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How to Harness Your Anxiety

No one likes feeling anxious. It takes you out of the moment and can be crippling. And, when not addressed, it can lead to a number of medical and psychological conditions including headaches, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and depression.

But, there are actually advantages to anxiety and nervousness.

Believe it or not, anxiety is actually a built-in-warning system. In fact, our ancestors relied on this flight-or-fight response to survive, like being attacked by a predator. Today, anxiety is still used to keep us safe. For example, if you were at the end of a hike and felt tired, but you spot a snake, anxiety gives you a burst of energy to flee.

Anxiety can also help bring awareness to stressful situations. If you’re lying awake at night concerned about your finances, anxiety is letting you know that you have to make a change, such as creating and sticking to a budget.

Furthermore, anxiety is important when it comes to your relationships since those who have experienced anxiety tend to be more empathetic and understanding.

And, according to Alice Boyes Ph. D., anxiety encourages you to always have a back-up plan. “Someone who is anxious and is planning an outdoor wedding, will have a Plan B for if it rains, even if they’re having their wedding in the desert in July,” Boyes writes in Psychology Today.

“Someone who isn’t anxious may rely on their only being a 2% chance of rain in that particular month and location.” But, what happens if it does rain? It’s a much more difficult and significant problem to deal with on short notice than in advance.”

Boyes also writes that anxiety nudges you to follow up when you receive a false assurance. As if that weren’t enough, in small bursts, anxiety can even boost your immune system.

Despite these benefits, experiencing anxiety can still be a hindrance. But, you have the power to turn that around and use anxiety to your advantage. And, here are ways to make that possible.

1. Adjust your attitude.

According to Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and Work, accept that you have anxiety and stop viewing it as something that’s bad.

How we think about anxiety dictates how we experience it, Clark said. If you fear anxiety, you’ll avoid it (which, again, only boosts it). You’ll also experience anxiety negatively if you see it as a massive obstacle you wish you could overcome (but can’t).

And you’ll experience anxiety negatively if you see it as interfering with or hindering your progress, as something that only holds you back. If only I wasn’t anxious, I’d apply for that job. I’d ask for a promotion. I’d submit a book proposal. I’d have a relationship. I’d have a closer relationship. I’d apply for that grant. I’d start giving talks.

However, if you see anxiety as a tool that can help you connect to what you care about and give you the energy to tend to it, you’ll experience it as a sincerely useful emotion that helps you to succeed. Because anxiety can be genuinely helpful.

In Hack Your Anxiety, Clark quotes David Barlow, founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, who calls anxiety an ambassador of responsibility, nudging you to taking care of the things that you need to take care of.”

Clark also notes that anxiety activates the brain circuit associated with motivation (i.e., dopamine): “We want to act, we want to do something. This is our brain circuitry helping us to take action. As anxiety summons our attention, it is also activating dopamine to keep us motivated to act. The reward is solving the problem to remove the stressor, and dopamine helps us keep our efforts focused.”

We can use our anxiety as a sixth sense that helps us guide our focus, and supplement our energy to keep growing, Clark said.

2. Use anxiety as fuel.

“Anxiety’s job is to assure our self-protection, and it doesn’t stop until it does. In addition to a powerful information source, anxiety provides us energy to take action toward needed solutions,” explains Clark. “Research shows that anxious people are particularly good at taking action.”

That shouldn’t be all that surprising. Anxiety forces you to harness your attention and focus, as well as activate motivation. Again, if your stressor is money, then that anxiety will push you to find a solution to this problem. In turn, this will release dopamine.

3. Find balance in your life.

“Practicing responding to anxiety in purposeful ways can guide a process of finding balance in every aspect of your life: work and play, social time and personal time, rest and activity, etc.,” writes Kristine Tye, MA, LMFT. “Anxiety gives clues to wherever your world may be out of balance.”

“Taking charge of your relationship with anxiety may be the most rewarding thing you do for yourself,” adds Tye. “You can prove to yourself what you are capable of by learning to consciously respond to your anxiety rather than allowing it to control you. This process can help you develop incredible acceptance, confidence, and leadership abilities. Find a therapist to guide and support your efforts and accomplishments.”

The bottom line.

Even though there are benefits to anxiety, and there ways to channel its energy, you should speak with a mental health professional if anxiety is negatively interfering with your life.

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