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Can Anxiety Ever Be a Positive Force in Your Life?

How to harness an anxious nature for good.

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There's a difference between people with a clinical anxiety disorder (whose anxiety has become like a runaway train) and those for whom anxiety is part of their nature but who don't have a clinical problem. Anxiety disorders need treatment, but an anxious nature isn't necessarily a bad thing and can even be a positive force in your life (it is for me!)

If you recall your anxiety being a lifelong trait that's not associated with having experienced trauma, it can feel affirming and calming if you start to recognize the positives aspects of anxiety, rather than seeing your basic nature as highly flawed.

One of the ways anxiety can be a positive force in your life is if you channel your anxious nature into conscientiousness. Anxiety about getting cancer, for example, can lead to you being extra vigilant about applying sunscreen or going for routine pap smears.

The tricky problem, however, is that a tendency towards hypervigilance won't automatically translate into the types of conscientious behaviors that significantly reduce your risk of bad things happening. To learn to channel your anxiety this way, you need to develop a deep understanding both of how anxiety works and of your own mind. I tackle this topic in-depth in my book, The Anxiety Toolkit, but here's an overview of the skills you need.

1. Do the things that have the biggest impact first.

People with anxiety often feel overwhelmed by everything they could be doing to prevent danger. Unfortunately, this can lead to analysis paralysis and hopelessness. If you're both a perfectionist and anxious, you're especially at risk—frustration that it's not possible to do everything can easily lead to you doing nothing or very little.

Action: Whatever you're anxious about, identify the doable behavior that would have the biggest impact in terms of objectively reducing your risk of danger, and do that first. Only once you've done that thing should you move on to thinking about implementing your second, third, or fourth ideas. You can think both in terms of reducing the risk of occurrence and of impact—for instance, by wearing your seat belt.

2. Be guided by data.

Take this example: We know flying is many orders of magnitude safer than driving. In fact, it's been argued that more than 1,000 extra people died after the 9/11 terrorist attacks due to people switching from flying to a more dangerous behavior: driving. Yet there are anxious people who insist on driving rather than flying, even when other factors like cost are comparable.

To actually reduce the likelihood of you experiencing serious negative events, you need to make rational risk assessments—and doing that requires seeking authoritative data. It doesn't make sense to be so terrified of driving that you won't do it, but it does make sense to choose safer alternatives when everything else is equal.

Action: Give yourself a time limit to research information and/or seek authoritative sources to get the data you need to choose the actions that will most reduce serious risks. If you're anxiety-prone, searching for information about your fears is probably something you either avoid or over-do compulsively (or you alternate between these poles). Discipline yourself to find a middle ground and seek quality information strategically.

This likely isn't within the capacity of someone in the midst of an untreated anxiety disorder, but its more achievable if you're anxious by nature but aren't suffering clinical-level anxiety.

3. Schedule a block of time to implement "easy wins."

As author Gretchen Rubin says, "something that can be done anytime is often done at no time." There are likely small, easy wins that will help you reduce your risk of your fears occurring. But these still take time and mental energy to implement.

Action: Consider putting aside two hours a week in which you do actions aimed at preventing potential future catastrophes. It could be calling to schedule a pap smear, adding three-inch screws and a security plate to your door so its harder to kick in, securing something in your home that's potentially dangerous to child visitors, calling your insurance company to review your policy, or finding a sunscreen that doesn't make you break out.

You can keep a running list of all the things you could do to prevent bad things happening, and work your way through it systematically. If you're really anxiety-prone like I am, you might never get to the end of it, but that's okay! Doing something is always better than nothing. (Note: This tip is a bit separate from bigger projects that will take more time—e.g. if you want to research freezing your eggs because you're scared of waiting to get pregnant too late.)

4. Recognize the secondary thoughts that get in your way.

This is an incredibly important point that most people don't adequately understand. Anxious minds often create secondary anxiety thoughts that get in the way of people doing sensible things. For instance, you need to get a pap smear and need to get a new doctor. Your anxious mind might get obsessed with finding the perfect choice of doctor, when the bigger issue is just getting it done. If you don't have a security alarm, you might think, "I don't want to get false alarms and end up with fees for false callouts from the police" or "I don't trust the alarm companies," when the bigger issue is not having any alarm. Or, "I won't get insurance because I don't trust companies to actually pay out claims."

You need self-awareness to be able to catch these types of thoughts and then evaluate them. Important behaviors are often worth the risk of less significant or less likely bad things happening. For instance, if you have insurance and understand your policy, there is much less chance of your insurance not paying out than if you have no insurance to begin with!

Personally, at least every week, I catch a secondary anxiety- or perfectionism-related thought that is getting in my way of getting something important done.

Action: Identify one domain in which concern over making a "perfect choice" is getting in your way of doing something really important. Take a step towards getting that important thing done.

5. Understand when taking excessive time over non-important things is preventing you from doing important things.

Turning anxiety into a positive force requires learning skills so that you can let go of less important things and channel your energy towards more important things. If you spend 30 minutes crafting the perfect email or arguing with your spouse about a small issue, that's 30 minutes you're not spending on other things. Again, this is about prioritizing where anxiety can motivate you to take the most impactful actions.

Action: Make a list of anxiety- or perfectionism-driven behaviors you won't do until you've got bigger issues handled or done more impactful behaviors, and what those bigger issues or impactful behaviors are. For instance, "I'm not going to read more distressing news stories until I've actually called my representative to ask them to act on X issue that's important to me." Or, "I'm not going to research diseases online until I've actually gone for my overdue pap smear."

Wrapping Up

You can turn an anxious nature into a positive force for yourself, your family, and community if you learn to channel it towards impactful behaviors. You'll also need to understand the thinking that can get in the way of that, such as when wanting perfect solutions and to eliminate all risk or uncertainty gets in your way of making good choices.

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