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Using Anxiety as Fuel

We often get trapped into thinking that we need to rid ourselves of all the stress and anxiety in our lives to be happy.

However, the truth is that small amounts of stress and anxiety can actually be very beneficial toward living a healthy life.

When we have anxiety, it means that we have a worry or concern about the future. This may appear to be a bad thing on the surface, but it can actually be a hidden motivator.Healthy amounts of anxiety put pressure on you to focus, take action, and be productive.

When we worry about how we’re going to perform on an exam, our anxiety motivates us to study and prepare ourselves. Or when we are nervous about the crime rate in our town, our anxiety motivates us to speak our concerns and try to find solutions.

In similar ways, anxiety can be an appropriate and useful response to various situations in our lives that we want to fix or change.

Changing beliefs about anxiety

An interesting study at the Emotion, Health, And Psychophysiology Laboratory at Harvard University examined how our beliefs about anxiety can have a significant impact on our lives. Researchers studied undergraduates who were preparing for the GRE by taking a practice exam. They separated the students into groups, then told one of the groups that according to recent research anxiety has shown to help test-takers.

The study concluded that individuals who were told that their anxiety was beneficial ended up performing better on the exam. These same individuals also reported an increased response in their sympathetic nervous system – a sign that they were more focused on facing a challenge head-on – similar to our “fight or flight” response. Researchers believe that by thinking of anxiety in a different way we can channel our “nervous energy” into focus and motivation. (In fact, the benefits of this simple re-framing of anxiety lasted a surprising long time: over a month later, students that received instructions that “anxiety was helpful for test-takers” also performed better on the real GRE.)

More on anxiety as motivation

Biologically, anxiety and motivation are very similar – both are boosted when our bodies release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

However, the key difference between these two experiences is how we interpret our “boost in energy.” When we see our boost in energy as something that is motivating or inspiring, then we can channel that energy into something positive and beneficial.

But when we see that boost in energy as fear or anxiety, then we usually try to fight that energy and it ends up wearing us down and inhibiting us. How we interpret the meaning of our experiences can have a world of difference in how we respond to them. When we interpret our anxiety as motivation we can actually use it as a force for good in our lives.

How to better respond to anxiety in your daily life

When you accept your feelings of anxiety and view them as a potentially positive emotion, you can learn a lot about them and thereby transform them into something that better serves you in your daily life. Notice your anxiety in the moment, and ask yourself:

  • What is triggering my anxiety?

  • What is my anxiety motivating me to do?

  • Is this a helpful response to this situation or an unhelpful one?

  • If helpful, let your anxiety take course, let it build, do what it tells you to do, and see it as a source of motivation.

  • If unhelpful, find ways to relax and diminish excessive and unhealthy anxiety, such as through a short 100 Breaths Meditation.

The point of this article isn’t that all anxiety is good, but that it can, in various scenarios, be very normal, healthy, and beneficial to experience anxiety every now and then.

However, some people can experience too much anxiety – where the anxiety doesn’t appropriately fit the situation. These individuals can sometimes get stuck in a constant “alert mode,” in which case it is advised to visit a professional and see if it is associated to a disorder and to keep it under control.

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