Anx-i-ety. Just sounding out the word simulates that closing of the throat, that belly-churn of uncertainty that comes with fretting about the future.
Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the U.S. “It’s part of our physiology as human beings,” says Steve Orma, a San Francisco-based psychologist and career coach. “If a car was rushing toward you and your reaction was, ‘Whatever,’ you’d get run over.”
Anxiety is baked into our survival instinct. It’s when that worry over the future gets out of hand or impedes our performance that we have a problem. Use your anxiety the right way and it will help you be more productive and proactive. Here are some steps to get you on that productivity path.
Often anxiety begets more anxiety. But feeling guilty or frustrated by your anxious feelings only amplifies them, says Orma. “Don’t freak out about the fact that you are getting anxious,” he says. “You want to understand the anxiety instead of judge it and freak out about it.”
Remind yourself that this is a natural reaction the mind and body has in situations of uncertainty. There’s nothing wrong with having that feeling, but the first step is to acknowledge it.
Get your worries down on paper. Letting the anxieties you’re latched onto out on the page can be cathartic. “What is the worst that can happen?” says Orma. “Get it all down on paper.” This will allow you to let go of some of those worries you’ve bottled up. Often seeing your thoughts on the page can give you a more objective perspective and help you unpack what you are actually worrying about.
We have productive and unproductive anxiety. An unproductive worry is one we have no control over. Often it has to do with other people or global issues beyond our control. “If you recognize it as unproductive worry, you can tell yourself, ‘There is nothing I can do about this and it’s a waste of time,'” says Orma.
A productive worry, on the other hand, is one you can take active steps to alleviate. If you’re worried about blowing a job interview, for example, that’s a productive anxiety. In this case, you can acknowledge your anxiety and figure out steps to take in order to make yourself more prepared so that you won’t blow the interview–practice answering questions or research everything you can about the company.
Having pessimistic thoughts can be a trigger to take action in a positive way, according to Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College. “If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it,” Norem said in an interview with the Atlantic. She calls this proactive approach to anxiety “defensive pessimism.”
“When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong,” she says. Norem gives the example of speaking in public. If you’re afraid of going on stage–what are your specific fears? Maybe you’re scared of tripping, spilling water on the podium or having a tech fail. You can take steps to avoid this. Tape down any loose cords on stage or test your slideshow at the venue in advance to make sure it works. Taking active steps to help prevent the missteps you’re anxious about will improve your performance.
Anxiety gives you an energy and adrenaline rush, says Orma. Focus that energy toward good and you can improve your performance. This is something professional athletes, who often admit to butterflies before an important game or competition, do to stay more focused and driven.
Anxiety and excitement have many of the same symptoms. Both tend to increase your heart rate and make you more alert. “People think of anxiety as negative and excitement as positive,” says Orma. Thinking of your anxiety as excitement can help you avoid going down the rabbit hole of negative feelings.
Anxiety is often at its worst when you agonize over a decision or situation. Any feelings of panic that you have should be a signal to step away and give yourself a break from whatever you’re thinking about. If you’re anxious about a decision, fretting about it once you’ve done all of the work to get there is counterproductive. Instead, give your mind some space. Take a walk or let yourself sleep on it. “Let your mind do what it is designed to do,” says Orma, “When you come back well-rested, you’ll be able to see more clearly.”