The Sopranos, which begins with a New Jersey mob boss passing out by his swimming pool. He seeks advice from a therapist, who explains that he’s suffered a panic attack. As I listened to her rattle off a list of symptoms, I thought, “Holy crap, I recognize some of those.”
I’ve never actually lost consciousness, but I’d reached the point where I was anxious 24/7. I couldn’t escape it on weekends; it followed me like a shadow.
Cut to me sitting down with Joanna Starek, an amazing executive coach with a Ph.D. in psychology at RHR International. She likened my situation to a 50-year-old who bends over to pick up a pencil and throws out his back.
It wasn’t the pencil that caused the pain; it was the accumulation of 50 years of wear and tear on his spine. If he’d invested in a little core conditioning as a younger man, he might have avoided injury.
I was guilty of the same sort of negligence when it came to my mental health. My physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual accounts were overdrawn; now I was feeling the repercussions of not managing my stress.
Think of these accounts as four pails of invigorating water that you carry throughout the day. Your performance as CEO can be hurt by any of the pails running low or empty. You’re at your best when all the pails are full, but this requires awareness and action.
Here’s how to keep ‘em brimming:
1. The physical pail.
If you’re still under 40, and already complaining of terrible sleep, chronic aches and pains, and heart palpitations from climbing the stairs, I’ve got bad news for you: It’ll only get worse.
Regular workouts and a sensible diet can save you decades of misery. It’s easier said than done, and you may feel that running a company leaves you no time to spare, but fight through these objections as if your future happiness depends on it.
Commit to at least 20 minutes of cardio or strength training three times a week. Your psychological, emotional, and spiritual pails will appreciate the R&R, and you’ll be confidently picking up pencils well into geezerhood.
2. The psychological pail.
I interpret the psychological as anything that requires strenuous brainpower. Case in point: My monthly off-site meeting with my staff, where we spend the whole day tackling strategy.
That’s a difficult psychological exercise and I have to intentionally and actively refill my pail once that day is over. Rebooting psychologically requires flipping the “off” switch on my brain. I can’t do anything that demands intense thought or analysis.
If I want to read, I pick something easy. I choose Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk over Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, for example. I enjoyed the hell out of the latter, but its complexity meant that I refused to touch it after an arduous day at work.
The last thing I want to do at night is to continue draining my psychological pail with homework -- even if it’s interesting homework.
3. The emotional pail.
The difference between emotional and psychological energy is like the difference between hiring and firing. Firing someone taxes your emotions because you’re saying goodbye, whereas the hiring process flexes psychological muscles like evaluation and discernment.
Emotionally draining activities include comforting a grieving employee, debating passionately during a meeting, resolving a personal conflict between team members, etc. Every CEO worthy of the name deals with situations like these on a daily basis.
To recover, do stuff that doesn’t involve your emotions. Be aware of the symptoms of a depleted emotional pail. When I’m running low on emotional energy, I grow flushed and angry. As soon as that happens, I retreat to the top level of a parking garage next to my office and walk back and forth across the empty lot.
I like this area because it’s outdoors, and trees grow well above the walls on all sides. Even though I’m right next to a major highway, I feel like I’m in nature. I regain my equilibrium in minutes.
4. The spiritual pail.
In my opinion, the word “spiritual” has too many religious implications. It’s fine if you find spiritual recovery through religion; it’s just not my cup of tea.
You could also call it purpose or meaning, which I associate with inner peace. It’s about obtaining and maintaining a sense of relaxed, restored focus that sustains you through good times and bad.
Finding your purpose in this world will heighten your powers of concentration and self-control. Whenever you’re doing what you feel you were born to do, you draw from your spiritual pail.
Under Joanna’s guidance, I came to understand that my purpose has to do with championing the underdog. I’m attracted to underdogs because I was once one myself. My obsession with helping small business owners stems from the same impulse.
I drain a lot of spiritual energy at work as a result, and I often replenish the pail with meditation. I enter the office closet, shut the door, lay down on the floor, and take deep breaths while counting to 60. The benefits are priceless, but it doesn’t cost a penny.
Refilling a low or empty pail isn’t a complicated process. Just step away from the sort of activities that deplete a given pail, and it’ll start to refill on its own.
CEOs who maintain this simple practice will sleep soundly, wake energetically, and make steady progress as leaders and human beings.
Levi King is CEO and co-founder of Nav.