When you go on a job interview, attend an event with lots of new people, or just have too many obligations with family or work without enough time to rest and rejuvenate, it’s natural to experience some degree of anxiety.
Individuals handle anxiety in different ways, but a study based on data from thousands of Americans found that how the anxiety is perceived can affect your mental and physical health. If you can learn to view anxiety as a natural part of life and find ways to control it, you can use it in your favor. That’s because it is actually the feeling of ‘lack of control’ that can cause harmful stress, so the way we react is important.
“To be sure, severe anxiety can be debilitating. But anxiety doesn’t have to make us miserable. It can be a resource we can learn to use to our advantage,” says psychologist Alicia Clark, author of Hacking Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and All Things That You Do.
Clark points to anxiety showing up in almost every part of life, including relationships, parenting, work, health and even adjusting to a new normal. Anxiety, says Clark, “...is about being human.”
Used as a motivating force, Clark describes anxiety as “a way to nudge people to pay attention” and as “a gateway to change.”
If anxiety is holding you back from applying for a new job, taking singing lessons, leading a project for your child’s school, or trying a yoga class, you can turn the thought into a spark of excitement that motivates you to embrace the opportunity.
Here are some suggestions about how to lessen anxiety and turn it into a motivating, positive force.
When anxiety reaches a level of inhibiting functioning or healthy living, it’s important to seek guidance from a mental health professional. Here are some anxiety disorders that can be helped with professional treatment.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events, even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It often occurs along with depression.
Panic Disorder: Repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes, called panic attacks. May include feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart. These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
Agoraphobia: A type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: A childhood disorder characterized by anxiety that's excessive for the child's developmental level and related to separation from parents or others who have parental roles.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Involves high levels of anxiety, fear and avoidance of social situations due to feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness and concern about being judged or viewed negatively by others.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers are experienced in treating a variety of anxiety disorders, so find one you are comfortable with, and who has experience in treating the issue that is affecting your life. Here are some signs that mean you can benefit by working with a mental health professional:
Your worries may not go away on their own and they may get worse over time if you don't seek help. Talk with your primary care physician or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It's easier to treat if you get help early.
Clark, Alicia H., “How to Harness Your Anxiety,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2018
Clark, Alicia, How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and All Things that You Do, Sourcebooks, Aug. 7, 2018
Peterson, Tanya J., “Fear Change? Seven Ways to Quiet Anxiety of the Unknown,” HealthyPlace, April 9, 2015
Mayo Clinic, “Anxiety Disorders,” May 4, 2018
Keller, Abiola, and Litzelman, Kristin, “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality,” Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, September 2012.