- Rethinking anxiety's purpose can help us channel it productively and calm it down.
- Anxiety helps keep us motivated to solve important issues at risk.
- Anxiety can show up in a variety of other emotional experiences and, once identified, can help us clarify solutions.
People often wonder how to use anxiety in a positive way. It doesn’t have to always be a bad thing.
You know that if you are anxious, you care deeply. Chances are also good that you are someone who gets things done. Research shows you are pretty intelligent too. You think ahead, you notice things, and you work hard to mitigate pitfalls. You use your anxiety to your advantage, and you work hard because you care.
Sure, anxiety can feel lousy and can sometimes escalate into something that gets in your way, but there are many more times that anxiety actually serves you, helping you perform at your best. Being able to anticipate needs, think through challenges, and forge advanced solutions all start with being able to predict a threat and prepare. The feeling that something you care about may be at risk is anxiety. At its best, it grabs your attention, provokes problem-solving, and fuels solutions, an advantage you can use in every area of your life.
So what are some ways you can use your anxiety for good?
Here are 11 places to start.
1. Recognize you care… a lot!
In that anxiety signals danger to things we care about, it isn’t hard to notice that anxiety means we care. Indeed, we can only feel anxious if we care, and we can only rid ourselves of it by not caring (an impossible bar for most of us). When we reframe anxiety into a sign of caring, it becomes easier to embrace its presence in our life and use it to our advantage.
2. Change your thinking about anxiety.
Using anxiety to your advantage begins with recognizing a fuller picture of it. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, even debilitating, if left unchecked. But anxiety itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s one of the body’s most primitive responses for assuring our safety. Its job is to alert us to danger and give us the resources we need to protect ourselves. Viewing it as a resource can be a first step in using it more productively.
3. Anxiety is a messenger.
As uncomfortable as it is, anxiety is not something to be quelled or resisted. Its job is to be uncomfortable, so we pay attention and do something. In this way, it sends us important information we need to know in order to protect ourselves. We are never wrong to notice its signal and tune into its message.
4. Embrace anxiety to diminish it.
Anxiety generally won’t be ignored. Sure, you can distract yourself and push it off for a while, but until it is acknowledged, anxiety doesn’t go away. Trying to escape anxiety’s discomfort can actually fan its flame.
Resistance simply doesn’t work. Anxiety’s job is to get our attention, and the sooner we let it do so, the more efficient it will be.
5. Tap into a powerful internal signal.
As a quiet whisper, anxiety can clue you into nuances and considerations you may not have otherwise considered. Whether at your job, in your relationships, or with your own health, those quiet worries and concerns can be a gentle whisper nudging you to engage more deliberately.
6. Use anxiety as a sort of backup reminder system.
Like an alarm clock that will snooze but won’t turn off (until you wake up and actually turn it off), anxiety’s job is to keep bugging you, reminding you of something you care about. This is not a bad thing—think of it as a sort of backup system for your memory and attention. Its job is to help you tend to the things that matter most to you.
7. Rethink stress dreams as wake-up calls.
Sometimes anxiety needs yet another way to grab our attention and does so while we sleep. Vivid scary dreams, even nightmares, are ways anxiety shows itself, and its important message, to us. Generally veiled in metaphor, the themes of our dreams can clue us into areas in our life that need our attention.
8. Use anxiety’s energy to fuel action.
Anxiety’s job is to assure our self-protection, and it doesn’t stop until it does. In addition to being a powerful information source, anxiety provides us with the energy to take action toward needed solutions. Research shows that anxious people are particularly good at taking action. It makes sense that anxiety quiets when channeled into action; its job is done.
9. Rely on it for extra focus and motivation.
Often, when you need it most, anxiety can give you an extra boost to focus and press on, even when you are pulled to stop. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that anxiety can boost focus and memory functioning. Whether your energy is flagging, or your attention is pulled by another demand, anxiety can tether you to the things you care about most and give you that extra jolt of energy you need to press on, to finish. Who hasn’t felt better using their anxiety to get something done that needs doing?
10. In small bursts, know that anxiety boosts your immune system.
Acute anxiety triggers cortisol, which boosts our immune system. Ever wonder why you get sick right after exams or another major deadline are over? Cortisol’s job is to ensure our safety, and this includes resisting infection or illness that can weaken us.
11. Look for it when you overreact.
Anxiety is an escalator of other emotions and is often behind intense feelings such as anger, grief, and even excitement. Whenever we feel uncomfortable about how we are feeling, anxiety is doing its job of escalating our experience to grab our attention. The sooner we acknowledge and name our various feelings, the better we will understand our experience and be able to take control.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be your enemy. In fact, it can be one of your greatest resources if you know how to use it productively. Next time you feel anxious, what new way can you think about anxiety and use it as a tool to your advantage?
This article was originally posted on Dr. Clark’s blog and is reprinted with permission.