We think of anxiety as something terrible and awful and wrong. We think it makes us weak and worthless, deficient and defective. And we keep our anxiety hidden like a shameful secret, telling ourselves regularly that we’d be mortified if anyone ever found out.
Being anxious is like “a private prison we carry with us,” writes Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and anxiety expert in Washington, D.C., in her eye-opening book, Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and Work (co-written with Jon Sternfeld).
Over time, we try to avoid our anxiety and pretend this prison doesn’t exist. Nope. No anxiety here. Nothing to see here.
“This is completely understandable,” Clark told me. “[A]nxiety is uncomfortable, unsettling, can be confusing, and the vast majority of messages we hear about anxiety warn of its dangers and advise us to calm down at all costs.”
But the discomfort of anxiety is actually a good thing. Anxiety is supposed to be uncomfortable. Clark further explained: “Like a baby’s cry, anxiety is designed to focus our attention and fuel action to solve the issue. It’s not designed to be ignored.” Which means that we can use anxiety to our advantage to help us accomplish our goals.
Specifically, we can use moderate anxiety—what Clark calls “chatter” anxiety—to fuel optimal performance. In fact, we rarely do our best without anxiety’s extra push of arousal, she said.
In Hack Your Anxiety, Clark cites the Yerkses Dodson law, which illustrates that a moderate amount of anxiety can actually be motivating and energizing, such that performance increases as physiological arousal increases (but to a point).
The key is to be open to our anxiety, to listen to its message—and not to resist or fear it. Because this only escalates anxiety, and makes it less useful.
Below, Clark shared two ways we can use anxiety to our advantage.
Adjust Your Attitude
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 strategy that helps you to succeed. Because it 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.
Channel Your Anxiety
Once you see your anxiety for what it is—a potentially helpful tool—you can channel it into creating solutions.
Clark shared these examples: If you’re anxious about handling your job situation, use your anxiety to work on what you can control and improve (e.g., learning certain skills, submitting work on time, talking to your supervisor). If you’re anxious about how your partner will react to bad news, use it as energy to be more thoughtful about how you approach them and to listen more empathically. If you’re anxious about making a deadline, but your concentration is waning, use your anxiety to fuel your focus. If you’re anxious that your connection with your spouse is weakening, use your anxiety to identify how you can carve out quality time, and have fun together.
The next time you feel anxious, to harness your energy, Clark suggests asking yourself these two questions, which she lists in Hack Your Anxiety: What problem is my anxiety trying to tell me about? How can I use my anxiety to solve that problem?
Ultimately, when we’re stressed out and worried, our anxiety has already been triggered. It’s already moving. As Clark said, it’s already translating itself into energy and fuel. It’s up to us to figure out where to steer it.
In other words, Clark suggests thinking of anxiety as a burst of energy that we can’t stop, but we can direct. Which is great, empowering news. That is, anxiety can be a strength, instead of a symptom, Clark said. We can capitalize on our anxiety, using it as a strategy to get what we want.
“The choice is always ours, and this to me is the great hope,” Clark said.
If your anxiety is way beyond moderate, please know that you have nothing to be ashamed about either. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting around 18 percent of the population every year. Thankfully, they’re also highly treatable. You can learn more here.