3 Reasons You Shouldn't Be Ashamed of Anxiety

Anxiety might be your superpower, not your kryptonite.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

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People who have a predisposition to anxiety often see it as a negative trait. You might fear that anxiety will hold you back in your career, relationships, or adventures, or cause you to struggle to get important things done. If anxiety sometimes causes you distress, you may not have ever considered that anxiety proneness can be a positive trait. When you have skills for utilizing your anxiety to do good, it can be a productive personality quality. I'll break it down: Here are some research-backed reasons to stop hating your anxious self.

1. You can use your anxiety to help propel you toward your goals.

People who have strong psychological skills don't expend energy constantly trying to dampen complex emotions. Instead, they use their "negative" emotions (including worry, frustration, self-doubt, etc.) to help them stay focused on whatever is important and meaningful to them.

People who are anxious sometimes fear that their anxiety is going to hold them back from their goals. You might focus on how public speaking is terrifying for you, or that getting feedback makes you extremely anxious, and think that anxiety will thwart you in your career compared to someone who can do those things without feeling phased by them. 

However, anxiety can propel you as much as it can hold you back. There are so many times when I feel anxious about an aspect of my work, and that nagging anxiety keeps showing up as thought intrusions. My anxious brain has me constantly on the lookout for reasons why my work might suck. For example, it might bother me that a provisional title on a piece of work isn't enticing enough, or I feel nervous that some content I've written gets into tips too quickly without first inspiring people enough to drive them to want the tips, and I worry about the work bombing because of those defects. When I have these anxieties, I might ignore those thoughts a few times but because I'm prone to worry and thought intrusions, eventually they nag me enough that I start problem-solving whatever the nagging concern is about.

The same thing happens when I read a research finding that doesn't fit with one of my preexisting beliefs. That discrepancy bothers me until I understand it, and update my beliefs based on the new information. This then strengthens the accuracy of my knowledge base.

Having a predisposition to always be on the lookout for problems and not to be able to ignore concerning thoughts can be extremely helpful. Right now, aren't we all thinking that if we had a few more powerful politicians who were highly anxious about pandemics, we might've been better prepared for COVID-19 than we were?

2. Anxiety is a type of cognitive diversity, and diverse minds make teams stronger.

Many people are aware of the idea that in teams, having folks who think differently and who have diverse backgrounds can result in teams being more innovative. But, have you ever considered that your tendency towards anxiety, fear, and worry is a type of cognitive diversity?

People who a highly anxious and those who are low in anxiety bring different types of thinking to teams. This is enriching, just like any other type of cognitive diversity (e.g., individual or collective focus) is.

Anxiety doesn't mean you will be a weak link on teams (whether work-related or in personal teams like families). If anything, the research suggests that anxiety can be tough on an individual but that having anxious people in a tribe benefits the tribe overall. Buoyed by this evidence on the value of your worldview and your specific perceptions of situations, bring your whole self into any situation in which you're attempting to be innovative or solve problems.  

3. Anxious people can be effective agents in situations in which things are going wrong.

Sometimes anxious people struggle the most when things are going just fine. When everything is going along swimmingly is when anxious people are the most out of sync with everyone else. In situations in which the proverbial poo is hitting the fan, all the things that anxious people are good at, like being hypervigilant to threats, mobilizing very quickly, asking many persistent questions about whether a situation is safe, etc., become more valued. 

Similarly, anxious people have a lot of experience grappling with uncertainty. These days virtually everyone is worried that they or someone close to them is going to die from coronavirus, as well as about our personal and collective economic future. Uncertainty is at the front of everyone's minds. But for many anxious people, uncertainty is always on their minds. Anxious people were worrying if today was the day they or a loved one were going to get very sick or injured before coronavirus. So, in some ways, anxious people are ideally positioned to know how to keep on trucking even with these fears and uncertainty at front of mind.

There are times when, in a crisis, an anxious person will feel completely overwhelmed and start to struggle with things like sleeping or concentrating. But people who are not typically anxious sometimes react that way in a crisis, too. If you are an anxious person who has upskilled themselves on how to channel their anxiety effectively, there's every reason to expect you'll shine in a crisis and that your worldview will be more valued.

How to utilize anxiety:

  • Identify five important values you want to infuse your life with (e.g., autonomy, adventure, challenge, compassion, competency, excellence, conscientiousness, fun, safety, efficiency, freedom, or whatever is most important to you). When you're feeling anxious, figure out how to channel it in a way that serves one of your top values. For instance, sometimes when I get interviewed, I feel pressure to agree with the reporter's preexisting view, even if I don't. Because I value conscientiousness, I choose to speak up, even if I'm worried about them feeling offended or shot down. Note any times when you're able to be brave because the power of your values outstrips the power of your momentary anxiety, and aim to replicate and expand these. 
  • Keep a running list of examples of when anxiety helps you perform better. For instance, if I make a stupid mistake in my writing and feel embarrassed (e.g., my editors correct mistakes like everyday vs. every day, or burned out vs. burnt out), then those feelings of embarrassment just propel me to try to not repeat those errors and catch similar ones. Whenever you successfully channel your anxiety in a way that's useful, note it and aim to replicate it in another sphere.
  • If anxiety is legitimately causing you to hold back in any area, problem-solve it. For instance, if receiving feedback is anxiety-provoking for you, you might need practice getting it from someone who believes in your general talent and competency, and is a skilled feedback giver. You may need to cultivate relationships like this; it won't necessarily happen instantly. Try relating any arena you're scared to step into to one of the core values you identified earlier. 
  • Learn to be skillful in communicating your concerns and worries—e.g., if you want to speak up about an elephant in the room at work. Anxious people are great at seeing potential problems, but raising those constructively takes other skills. Since anxious people tend to worry about how they will be perceived and other people's emotional comfort, you're likely to feel highly motivated to learn these skills (such as workplace diplomacy), provided you trust in your capacity to do so.
  • Be an advocate for diverse thinking. If you want to be able to speak your mind, advocate for other people to do the same, and use whatever platform you have to amplify diverse voices.
  • Upskill. There are plenty of science-based resources about how to still move in valued directions, despite the presence of difficult emotions. Susan David's book, Emotional Agility, is a good one. The skills you'll learn by reading books like that one will help you learn to channel your anxiety, not banish it or fight against it.

Back when I was training, I remember feeling demoralized by class after class, study after study, that pointed out that "neuroticism" was associated with all sorts of negative life outcomes. And I felt judged when learning about therapies that discouraged anxious people from thinking that their worries or anxiety might be useful to them. Newer research shows that anxiety = bad is anything but the full picture. Now, there is quite robust research on the skills anxiety-prone people tend to be good at (e.g., here, here, here), and more emerging all the time. I've learned to appreciate my anxiety-proneness and see its benefits. Changing my perception of my anxiety has helped me see that it doesn't diminish my value in my career or as a parent, and might even enhance it. I hope you can experience these mental shifts and benefits, too, and grow your contribution to your field, family, and community as a result.