We’re getting more anxious.
A March 2018 survey from the American Psychiatric Association found that 39% of Americans report being more anxious than last year. Worries about everything from health to finances have us feeling more on edge.
But the word “anxiety” is one that people tend to throw around casually—and, sometimes, problematically. For some, anxiety is a debilitating condition that keeps them in “fight or flight” response and affects their ability to function. For others, anxiety is an edgy sensation that can be harnessed to improve performance, says Washington, D.C.-based licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety.
If anxiety is unrelenting and chronically interfering with daily life, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor or mental health profession. But moderate anxiety can be useful, Clark says. “It’s always trying to tell us something that we care about. Alert us to things that we might not be noticing or tending to,” she says. Try these four ways to harness that anxious feeling and make it work for you.
When your anxiety is uncomfortable, explore what’s making you feel that way, Clark says. Explore the fear or nervousness and work on figuring out what’s at the heart of it. What is making you anxious? Why do you feel this way? Once you can name the feeling specifically, you can begin to address it and change your thinking about it, she says.
For example, if you’re doing a presentation to a new prospect and your anxiety about it is getting the better of you, think about why you’re feeling that way. It may be because you’re unsure of your presentation skills and need more practice. It could be because you really need this sale and you’re worried that you might not be successful. Each are valid reasons for feeling anxious, but have different remedies, she says. Let the anxiety tell you what you need to address for better performance.
Sometimes, anxiety is trying to warn us of something or share a message about a risk or circumstance, says therapist and career coach Lauren Appio, PhD, founder of New York City-based Appio Psychological Consulting. “Often, that’s the reason why people go to therapy, so that they can become more attuned to those signals, when you tend to be able to say, “Okay, what I know about myself is that I tend to have this kind of reaction to situations where I feel incompetent or I felt inadequate,” she says. Think about the warning signs that lie in your anxiety, and what you need to address to be able to release it.
If your anxious feelings are overwhelming, give yourself a break, says Ashley Hampton, PhD, a Trussville, Alabama, psychologist who specializes in entrepreneurial productivity. Your ability to do this may vary, depending on the situation. If you’re about to speak in front of a group, you might need to do a few deep breathing exercises. If you’re getting overwhelmed with a big project, you may need to take a break from it and go for a walk, or do some mindless activity to distract yourself, she says.
Meditation may also be useful. One study from the University of Waterloo found that as little as 10 minutes of meditation helps anxious people have better focus. Plus, meditation delivers a host of other benefits.
Once you are clear on the reason for your feelings, you can begin to think about them in different ways—also called reframing–to your advantage. Anxiety, when it’s not overwhelming, can sharpen your focus and improve performance, Clark says.
So, instead of being fearful of the challenge you’re facing, work on focusing on the opportunity within it. Think about the positive aspects of being excited about the presentation and the potential benefit it holds. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Individual Differences found that people who acknowledged their anxiety were better able to use it to motivate them.
As more people feel the challenges of anxiety, listening to its messages and finding ways to release the negative aspects and channel its power into performance are important skills to master.