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Curious How to Use Anxiety to Your Advantage?

These six steps can help you take control.

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At its worst, anxiety can feel like a private prison we carry around with us. Whether we fight it, give in to it, or simply try to avoid it, anxiety often feels like something that happens to us rather than within us.

It isn't hard to get stuck focused on its symptoms and discomforts, looking for anything that can make it go away. But in trying to make anxiety go away, we further estrange ourselves from the cause of it, and therefore its solution.

Thinking about anxiety as a problem pushes us further away from its solution, whereas thinking about it as a tool allows us to use it as such.

Neurologically, anxiety is a powerful signal that helps regulate attention and motivation to look after the things you care about most in life. Anxiety means you care, and it goes hand in hand with a meaningful life according to research. You simply can’t care about things without feeling anxiety from time to time.

But that doesn't mean anxiety is pleasant.

Far from comfortable, anxiety plays dirty, grabbing our attention when and where it is most needed. And if you don't channel its energy and focus, or fear it in any way, anxiety can quickly escalate into the kind of anxiety that is, well, too much. This is the kind of severe anxiety that gets in the way of you living your life, thinking straight, or taking care of things. This is the kind of debilitating anxiety that feels like it manages you, rather than the other way around.

But not all anxiety is severe, and a moderate amount of anxiety is the sweet spot when it comes to using anxiety to your advantage. Moderate anxiety can actually help keep us on our toes, tending to the things we care about most and nudging us toward our best selves.

Rethinking anxiety as a tool, rather than a symptom, lays the groundwork to capitalize on its resources and channel its energy more effectively.

Tuning into its purpose and energy, here are six key ways to use anxiety to your advantage rather than simply trying to tolerate it.

  1. Embrace, rather than resist it. Resisting anxiety adds anxiety to your anxiety, exponentially ratcheting it up to something that can quickly become unwieldy, and overwhelming. Instead, try to embrace that your anxiety is trying to alert you to something you care about.
  2. Get panic under control, by changing your mindset. Instead of fighting panic, learn to dive into it. Like a large wave approaching, bracing yourself isn’t as effective as diving through it. Making a decision not to fight your anxiety, and to let its waves wash over you, can help you weather the storm of panic.
  3. Rely on its power to direct attention. Anxiety may have more to do with harnessing our attention than frightening us. Few resources are as limited as our finite attention, and we simply can’t afford to direct this precious resource indiscriminately. We live more of our life on autopilot than many of us realize, and anxiety operates as a backup system to wake us up to pay attention when needed.
  4. Name your anxiety. Research consistently shows that naming your emotions helps you manage and control your anxiety, even when you think it won't. Simply translating your emotional experience into language powerfully changes your experience of it. Enact curiosity, and name your feelings to get control of them.
  5. Reappraisal: In naming your experience, you are also the architect of it. Don’t be afraid to stretch your experience toward the positive. Reframing fear into excitement has been shown to help people harness their arousal for positive outcomes when it comes to taking tests and public speaking. How might you be eager, excited, or motivated, rather than scared and anxious? You have more control than you think when it comes to translating your anxiety.
  6. Seize the inherent motivation of anxiety. Anxiety produces a desire to do something. Like a baby’s cry, we are motivated when anxiety strikes to find a solution to make it stop. This is how it is designed. If we don’t waste its energy fighting with ourselves, we can use it to propel action towards our goals. Sometimes anxiety can give us that final push to meet a goal.

Anxiety can keep us focused on the things that matter most in life. It reminds us that a situation needs our attention and motivates us to find a solution. It doesn't have to be a curse, and actually can be used to make our lives better if we resist the trap of fighting or fearing it.

One of our most basic emotions, anxiety might also be one of our most advanced. What other emotion challenges us to be at our best, helps us protect the things that matter most to us, and won't take "no" for an answer?

Next time anxiety strikes, try to think of it as a loyal and determined but "prickly" friend who always has your back but won't let you give up. Ask it what it wants, and listen without judgment (or fear) to what it is trying to tell you.

You just might be surprised by how helpful this finely tuned resource can be once you practice this change of mindset.

© Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC

This post was originally published on Dr. Clark's blog. Reprinted with permission.


Ohman A1, Flykt A, & Esteves F. Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2001 Sep;130(3):466-78.

Lieberman MD, et al. Emotion. Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction.Emotion. 2011 Jun;11(3):468-80.

Brooks AW. Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2014;143 (3):1144–1158.

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