Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Best Way to Manage Anxiety

How to apply the anxiety formula in daily life.

Key points

  • Anxiety is a yellow light, not a red light.
  • In small doses, anxiety is a vital feeling. Without it, we'd be ill-prepared for the important tasks of life.
  • When we don't use anxiety as a signal to improve, it automatically gets worse.

We might call the times we live in '"The Second Age of Anxiety."

Surveys and clinical data indicate the highest levels of anxiety since the postwar publication of W. H. Auden's famous poem "The Age of Anxiety," when the shadow of nuclear holocaust loomed.

Young people are especially afflicted in this second Age of Anxiety, faced with uncertain futures and threats permeating their phones and their schools. And while men are by no means beyond the grip of noxious worry, women suffer more disorders, with a wider range of worries about the well-being of others.

Now more than ever we need to understand the function of anxiety and how to reduce its negative effects, while enhancing its positive aspects. (Yes, anxiety does have positive effects.)

The First Signal

Anxiety is the first signal of the mammalian alarm system. In all animals, it signals a possibility of harm, deprivation, or sexual failure. In social animals, it also signals possible abandonment or isolation. In humans, it also signals a loss of status or esteem.

Types of Anxiety

  • Temperamental: We’re born with an emotional tone that includes a certain propensity to anxiety.
  • Situational: Test-taking, driving, public speaking, performance, first dates.
  • Symptomatic of something else: Emotional disorder, stress, depletion of physical resources (tired, hungry, ill).

Beneficial Anxiety

In small doses, anxiety is a vital feeling. Without it, we're ill-prepared for the important tasks of life. We'd be killed crossing the street.

Actual or anticipated change in the environment, memory, or imagination stimulates anxiety. Anxiety tells us to pay attention: Something bad might happen. It shuts out most information to keep us focused on the pending change. Anxiety about accidentally starting a fire gets us to stop thinking about what we’ll have for lunch and focus on prevention—checking the gas, turning off the iron, servicing the furnace.

Among anxiety’s beneficial signals are those that tell us to improve...:

  • Self-acceptance, when we're too self-critical.
  • Self-care, when we need to sleep, eat well, exercise, and practice self-compassion.
  • Relationships, when they need attention and repair.

Problem Anxiety

We lose the benefits of anxiety when we construe it as a stop signal, rather than a caution signal. When we interpret anxiety as a red light, rather than a yellow light, we undermine its motivation to improve our health, well-being, safety, and relationships.

In problem anxiety, all signals mean that something bad will happen, and we'll be unable to cope with it, or the cost of coping will be too great.

Characteristics of Problem Anxiety

  • Scanning—taking in lots of superficial information, making focus more difficult, increasing error rates.
  • Thought-racing—thoughts that occur rapidly and bypass the brain's reality-testing.
  • Thought-looping—thinking the same things over and over.
  • Self-consciousness—worries that I might be judged.
  • Vigilance—looking for negatives or judging others.

Anxious people tend to be controlling, but not with malicious intent or desire to dominate. They try hard to avoid feeling “out of control” by keeping their environment from stimulating anxiety. Never mind that people hate to feel controlled, which means continual frustration. Attempts to regulate emotions by controlling the environment increase vigilance and worsen anxiety.

Anxiety vs. Fear

Before we discuss regulating anxiety, we must be clear on how it differs from fear. We want to regulate anxiety, but not fear.

Fear evolved in all animals to keep them safe. It's activated by perceptions of:

  • Imminent harm or vulnerability to harm.
  • Danger in the environment.

Anything that invokes fear will also trigger anxiety. But most things that stimulate anxiety do not pose a threat of imminent harm or vulnerability. Anxiety signals:

  • Possible discomfort, failure, loss.
  • Danger in you (lack of capacities, talents, skills, lovability…).

Fear is involuntary, visceral (felt in the body), and fairly accurate in detecting danger. Anxiety is self-regulated (based on self-perceptions), mostly mental (in our heads), rendering mostly inaccurate estimations of reality based on possibility, not probability.

Regulating Problem Anxiety

All good alarm systems give false positives. You don’t want a smoke alarm that goes off only when the house erupts in flames. So you accept that it goes off occasionally when people are cooking or smoking.

Biological alarm systems are also better-safe-than-sorry, which is why the central nervous system would rather be wrong a hundred times thinking your spouse is a saber-tooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a saber-tooth tiger is your spouse. We’re not descended from humans who underestimated danger.

We must recognize that anxiety is not reality; it’s a signal about possible reality. Check out the alarm, but don’t mistake it for certainty; the smoke alarm is not the fire. Most of the time, it signals caution, not danger.

Racing and looping thoughts must have answers to form alternative synaptic connections. Never have an anxious thought without giving it an answer, based on probability. For example:

I might lose my relationship.
Consider how likely this is.
Answer: I’ll do my best to save it. If I lose it, I’ll make the best of my life. Specifically, I'll…

No one will love me.
Consider how likely this is.
Answer: I’ll be more compassionate, which will make me more lovable.

I’ll screw things up.
Consider how likely this is.
Answer: I’ll try my best to avoid a mistake and correct any I might make.

Situational Anxiety

Use the Anxiety Formula:

Anxiety = Importance x Unknown x Perceived ability to cope

The classic example of the anxiety formula is entering a cage full of lions, which, for most of us, would send anxiety levels through the roof. It has life-and-death importance, we don’t know anything about lion behavior, and we don’t know what to do to stay alive. Yet the same situation is exhilarating for lion tamers. It’s important, so they must be careful, but they know enough about lions to predict behaviors, and they have the skill to manipulate the big cats safely.

The most effective way to get the benefits of anxiety, while avoiding the pitfalls, is to build a conditioned response that occurs automatically with anxiety-arousal—one that automatically focuses attention on improvement. Such a skill takes practice.

Because problem anxiety has little to do with imminent danger, we must first ask ourselves, “How important is it? How relevant to my core values?"

Much of what we worry about are petty ego offenses and things that have no real influence on the quality of our lives.

We reduce the unknown by learning more about what worries us. We increase our perceived ability to cope by making contingency plans.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: ArkHawt/Shutterstock