A few days ago, I was settling into my office, getting ready to start work for the day, when I was hit with a familiar wave of anxiety—a heart racing, mind spinning sense of dread and unease that gushed from the pit of my stomach to the knot in my throat.
A year ago, I would have been submerged; so overwhelmed by the anxiety I would have either a) cried; b) had a full-blown panic attack; c) got back into bed for the day; or d) all the above. But today—after a full year of working to change my relationship with anxiety (thanks, therapy!)—things are different. I didn’t cry. I didn’t panic. I didn’t crawl back into bed.
Instead, I turned to the strategy I’ve been using for the past year to make my anxiety work for me rather than letting it drag me down. The idea, essentially, is to avoid looking at it as an roadblock, and instead focus on my relationship with anxiety. “When you’re afraid of anxiety, you are going to make it worse,” says Alicia Clark, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How To Make Anxiety Work For You In Life, Love, and All That You Do. This might seem like a crazy idea to anyone who has ever wrestled with the feeling—I have spent my entire adult life doing anything and everything to get rid of it. Antidepressants. Therapy. Floating. Breathing exercises. Yoga. A startling amount of alcohol (and an even more startling number of self-help books). You name it, I’ve tried it.
But nothing managed to remove the unsettling undercurrent that runs through my life—instead, the harder I tried to eradicate my ongoing panic, the more anxious I became when I couldn’t. I was convinced my anxiety—the intrusive thoughts, the racing heartbeat, the nagging doubt, the constant fear of failure, the tightness in my stomach, the inability to truly relax (like, ever)—must be a clear indicator that something was very, very wrong with me. As if my inability to deal with it meant I was just too weak to cope.
“Too much of the information out there is unintentionally scaring people about anxiety because the message is that it’s bad,” Clark says. For years, that was definitely the message I was getting; anxiety was bad and I must be bad for having it. But the more people have started opening up about their own struggles, the more I realized it’s not that simple—plenty of people I consider smart, charming, inspiring, and successful (I’m looking at you, Kristen Bell!) are anxious, too.
The truth is, anxiety isn’t all bad. With the right mindset, it can actually be a good thing, Clark says.
The harder I tried to eradicate my anxiety, the more anxious I became when I couldn’t.
There’s science to back this up. Stress—aka the heightened sense of arousal you get while wrestling with anxiety—can actually improve performance. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: too much anxiety can leave you feeling paralyzed, too little and you may be missing out on a dose of kick-in-the-pants motivation. Just the right amount of anxiety, however, can work to your advantage, making it easier to power through a deadline, push yourself at the gym, or step outside of your comfort zone to accomplish your goals. “[This approach] is important because it takes us out of being uncomfortable about anxiety and it has us using it instead,” Clark says. When we think of it as a tool, we can ask what the anxiety might be trying to tell us, Clark explains.
After a lifetime of doing everything physically possible to avoid my anxiety (which, let me tell you, is pretty exhausting), harnessing it to make it work for me sounded like a much better plan.
“When you notice anxiety, notice how it’s affecting you,” says Clark. “What are you worried about? What are you scared about?” In my office, submerged in the sinking feeling that something wasn’t right, I tried to think of what might be triggering it—if I could get to the bottom of what that “something” was, I could use it as a way to turn the anxiety into motivation to power my day.
I reviewed my to-do lists to make sure I hadn’t missed a deadline; checked my email to make sure I hadn’t dropped the ball on any client communications; searched my desk for any unpaid bills. Nothing. If nothing is immediately obvious, go deeper, says Clark. I had my first article for a new (and big) client due later that day and the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that my imposter syndrome was rearing its ugly head and throwing me into an anxious tailspin. I was feeling fearful that I didn’t have the chops to deliver, that my business was going to fail, that I was a terrible writer, that I just wasn’t good enough.
Back in the day, I would’ve either pushed the fear down and tried to ignore it or followed those negative thoughts down the rabbit hole until I was a hot, anxious mess. But making your anxiety work for you isn’t about avoiding it or letting it overwhelm you to the point of no return. It’s about doing something with it.
So I did. Instead of letting the fear that I’m not good enough drag me down, I used the imposter-inspired anxiety as a catalyst to make my work better. Rather than stress about failing, I would take every measure I could to make sure I couldn’t fail. I finished the assignment early so I’d have time for an extra round of edits. I sent the article to a few other writers to get their feedback before I submitted it to my client. I tackled another project I felt more comfortable with to deliver a boost of much-needed confidence—and then poured that confidence right back into my writing.
By the time I sent that assignment to my new client, it was a much better, well-written piece than I had originally planned on submitting—and the work I had done to get it there (the feedback, the additional edits, the confidence and expertise I was able to infuse into the writing) had been a direct result of the wave of anxiety I felt that morning. It helped me produce better work.
Shifting my approach from avoidance and fear to curiosity, completely changed the way I experienced anxious feelings.
By getting curious about my anxiety instead of avoidant or overwhelmed, I’ve been able to level up my performance across the board—in my relationships (if I’m feeling anxious about an argument I had with my husband, I’ll examine my behavior and see if there’s anything I need to apologize for; which, 99 percent of the time, there is), in my running routine (if I’m feeling anxious about the fact that I haven’t run in awhile, I take a look at why I haven’t had the motivation to lace up my shoes and come up with a plan to get back in the game), or with my own personal growth and development (anytime I feel anxious about a decision or the way things are going in my life, it think of it like a warning alarm alerting me I’m not in alignment with what’s really best for me).
I won’t lie, calmly questioning my anxiety felt really uncomfortable at first. But shifting my approach, completely changed the way I experienced anxious feelings. To be clear, I’m in no way saying that debilitating anxiety is a good thing. It’s not. And if your anxiety is getting in the way of living a happy, healthy, and peaceful life, you should get whatever support you need in order to feel better. I’m also not saying that after a year-long attempt to change my relationship to anxiety, I’ve got it completely under control—I definitely still have moments when my anxiety feels overwhelming and crosses the line from helpful to harmful. In those moments, I have zero hesitation in seeking out the support I need (whether that’s getting in for a session with my therapist, going for a long run, or writing things out in my journal) to get to the other side.
What I am saying is that trying to get rid of my anxiety didn’t work for me—in fact, it only made me more anxious. But accepting my anxiety for what it is and working with what I have to be more productive, accomplished, and happy? That feels like it’s working.