How Anxiety Can Transform Normal Into Extraordinary
10 facts you need to know to change your relationship with anxiety
Posted Dec 29, 2018
People often wonder if they can live a normal life with anxiety. Dealing with anxiety isn't easy. Living with that tightness in your throat, those butterflies in your stomach, those racing thoughts of “what if’s” spinning through your mind, and the constant feeling that something just isn’t right can be miserable. Anxiety can be overwhelming when it strikes, feed on itself, and leave you wondering if you’re losing your mind.
Close to 40 million Americans live with some form of anxiety in their lives. And while those numbers may seem unreasonably high, anxiety symptoms are highly treatable, and moderate anxiety can actually enhance your life when you think about it positively, and know how to harness it for good in your life.
My new book, Hack Your Anxiety, lays out the science and sense of using anxiety to your advantage. And while there can be many downsides to anxiety, and its discomfort, there can be powerful upsides too.
One thing anxiety does exceptionally well is harness your attention; it simply refuses to be ignored. There is no escaping anxiety’s grip once it starts, and fighting anxiety is almost always in vain, more often escalating its symptoms than deescalating them.
The key to knowing how to use anxiety effectively and keep it fueling growth, is to recognize it as a fundamentally normal – even helpful – part of a full life.
Normalizing your anxiety, and even using it to moderate levels to inspire you to be your best self, is absolutely possible. Keeping these 10 anxiety facts in mind can help you maintain a more positive mindset that in turn can help you access this powerful resource.
1. Anxiety is an expression of how much you care.
As if to highlight our highest priorities in life, anxiety helps bring our focus and energy to protect the things that matter most to us. We worry because we care, not because we are crazy. Anxiety can’t happen without caring. Thinking about anxiety as a reflection of our top priorities can help us embrace it as a resource.
2. Anxiety is uncomfortable for a reason, forcing you to focus.
Like an alarm clock that won’t turn off until we wake up and deal with it, anxiety keeps hassling us to pay attention and tend to the problem at hand…until we do. It plays dirty this way. We can distract ourselves, even ignore it temporarily, but ultimately it will keep coming back until we allow it to direct and keep our attention.
Contrary to popular belief, current science suggests anxiety may have more to do with harnessing attention and focus, than promoting fear. In this way, anxiety can be a huge help when it comes to managing our increasingly distracted attention, and forcing us to pay attention to the things we care about most. Anxiety reminds us when we start to slip, and nudges us to stay focused on our top priorities.
3. Beware of the quicksand of resistance
It’s natural to resist anxiety, but beware of the boomerang effect of actively resisting it. The more you worry about your anxiety, the harder it becomes to manage, and the more acutely you will feel it. Even trying to suppress anxious thoughts can have the effect of raising anxiety levels in experiments. There is simply no effective way to avoid anxiety, and its effects.
4. Name anxiety to tame it.
Naming how you feel can deliver control over your experience. The simple act of naming our emotions is a well-documented, powerful tool in gaining control of them. And while you’re at it, why not label it as positively as possible? How you label your anxiety actually defines how you will experience it – if you label it as terrible and miserable, it will feel terrible and miserable. Whereas if you label it as positively as you can (i.e., excited, fired up, or ready to focus), you will likely experience it more positively.
5. Anxiety can be good for your brain.
Stress hormones can facilitate optimal performance, and also help us learn from our experiences so that we can do it again, with increasingly less effort. Acute bouts of stress can help boost neural growth and memory, according to recent research from Berkeley. Just as straining muscles and bones are how we build strength, working with stress helps us get stronger and better at it.
6. Anxiety fuels needed motivation and solution-finding energy.
Anxiety is energy waiting to be utilized. Thanks to its activation of our threat response, anxiety grabs our attention and stirs our motivation to act. Can’t stop worrying about those bills that need paying, or that yardwork that keeps waiting? You probably won’t until you actually get to them. This is your anxiety nudging you to take care of the tasks of life that matter to you, even if you might not feel like it.
7. Optimal sleep helps you use anxiety effectively.
Research keeps coming how important sleep is to function at our best. Our brains need sleep to absorb new information as well as flush toxins. Sleep allows for recovery, and thus prepares us to make the most of stress and anxiety in our life. Inadequate sleep does the opposite, and has been shown to exacerbate anxiety. 7 - 9 hours per night is the recommended amount of sleep that allows you to use anxiety most effectively.
8. Healthy anxiety can fuel optimal performance
Anxiety offers within it the seeds of our deepest desires and values. Worrying about doing your best at work or home can fuel you doing your best. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, researcher and positive psychology expert, coined the term flow to describe a state of mind where your actions, thoughts and bodily responses are aligned, tasks are done with ease and clarity, and there is a feeling of effortlessness and utmost concentration. It is also a state of moderate arousal and stress – an uncomfortable place – where we actually experience our highest achievements in life.
Stress – even anxiety – is always part of our best effort, creating the focus, drive, and energy to take action. Action creates momentum that in turn channels more productive action. Being in flow promotes a powerful sense of positivity and well-being, but importantly, such a state is not comfortable: it is born of stress, and often anxiety.
9. Anxiety Can Give You A Competitive Edge (even when you think it can’t)
Athletes know this feeling as well, as do high level performers, describing an experience of being “in the zone” when they are most likely to achieve their goals. The beloved fable of the tortoise and the hare illustrates the fuel anxious feelings can bring to our lives. So confident and relaxed in his race against the tortoise that the hare allows himself to stop trying, and take a fateful nap. Meanwhile the slow, steady, and undistracted tortoise channels the stress of his disadvantage into momentum that ultimately wins the race. Stress and anxiety can provide the energy and focus we need to try our best – using its fuel can help us stretch for our best.
10. How you think about anxiety controls how it affects you
Perhaps the most important fact about anxiety to know is the power we all have to control our thinking about it. In fact, a large scale study has found that how you think about stress actually defines the impact it has on your life; the more you see it as a positive resource, the more positive it will be, and visa versa. People with a healthy relationship with anxiety tend to view anxiety and stress as a normal part of life, and appear to bounce back from stressful times more easily than those who worry about their worries. Not only is it healthy to keep a positive attitude about anxiety, a healthy attitude can actually help keep anxiety’s impact healthy.
Dealing with anxiety isn’t easy and it can be hard to feel normal when you struggle with it. Not only is anxiety both a normal emotion and a normal part of life, it can be a powerful resource to channel our best effort. Thinking about it this way allows it to be.
If you want anxiety to be a healthier part of your life, changing how you think about it is a critical first step that can allow you to harness its energy and motivation toward your highest goals. This is how anxiety can fuel the extraordinary.
This post originally published on Dr. Clark's blog.
©Alicia H. Clark, PsyD
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