When Quartz science editor Katie Palmer was in college, she studied anxious rats. The project involved looking at the biological differences between two groups of rats that had been bred by temperament; researchers separated them as pups from their mothers, and sorted them into groups according to whether they cried or simply chilled out. Ultimately, Palmer says, she didn’t find anything too noteworthy.
Au contraire, I say, for in the process she did uncover an interesting management metaphor.
In the workplace, most of us can classify ourselves as anxious rats or chill rats. The anxious rats worry that they’re about to get fired every time their boss schedules a one-on-one. They beat themselves up over small mistakes and lie awake at night wincing as they recall comments they made in meetings. Every project they work on—cheese wedge, open dumpster, entire slice of pizza—is in their minds a secret referendum on whether they are in fact smart and competent.
The chill rats experience the same potential stressors at work, but react in markedly different ways. They accept that they will inevitably make mistakes, and try to learn from them and move on. If someone says their work is garbage, they know this is meant as a compliment, because rats love trash! They are self-assured with the higher-ups, going right up to sniff them instead of cowering in the corner. They enthusiastically suggest ideas during brainstorming sessions, but don’t take it too personally if things don’t work out. Chill rats are fun at office parties, and they don’t find karaoke embarrassing at all.
Given the option, most people would probably prefer to be chill. But we don’t necessarily get to choose. Our temperaments are shaped by genetic and environmental factors, and if we come from anxious-rat lineage or grew up in a dysfunctional nest or were bullied in rat school, it makes sense that we’ll be prone to trembling.
What’s more, depending on the particulars of one’s situation, anxiety may be entirely justified. It is understandable that, in a time characterized by layoffs and shuttered businesses, not to mention grief over widespread illness, isolation, and racial injustice, many rats are feeling jumpy. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to go wrong in our lives (there are truly so many possibilities), so why not fret about every deadline and Zoom call, just to be extra-prepared?
Well, because it’s exhausting to think that way, and it doesn’t help us actually avoid unemployment or other disasters. The trick for an anxious rat is to understand that while they can’t magically transform into a chill one, they can go to therapy and learn self-soothing behaviors—such as meditation and journaling—that will help work feel less overwhelming.
Another lesson from anxious rats offers a reminder that simply partaking in activities that make us happy can boost one’s chill, even in the face of stressful circumstances. A 2013 study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters first conditioned rats to associate a certain sound with a mild shock. Researchers then tickled one group of rats (an activity they’ve been proven to enjoy) once a day for two weeks before exposing them to the sound, while another group received no tickles. The study found that the tickled rats were less stressed than the control group when they heard the scary sound—a model, as Scientific American explained, of “how the good things in life could help mitigate the bad ones.”
So if you’re feeling anxious at work, take a cue from the rats. Carve out time in your personal life for the things that tickle you—the positive experiences that buffer you from life’s otherwise stress-inducing scenarios. “Do fun stuff” may seem like obvious advice, but as anyone who’s struggled with anxiety knows, the worse we feel, the harder it can seem to get distance from a nerve-wracking situation and do things we actually like.
My own tip, as a professional with some anxious tendencies, is to observe the chill rats around you closely, much as a nervous flier keeps a close eye on flight attendants when the plane hits turbulence. Note how messages from the CEO do not send them into a panic spiral; how they refuse to be intimidated by the prospect of, say, taking over as head chef in a famous Parisian restaurant.
By learning from their example, we can start to question our own fearful narratives; to ask ourselves, “how would a chill rat react to this situation?” and act accordingly. Our brains, after all, are more malleable than we think. Genetics aside, there is a chill rat to be found within every anxious one.