How to Make Anxiety Work for You
When you go on a job interview, attend an event with lots of new people, or just have too many obligations with family or work without enough time to rest and rejuvenate, it’s natural to experience some degree of anxiety.
Individuals handle anxiety in different ways, but a study based on data from thousands of Americans found that how the anxiety is perceived can affect your mental and physical health. If you can learn to view anxiety as a natural part of life and find ways to control it, you can use it in your favor. That’s because it is actually the feeling of ‘lack of control’ that can cause harmful stress, so the way we react is important.
Taking a Positive View of Anxiety
“To be sure, severe anxiety can be debilitating. But anxiety doesn’t have to make us miserable. It can be a resource we can learn to use to our advantage,” says psychologist Alicia Clark, author of Hacking Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and All Things That You Do.
Clark points to anxiety showing up in almost every part of life, including relationships, parenting, work, health and even adjusting to a new normal. Anxiety, says Clark, “…is about being human.”
Used as a motivating force, Clark describes anxiety as “a way to nudge people to pay attention” and as “a gateway to change.”
If anxiety is holding you back from applying for a new job, taking singing lessons, leading a project for your child’s school, or trying a yoga class, you can turn the thought into a spark of excitement that motivates you to embrace the opportunity.
5 Ways to Manage the Energy of Anxiety
Here are some suggestions about how to lessen anxiety and turn it into a motivating, positive force.
- Think of Anxiety as a Signal: Anxiety is naturally uncomfortable, so the way to minimize it is to trace it back to the source. If you’re anxious about saying something wrong in a job interview, have a friend do some practice questions with you. If you are anxious about letting your teenager go out driving with new friends, have a talk about what do if a situation arises about drinking, plan a phone call to check in once during the evening, or agree on a time to be home. If you have anxiety about flying, find a good book you’ve been waiting to read and look forward to enjoying that during the flight. Once you determine what anxiety is trying to tell you, and start executing solutions, the anxiety will begin to dissipate.
- Label the feeling: When you acknowledge the anxiety, you can rename it so it takes a positive turn. If you had a disagreement with a friend or family member and you’re nervous about whether you can patch things up, change the word ‘nervous’ to ‘caring’ about that person. You care, so you’re then going to find a way to turn that caring into reconciliation. If you’re anxious about making a presentation to a group at work, and we know fear of public speaking is very common, change the word ‘fear’ to ‘excitement’ about the chance to share your knowledge and skills with colleagues. You have the choice of how to rename the anxiety, so choose a description that works for you.
- Do Your Research: To fear what we don’t know is part of being human. The best way to make the unknown known, and thus reduce anxiety, is to learn. Research as much as possible about what is it that is causing your anxiety. Libraries, bookstores, and the Internet are great resources for learning about new towns, raising twins, new health discoveries, and everything else that change throws your way. Research can mean talking to people around you, too, which has an added bonus of increasing human connection.
- Aim for the Sweet Spot: If we all just sat in a recliner, alone all day and never went out the door, we’d minimize anxiety-provoking situations. But humans are social beings and even limiting all input would produce anxiety in the long-run, because isolation is physically and mentally unhealthy. So realize that we need some degree of anxiety to live a full life. The point is to find the balance that works for you. Think about children going to their first day of kindergarten. Some cling fearfully to a parent, others jump in and enjoy it. Both kinds of children will be in the same class, but each meets the situation with a complex set of personal experiences and reactions. Find what degree of anxiety motivates you without being overwhelming.
- Sleep on It: Proper sleep is vital to mental and physical health. When we are going through a changing life circumstance and experiencing anxiety because of the unknown, we especially need a good night’s sleep. Having enough sleep helps us do better at problem solving and managing change. ‘Sleeping on it,’ when time allows, takes away some stress of urgency and gives us a chance to awaken with a clear mind and fresh perspective.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
When anxiety reaches a level of inhibiting functioning or healthy living, it’s important to seek guidance from a mental health professional. Here are some anxiety disorders that can be helped with professional treatment.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events, even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It often occurs along with depression.
Panic Disorder: Repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes, called panic attacks. May include feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart. These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they’ve occurred.
Agoraphobia: A type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: A childhood disorder characterized by anxiety that’s excessive for the child’s developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
5 Anxiety Signs That May Warrant Mental Health Therapy
Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers are experienced in treating a variety of anxiety disorders, so find one you are comfortable with, and who has experience in treating the issue that is affecting your life. Here are some signs that mean you can benefit by working with a mental health professional:
- You feel like you’re worrying too much and it’s interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry or anxiety is upsetting to you and difficult to control
- You feel depressed, have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
- You have suicidal thoughts or behaviors. If this is the case, seek emergency treatment immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
Your worries may not go away on their own and they may get worse over time if you don’t seek help. Talk with your primary care physician or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It’s easier to treat if you get help early.
Clark, Alicia H., “How to Harness Your Anxiety,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2018
Clark, Alicia, How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and All Things that You Do, Sourcebooks, Aug. 7, 2018
Peterson, Tanya J., “Fear Change? Seven Ways to Quiet Anxiety of the Unknown,” HealthyPlace, April 9, 2015
Mayo Clinic, “Anxiety Disorders,” May 4, 2018
Keller, Abiola, and Litzelman, Kristin, “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality,” Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, September 2012.