How To Cope With Anxiety In A Positive Way (Yes, You REALLY Can)
Understanding how to cope with anxiety in a positive way can make the difference between whether it’s a positive or negative force in your life. Anxiety in itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be grossly uncomfortable, irritating, and frightening, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. Anxiety is very much what we make of it, and we have far more control than we may think.
In fact, psychologist and happiness researcher, Sonya Lyubormirski, says the amount of control we actually have over our experience is about 40%. Of course genetics, the environment, our biology, and other situational variables affect our lives and how we feel about them. But not nearly as much as we may think. 40% is a pretty big number, and also a hopeful one. No matter what happens, we have control over how we think about it, and what we do with it. This is true for anxiety as well: thinking about it positively allows it to be.
It turns out that how we think about anxiety really matters, and thinking about it positively can transform it into something positive. These 10 strategies can help you turn your thinking around, so that that you can start coping with anxiety in a positive way.
1. Understand anxiety reflects what you care about most.
Stress and anxiety go hand in hand with a meaningful and happy life. Anxiety’s primary role is to help us protect the people, experiences and things we value most. We can only feel anxious if we care, and we can only rid ourselves of it by not caring (something that is nearly impossible for most of us). By reframing anxiety as a sign of caring, we can more easily embrace it as a reflection of something positive, rather than a weakness.
2. Aim to think about anxiety differently.
Positively using anxiety starts with recognizing a fuller picture of it. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, even debilitating if left unchecked. But anxiety itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s one of the body’s most effective responses for assuring our survival and growth. Viewing it as a resource can allow it to be, and according a large-scale study, how we think about stress and anxiety determines its impact on us.
3. Embrace anxiety to harness it.
Because anxiety is so activating, it refuses to be ignored, by design. Attempting to escape anxiety’s discomfort generally doesn’t work, and instead tends to fan its flame. Indeed a core element of acute panic and anxiety attacks is an attempt to force it away: fighting anxiety escalates rather than reduces it. Sure you can distract yourself and push its message off for a while, but anxiety stays smoldering until you focus and do something with it. Resistance simply doesn’t work. Anxiety’s job is to get our attention and the sooner we let it do so the more efficient it will be. Embracing, and naming, anxiety delivers us the control we need to use it for good.
4. Value its ‘whispers’ as well as its ‘yells.’
Anxiety doesn’t always yell at us – sometimes it can simmer in the background, needling us that something isn’t right. Anxiety can clue you into nuances and considerations you may not have otherwise considered. Whether at your job, in your relationships, or with your health or that of someone you love, quiet worries and concerns can gently nudge our deeper, less obvious priorities, into focus.
5. Think of anxiety like a back-up reminder system.
Sort of like an alarm clock that will snooze but not turn off until you deal with it, anxiety is much the same way. Anxiety activates our brain centers associated with attention, and keeps at it until we comply. Anxiety keeps bugging you, alerting you of something you care about, until you engage and do something about it. We may not want to tolerate this kind of haranguing, but if you can think about it positively, you use it in a positive way.
6. Consider stress dreams ‘wake up calls’ for waking life.
Anxiety sometimes needs other ways to grab our attention and focus, and can even do so while we sleep. Vivid scary dreams, even nightmares, are other indirect ways our worries, conflicts, and priorities show themselves. Generally veiled in metaphor, the themes of our dreams can clue us into the areas of our life requiring more attention.
7. Use anxiety’s energy to fuel action.
If anxiety’s job is to notify us risks to our values, and motivate us to protect them, it makes sense that it wouldn’t stop until it does. Anxiety has been shown to activate motivation centers in the brain, providing us the energy to propel solutions. Research shows that anxious people are particularly good at taking action. It makes sense that anxiety quiets when channeled into action, when its job is done.
8. Allow anxiety to boost focus and motivation.
Often when you need it most, anxiety can step in and deliver a shot of energy (aka stress) you need to stay focused. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley found that acute anxiety and stress improved focus and memory functioning. Whether your energy is flagging or your attention is simply tempted by other demands, anxiety can tether you back to the things you care about most, and give you that extra jolt of energy you need to press on, to finish. Who hasn’t felt better using their anxiety to get something done that needs doing?
9. Know that anxiety in small bursts can boost your immune system.
Acute anxiety and stress trigger cortisol, known as the stress hormone, which actually boosts our immune system to help us face the challenges at hand. Ever wonder why you get sick right AFTER exams are over, or another major deadline? Cortisol’s job is to ensure our safety under duress, and this includes resisting infection or illness that can weaken us.
10. Anxiety can tune you into your other feelings too.
An impressive escalator of other emotions, anxiety is often behind other intense feelings like anger, grief, and even excitement. Whenever we feel uncomfortable about how we are feeling, anxiety is doing its job of escalating our experience to grab our attention. The sooner we acknowledge and name our various feelings, the better we will understand our experience and be able to take control.
Anxiety is the built-in, fail safe, reminder we often need to focus on – and take care of – the things in life that matter most to us. Like a messenger that alerts to important danger, anxiety pulls our focus to protect the parts of life we care about most, and motivates us to act.
Anxiety plays dirty though, and can be impatient and demanding until it gets its way. It isn’t hard to conflate its discomfort with it being a bad thing. But when we do this, we miss out on being able to use it in a positive way. When we work with anxiety to allow it to activate our attention and motivation, rather than fighting against it or trying in vain to ignore it, it can become a powerful internal resource we can trust.
Changing how we think about anxiety allows us to face it with less ambivalence so we can more efficiently use it in a positive way. This is how we turn anxiety around in our lives, so we can start using it for good.