How to Harness Anxiety: the Surprising Upsides to Anxious Suffering

Anxiety is typically considered a negative emotion. After all, nothing feels positive about a pit in your stomach or your heart beating out of your chest. But what if you could harness anxiety for greater motivation, self-awareness, and productivity? Research shows that some anxiety is adaptive, and by changing your relationship with anxiety, you are less likely to suffer its negative effects. 

How do you harness anxiety? Think of it like taming a dragon. In the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon, young Viking Hiccup refuses to participate in the dragon killing that is his tribe’s legacy. When he accidentally injures a dragon named Toothless, he fashions a prosthetic tail fin which he controls with a pedal attached to Toothless’s saddle. By taking the time to observe and befriend Toothless, Hiccup discovers how to harness the dragon’s power and in doing so, charts a new future for his tribe. 

Like Hiccup, you can learn to observe and harness anxiety so that it helps instead of harms you. But first, it might be helpful to know why anxiety exists in the first place.

Learning how to harness anxiety can shield you from its negative effects while preserving the good!
Learning how to harness anxiety can shield you from its negative effects while preserving the good!

The evolutionary origins of anxiety

Imagine you are walking through a dense forest. As you push aside the thick foliage to clear a path, you notice a beautiful flower growing at the base of a tree. Suddenly, a ferocious mountain lion jumps out from behind the very same tree. Do you pause to smell the sweet scent of the flower or do you focus your energy on saving yourself from the lion?

Our evolution as a species depends on the human tendency to choose survival over beauty. Negative events and stimuli are more likely to get our attention, and negative memories are more powerful and persistent than positive ones. While anxiety may not be comfortable, it does help you to detect and avoid danger. In addition, anxious people are more likely to take action towards solving a problem and less likely to participate in risky behavior.

Anxiety has helped humans to avoid danger on the path of human evolution.
Anxiety has helped humans to avoid danger on the path of human evolution.

Fight, flight, freeze, or faun?

You may have heard of the “fight or flight” system. It’s your body’s internal alarm system, a cascade of neurobiological reflexes that prepare you to either fight or flee the source of danger. Anxiety researchers often add “freeze” and “fawn” to this list, since these are two other common responses to threat. (Think of animals that “play possum” to confuse and deter predators.)

The fight or flight system is technically called the sympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for increasing heart rate and respiration, redirecting blood to your most vital organs, slowing digestion, and sharpening your senses. The uncomfortable physical sensations that are often associated with anxiety are side effects of these processes– rapid heartbeat, feeling short-of-breath, tingling extremities, and queasy stomach.

Interestingly, the physiological processes that are associated with excitement are very similar to those of fight or flight. In fact one of the strategies to harness anxiety is to reframe your symptoms as being “pumped” or “jazzed” for a challenge. Competitive athletes do this, as do other high-achievers.

Reframing your anxiety as excitement can help you to harness anxiety and cope with life's stressors without getting overwhelmed.
Reframing your anxiety as excitement can help you to harness anxiety and cope with life's stressors without getting overwhelmed.
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The surprising upsides of anxiety

Anxiety can be helpful when it shows up in response to an actual threat. Of course, in modern society that threat is less likely to be a mountain lion, and more likely to be a pressing deadline at work. Learning the difference between helpful and harmful anxiety can help you to harness anxiety.

  • Helpful anxiety is in proportion to the threat; Harmful anxiety is exaggerated.
  • Helpful anxiety occurs when there is a specific action to be taken; Harmful anxiety exists when there is nothing you can do or further action will be harmful, (for example, over-rehearsing a presentation to the point that you lose sleep).
  • Helpful anxiety is focused on the stressor at hand; Harmful anxiety spirals to include other worries- for example, worrying about how much you are worrying!
  • Helpful anxiety assists you in reaching your goals; Harmful anxiety causes you to act in ways that don’t align with your values, (e.g., you snap at your spouse because you are worried about something that happened at work).
  • Helpful anxiety does not interfere with day-to-day functioning; Harmful anxiety is all-consuming, to the extent that you can’t focus on anything else.
  • Helpful anxiety may cause self-doubt, but generally does not affect confidence; Harmful anxiety damages your self-worth.
Differentiating between helpful and harmful anxiety can help you to harness anxiety.
Differentiating between helpful and harmful anxiety can help you to harness anxiety.

An ounce of prevention

It is much more difficult to harness anxiety once your body is in full fight or flight mode. As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!” Practicing the following can help you find your anxiety “sweet spot,” the place where anxiety is helpful, not harmful.

  • Regular check-ins– Pause throughout the day to monitor your anxiety level. Increasing awareness can help you to harness anxiety more mindfully and effectively.
  • Sleep– Sleep is vitally important for every human being, but this is especially true for people with anxiety. When you are sleep deprived, your body compensates by producing adrenaline, which can exacerbate anxiety. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Practice good sleep hygiene by taking time to wind down at the end of the day and avoiding late-night screen time.
  • Eating well– How you nourish yourself makes a big difference in how you feel. Avoid high-carbohydrate foods that are more likely to lead to a blood sugar “crash.” Although it can be tempting to use alcohol or other substances to cope with anxiety, this will also make you feel worse in the long run.
  • Physical activityResearch shows that aerobic activity is a particularly helpful way to harness anxiety.
  • Other outlets– Talking to someone about your feelings, writing a list of worries, or engaging in other creative outlets can also be effective ways to stay in your anxiety sweet spot.
Talking to others about your worries can help you to harness anxiety.
Talking to others about your worries can help you to harness anxiety.

How to harness your anxiety

Now that you know the functions and upsides of anxiety, you can change your relationship to it. As psychologist Alicia Clark says, how we think about anxiety dictates how we experience it.

You’ll experience anxiety negatively if you see it as interfering with or hindering your progress, as something that only holds you back... 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

Dr. Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and Work

How do you change how you think about anxiety? Remember the acronym "LABEL" and follow these steps:

  • Label the feeling-- Attaching a label to your anxiety can help you to get some distance from it. Recognize the feeling for what it is- an automatic, protective response that will ultimately subside. Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous.
  • Allow it-- Try not to fight your anxiety. Instead, be curious. Ask, why am I experiencing this? Is this a real danger or a false alarm? What might I learn from this feeling?
  • Befriend-- Reframe your anxiety as a friend instead of a foe. Remember that anxiety is trying to protect you. Recall times in the past when anxiety has helped you to keep safe or reach a goal.
  • Energize– Action is the best antidote to anxiety. If you have identified a problem, brainstorm solutions. If your anxiety is a false alarm, you can reverse the “fight or flight” response by doing some deep breathing. Breathing slowly and mindfully helps to engage the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” system. Other ways to take action against harmful anxiety include:
    • Changing your physical surroundings– a change of scenery triggers your brain to refocus on something else
    • Find a distraction– the more mentally engaging, the better! 
    • Schedule a time to worry– this may sound counterintuitive, but it is often easier to delay thinking about something than to stop thinking about it altogether
  • Long view– Take a step back and try to see the big picture. Is what you are worried about going to matter one day from now, one week, one year? Focus on what is going well or right in your life. Remember that there are many things that you can’t control, but ceding control can be liberating.

Conclusion

Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear; it is a transformed relationship with fear.

Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Confidence Gap

No one likes feeling anxious or afraid. But like all negative emotions, anxiety is your body’s way of signaling that there is something that needs your attention. If you see anxiety as a useful tool versus something to avoid, you can harness anxiety for greater self-awareness and self-efficacy. You might still feel uncomfortable, but remember that life begins outside of your comfort zone!

How do you harness fear?

1. Acknowledge your fear: Acknowledge and accept that fear is a normal part of life, and that it is natural to feel fear.

2. Identify the source: Identify the source of your fear and ask yourself why it is triggering a fear response.

3. Look at fear objectively: View fear objectively and consider how realistic it is to be afraid of the situation.

4. Take action: Take steps to address the fear, such as talking to someone about it, taking a class or learning more about the situation.

5. Focus on the positive: Focus on the positive aspects of the situation, such as the potential for growth or any potential benefits.

6. Practice relaxation: Practice relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing, to reduce stress and anxiety.

7. Change your perspective: Change your perspective and try to look at the situation from a different point of view. This may help to reduce the fear.

How do I stop anxiety in its tracks?

1. Take deep breaths. Taking deep breaths can help reduce anxiety. Try to focus on each breath and count to five while inhaling and exhaling.

2. Exercise. Exercise can help to reduce anxiety by releasing endorphins and allowing you to take your mind off of whatever is causing the anxiety.

3. Talk to someone. Talking to someone, either a friend or a professional, can help you address and work through the anxiety.

4. Distract yourself. Try to distract yourself from the anxiety by doing something enjoyable, such as reading a book, watching a movie, or going for a walk.

5. Try relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation can all help reduce anxiety.

How do you reframe anxiety as motivation?

Anxiety can be reframed as motivation by using the energy from the anxious feelings to fuel action. For instance, if you are feeling anxious about starting a project, use the energy from the anxious feelings to take the first steps towards starting the project. Acknowledge the anxious feelings, but shift your focus to the goal you are working towards, and use the energy from the anxious feelings to take action.

How do you tame nervousness?

1. Take deep breaths: Before a stressful situation, take a few moments to take deep breaths and focus on your breath. This will help to slow your heart rate, calm your body, and help to reduce your anxiety.

2. Talk to yourself: When you’re feeling anxious, talk to yourself and tell yourself that you’re going to be okay and that you can do this. Positive self-talk can help to ease your nerves.

3. Visualize success: Visualize yourself succeeding in the situation and how you will feel afterwards. This can help to boost your confidence and reduce your nerves.

4. Get prepared: Make sure you have done all the preparation necessary for the situation. If you know you have done your best, it will help to reduce your anxiety.

5. Exercise: Exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety. It can also help to clear your head and make you feel more confident.

6. Reach out: Talk to a friend or family member about your anxiety. They can provide support and help to put things into perspective.

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Lindsay Schwartz
Lindsay Schwartz is a psychotherapist in private practice in Massachusetts, USA, where she specializes in the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. She has a background in school counseling and a special interest in mindfulness based treatments. Lindsay earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Williams College, and her Master’s degree in Social Work from Simmons College. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys writing, reading, running, and spending time with her husband and 2 children.

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